Kinsey and Sexual identity

by Jason Stotts

For those few of you who have never heard of him, Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) was an American sex researcher and a pioneer in the field of sex research. He is best known for his two books “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” (1953). But, perhaps his most important contribution to the field is the way in which he thought about sexuality. Kinsey was convinced that rigid sexual categories of “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were woefully incapable of capturing the true range of human sexuality and the ways in which real people experience their own desires. Consequently, he developed the “Kinsey Scale.”

The Kinsey Scale is a 0-6 scale of sexual identity. On the scale “0” represents a “true heterosexual”, that is, someone who experiences only desires for the opposite sex as well as only has sexual activity with persons of the opposite sex. The “6” represents a “true homosexual”, that is, someone who experiences only desires for the same sex as well as only has sexual activity with persons of the opposite sex. The “3” represents a “true bisexual,” that is, someone who experiences equal desires for both sexes. The scale is meant to be a continuum, so a person can be at any point along it, depending on which sex they desire. It is important to note too that this scale is not rigid and can change over time as people have changes in desires. Kinsey explains his scale thus:

[Humans] do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories… The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.

While emphasizing the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history… An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life…. A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist. (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 639, 656)

Most people, when they first hear of the Kinsey scale immediately place themselves on 0 or 6, depending on how they self-identify. The fact is, though, that most people fall in between these poles. Indeed, most of us have, at one time or another, experienced a desire that was atypical for our orientation or even experimented with a person of the “wrong” sex. What the Kinsey scale helps us to understand is that being heterosexual or homosexual is about being primarily oriented to one sex or the other, but that does not mean that one is exclusively oriented to that sex.

Indeed, I would imagine that most people who identify as 0’s and 6’s are actually 1’s and 5’s, since all of us, at some time or another, experience desires that are outside our standard orientation. This is to be expected as sexual identity is more fluid than most people suppose, since it results from our antecedent value judgments and these evolve as we grow, mature, and live out our lives. Thus, if we greatly value human excellence we will be attracted to a person who embodies this. This is why, for those familiar with The Fountainhead, the relationship between Howard Roark and Gail Wynand seems almost as though they were lovers. In a way, they were lovers, although their relationship never moved beyond an intense friendship (a form of love). Whether this was a function of their characters or a function of Rand’s disgust with homosexuality, is harder to say.

The broader point that Kinsey teaches us, though, is that to think of our sexual identities in terms of rigid categories misrepresents the way the world really is. We need to come to acknowledge that bisexuality and homosexuality are as natural as heterosexuality, even if they are not as common.

1 Response to “Kinsey and Sexual identity”

  1. Erosophia

    […] a fuller account of my views on bisexuality, see my essays: “On Bisexuality“, “Kinsey and Sexual Identity“,  and “Bisexual […]