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The Kinsey Scale

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Descriptors for Sexual Minorities | Asexuality | Homosexuality
Heterosexuality | Bisexuality | Polyamory | The Kinsey Scale | The Gender Pronoun Game | Coming Out
Embarrassing Questions About Sexual Orientation | Going Back In - Sexuality U-turns

Alfred Kinsey, a famous sex researcher, created a scale for understanding sexual orientation during his groundbreaking research in the 1940s. He put heterosexuality on one side of the scale and homosexuality on the other, leaving plenty of room in the middle for the ambiguities of life. The Kinsey Scale looks something like this:

  • 0 Exclusively heterosexual
  • 1 Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
  • 2 Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
  • 3 Equally heterosexual and homosexual
  • 4 Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
  • 5 Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
  • 6 Exclusively homosexual

Problems with the Kinsey Scale

These days, the Kinsey Scale is under fire for being accurate only in a broadly illusionary sense. It's certainly interesting how people interpret the scale differently. Is somebody who is a 5 on the scale homosexual or bisexual? What about a person who ranks a 1? Are they bisexual or heterosexual? Interestingly, many people harbour double standards for gay-leaning versus straight-leaning persons. Arguably, this fact may say more about a society's double standards than it does about gay or straight people.

Bisexuality is sometimes misunderstood as being a perfect 3 on the Kinsey scale, but very few people could then rightly be called bisexual. Clearly, keeping up perfect gender symmetry over a lifetime would be taxing and would furthermore require an accountant's accuracy. There are even people who define most of humanity as bisexual, leaving only the perfect 6s and perfect 0s as straight or gay. Again, this isn't particularly fair since it is entirely common to experiment in one's youth until one's orientation is entirely understood. And anyway, there should be at least a little wiggle room for everyone to try unusual experiences a time or two in their life.

Another problem with Kinsey's use of his own scale was that his studies used past sexual behaviour as the only criteria. A virgin would have no rating at all according to Kinsey because they have had no sexual experiences. Also, a person with only one sexual experience would be automatically placed in the 0 or 6 column. If that person then goes on to primarily have relations with the gender opposite their first encounter, the initial designation would seem to be a misreading in retrospect.

Also, Kinsey's assumption was that all sexual experiences are undertaken for pleasure and therefore have a direct bearing on sexual orientation. In reality, we know that sexual experiences are undertaken for other reasons. For instance, a lesbian might have an opposite-gender experience in order to procreate. A prostitute might have sex with someone for money whom they would not ordinarily pair up with. People are also sometimes coerced into sex while inebriated or under the influence of drugs that they might refuse while sober. The most distressing violation of Kinsey's assumption are cases of rape and paedophilia. Clearly, Kinsey's methods are only valuable over the course of a lifetime, with a few practical modifications, or with a reasonably large sample of people.

The alternative usually suggested is to include other factors besides past sexual behaviour. These might include sexual fantasies, feelings of romantic love, past relationships and/or dating experiences, and even one's self-identification on the sexual orientation front. The problem is that researchers tend to disagree on which factors should be included and which should not. Some suggested factors require subjective interpretation, which opens the study to personal bias. Furthermore, the factors selected have a huge sway on the researchers' results.

Kinsey's Findings

Kinsey's studies found that about 10% of people (13% of men and 7% of women) in his American studies were homosexual. This was a big change in understanding, since most psychologists and researchers before Kinsey's time assumed that much less than 1% of humans had ever engaged in homosexual experiences. Same-gender sexual experiences had been taboo in Western society since the Middle Ages, and the relatively recent Victorian era rendered almost all sexual topics taboo. While psychologists occasionally spoke to clients who admitted to same-gender acts within the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, other people tended to avoid such discussions for fear of social condemnation. After Kinsey's studies caused widespread discussion on many previously taboo subjects, it became clear that many socially and mentally healthy people have also had same-gender sex experiences.

However, due to the logicistical problems outlined above, other estimations on the percentage of homosexual people have ranged everywhere from 2% to 30% in seemingly valid studies. Meanwhile, estimations of bisexuality are even more variable to the point where the studies can only be cynically diagnosed as completely unreliable. Further complicating things, studies conducted in the same manner with the same variables have shown shifting results as American society has become more accepting of same-sex relationships. It is safe to say that nobody knows for sure what percentage of people or gay, bisexual, or straight.

Variations on the Theme

Variations on the Kinsey Scale related to human sexuality have become popular lately. The most frequently referenced scales:

  • One that ranks sexual behaviour from monogamous to polyamorous.
  • Another that ranks people who are into power games (sometimes but not always sexual) from dominant to submissive.
  • A scale that ranks gender from male to female, with room for trans people to fit in the middle.
  • Yet another scale that ranks relative interest in sex from nonexistent to wildly enthusiastic.
  • A scale that ranks lesbians along a gender role continuum from masculine (butch) to feminine (femme).
  • A final scale that ranks hair from blond to brunette1, making fun of Kinsey's Scale and sexual orientation in general.

Unlike the Kinsey Scale, these variations do not have scientific studies to back them up. Some people simply consider them useful anyway. Of course, the variation scales may oversimplify matters problematically just as the Kinsey Scale does.

1which incidentally leaves out redheads

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