FAQ: Science: Kinsey and Other Studies
The Kinsey scale
In the 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”, the Kinsey researchers made the (then) startling assertion that homosexual behavior was not restricted to identified homosexuals. (The book was based on an in-depth survey of thousands of men.) The authors said that it made more sense to look at a person’s behavior and psychological response as being at some point on a spectrum or scale:
0 = entirely heterosexual
1 = largely heterosexual, but with incidental homosexual history
2 = largely heterosexual, but with a distinct homosexual history
3 = equally heterosexual and homosexual
4 = largely homosexual, but with a distinct heterosexual history
5 = largely homosexual, but with incidental heterosexual history
6 = entirely homosexual
(Someone posted excerpts from “Incidence, Frequency, and the Kinsey 0-6 Scale” by C. A. Tripp, from “The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”. This answer and the next two are adapted from that posting.)
The origin of the “10% gay” figure
In the same book — see previous answer — Kinsey published survey results that over a three-year period, 4% of the men were Kinsey 6’s (exclusively homosexual experiences) and 6% were Kinsey 5’s (homosexual with only incidental hetereosexual experience); 4% + 6% = 10%. The parallel statistic for women in the same studies was 3 to 8% (scale 4 to 6). The works don’t really match, exactly, in what they were measuring. Like any sociological study, Kinsey’s has been challenged on a number of grounds. More recent studies have generated statistics far above or below these numbers (especially for women), but nothing more authoritative has been published.
The key difficulty with the 10% figure has proven to be how researchers define “gay”. Since there is no agreement in the scientific community on what characteristic(s) make people homosexual or bisexual, these studies have very little meaning or impact outside the popular media coverage they generate.
What else Kinsey found
Well there are two whole books, but here are a few numerical excerpts. “[A]t least 37% of the male population has some homosexual experience between the beginning of adolescence and old age…. This is more than one male in three of the persons that one may meet as he passes along a city street.” In addition, 13% of males react erotically to other males without having overt homosexual contacts after the onset of adolescence. (This 13 percent, coupled with the 37 percent who do have overt homosexual experience, means that a full 50 percent of males have at least some sexual response to other males after adolescence – and conversely, that only the other 50 percent of the male population is entirely heterosexual throughout life.)
4% of males are exclusively homosexual throughout their lives after the onset of adolescence.
8% of males are exclusively homosexual (scale 6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.
13% of males have more homo than hetero experience (scale 4-6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.
18% percent of males have at least as much homo as hetero in their histories (scale 3-6) for at least three years between age 16 and 55.
25% percent of the male population has more than incidental homosexual experience or reactions (scale 2-6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.
On the other hand, these Kinsey findings are beside the point in a way. Even if the figure were 1%, or a fraction of a percent, discrimination would still be wrong.
(By the way, equivalent figures are not available for women because “equivalent female data often cannot be understood without extensive additional explanation”, according to Tripp’s article.)
Research carried out at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1994 found that 20.8% of the men and 17.8% of the women studied admitted to same-sex sexual attraction or behavior at some time in their lives.
Although many people will say “I am a Kinsey (whatever),” it should be noted that subsequent researchers like Klein say it’s more useful to rate people on a variety of levels, for example “past history,” “present history,” “present feelings,” and “future inclinations”. Nevertheless the Kinsey scale remains a useful tool for discussion of sexuality precisely because it is so simple.