Everything you ever wanted to know about Kinsey

In 1894, when Alfred Charles Kinsey (plain Kinsey to most of us) was born in Hoboken, less than a mile from New York, Broadway…

In 1894, when Alfred Charles Kinsey (plain Kinsey to most of us) was born in Hoboken, less than a mile from New York, Broadway was no more than a dirt road used by cattle drovers and Manhattan had yet to soar skywards. The family was strictly Methodist: no entertainment or enjoyment on Sundays, other than praying.

Attendance at three services was mandatory, no milk or newspaper deliveries were allowed and Mrs Kinsey was required by her husband to do all her cooking on Saturday in order to leave the Sabbath absolutely free for the Lord. Alfred suffered from both rheumatic fever and typhoid and, as a solitary sort of child, was often bullied. His father was autocratic, his mother put upon. The boy sought refuge in the surrounding countryside and started collecting flowers and plants. At 14, he began attending YMCA summer camps. All in all, the young Kinsey was quiet, well-behaved and a good scout.

You can see it coming, of course: by 20, he had had his first major row with his father and by 22 had left home forever - to study biology, in defiance of the parental wish that he should study engineering. Early repressions in childhood, Kinsey later reported, have a major effect on later development and since the sex drive is a major force, childhood repression will affect that too.

If Kinsey is anything to go by, this is certainly true. Handsome in an Aryan sort of way - thick, blond curly hair, strong, square jaw etc - he was a loner, attracting little female interest during his college years and spending most of his time collecting wasps' nests. This squirrelling tendency, as Freud tells us, indicates a need for security and reassurance. The collection of data on wasps later gave way to the collection of data on sexual practice.

When he was 24, Kinsey was selected - so his latest biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy tells us - by the hottest thing on the campus, a young science coed called Clara McMillen, shortened to Mac. His Christmas presents to her consisted of a camping knife, a pair of walking boots and a compass. The marriage duly took place and was followed by a camping trek in the mountains. As a honeymoon it was a disaster: the bride had something the matter with her clitoris - the details of which were carefully written up by the groom. However, seen by a doctor on her return, she emerged from an operation whole again and in due course the happy couple went on to produce four children. The production of Kinsey's two major books: Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behaviour of the Human Female (1953) took a little longer.

The Kinsey report, as the books are collectively known in common parlance, are similar, in one way, to Joyce's Ulysses: everyone knows about it but few have read it. Better informed on biology than people were in the 1930s and 1940s, and with laws relating to certain sexual behaviour less punitive now than they were then, the research practices of Kinsey's team cannot but seem bizarre in the 1990s. Because of that, it is worth looking at the moral climate of the day and the legal restrictions under which the team operated.

Christian churches in the US held the view that the solution to the so-called sex problem was to awaken anxiety and guilt and then drive the penitent to God. Petting was a sin. The teaching of evolution was against the law. (In one of his papers, Kinsey had to change the offending word to "changes with time".) Homosexual practices as well as oral sex were illegal throughout the United States and in Indiana, where Kinsey later became Professor of Zoology at the state university in Bloomington, it was an offence "to incite or to encourage masturbation". Ignorance of the reproductive system was common. A survey of college girls found that a high proportion thought kissing made you pregnant and that high school boys were unfamiliar with the word masturbation - though whether they were familiar with its practice, the biographer doesn't tell us.

Kinsey, in the early part of his academic career, concentrated on his wasp project. By the time he got to Harvard to do his PhD, he had collected 300,000 galls (wasp nests) all carefully stored and labelled, 800 to a box. This project took 16 years to complete. By then, however, he had stumbled into the murky pool of sexual ignorance, and discovered he had something in common with the many young boys and men who shared his repressive upbringing. He encouraged his young research assistants to talk freely about all aspects of sex and in so doing, began the process of his own sexual liberation. Before long, he had devised a programme that involved the gathering of detailed data (histories) of people's sex habits and which included the active participation not only of himself but of his wife and his assistants. Awareness, experimentation, note-taking and discussion made up his programme with the orgasm the unit of measurement.

Using the spread of VD as a lever, he persuaded Bloomington to put on a marriage course. Students were offered six biology lectures as well as talks on economics, psychology, law and the religious aspect of marriage. It was a huge success, and Kinsey used his willing audience as a means of collecting even more data. Everyone was expected to contribute their sex history and most did. In fact, there was no shortage of people apparently willing to discuss what they did, how, when and with whom. Kinsey soon became a sort of sex counsellor to whom people wrote with their problems. He offered advice and in return, they sent him their histories. One woman in her 50s wrote begging him to say when she might be released from her tremendous sexual urges, but he could offer no hope of respite. "Not till you're 90," he replied.

Papers poured from his office - monographs on the penis, studies of the vulva, a dissertation on the homosexual practices of the buck rabbit. Numbers played a large part in his work. On one occasion, he interviewed 40 homosexuals which amounted, he found, to 3,000 sexual encounters. A woman told him she could masturbate to orgasm 100 times in one hour. He took histories from 6,000 women in all. By the end of his wasp project, he had collected more than one million nests. So it is with scientists.

But was he a scientist - or a voyeur and latent paedophile? He observed and filmed men and women having sex in various combinations. He had sex with some of his subjects and with his researchers and so, too, did his wife, Mac. He exchanged lewd, locker-room limericks with his students and got his young researchers to discuss their wives' masturbatory habits. Once, when he had set up a sado-masochistic session involving two men, the researchers had to step aside occasionally when Mac came in to change the blood-stained sheets. He interviewed young children about their ideas on sex and incorporated the research of a self-confessed paedophile into his own work.

Gathorne-Hardy is an apologist for Kinsey, defending him against earlier biographers who claimed he was a homosexual (gay had not yet entered the universal language) who used his research to promote his sexual needs. What is clear is that Kinsey was a behaviourist, with no inclination to be judgmental and this allowed him to observe and record, without bias, some of the strangest of sexual habits. Coprophilia is one of them - but if you're eating, don't look it up until you've finished.

Sex the Measure of All Things - a Life of Alfred C. Kinsey by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, is published by Chatto and Windus. Price £20