No shades of gray: WSU study questions Kinsey's sexuality scale

Crosscut archive image.

Photo by Romana Klee via Flickr

In the years since Alfred Kinsey conducted his notorious sex surveys between 1938 and 1963, his theory that human sexuality lies along a continuum – known as the “Kinsey scale” – has become a foundational theory among those in the field of sexology. But a new study out of Washington State University (WSU) challenges the premise of sexual fluidity, instead claiming that there’s a clear distinction between those who are heterosexual, and those who are not.

The researchers came to these results, published in October as “Homosexuality as a Discrete Class” in the journal Psychological Science, after analyzing the responses of 35,000 people collected by the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). Among other questions, participants were asked to report on what they identify as their sexual orientation, which sex(es) they feel attracted to, and which sex(es) they’ve slept with.

Lead author Alyssa Norris, a doctoral student at WSU, says the responses showed a consistency among the three questions: Basically, most of the about 97 percent of people who identified as heterosexual also said they are only attracted to the other gender, and only have sex with the other gender. “It means there’s a categorical, binary difference” between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, Norris said.

“The most radical, extreme version of that would be to say that Kinsey led a lot of this research down the wrong path,” study co-author David Marcus said in a press release.

But the binary point of view might cut out a big chunk of the story. How we think of sexual orientation is caught up in “a strong ongoing debate, both among researchers and clearly in the public and among politicians,” Norris said. “There’s definitely a camp of people who strongly advocate for sexual orientation being on a continuum.”

One of those people is University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann, who in the 1990s conducted the most extensive sex surveys since Kinsey’s. Human sexuality is “a very complicated picture, and there’s no way that this particular survey went into those kinds of details,” Laumann said. In his own studies, “We interviewed a variety of people who don’t fall into any categories.”

Laumann added that some people’s sexual orientation and behavior changes throughout their lives, depending on an array of factors like circumstances and hormones. He points out that the behavior of people who are typically heterosexual might change if they are in prison and solely surrounded by people of the same sex for a long period of time (it’s not just on Orange is the New Black). Not to mention the exploratory period during adolescence and early adulthood (hello, college!).

Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the nonprofit American Institute for Behavioral Research, whose recent work has upheld Kinsey’s scale, thinks says the WSU study should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. He doesn’t think the NESARC survey methods would have led to the most honest answers.

“We show that the more in-your-face the survey method, the more people lie about their sexual orientation – claiming, of course, that they’re straight,” Epstein wrote by email. “NESARC, on which the new study is based, is face-to-face and non-anonymous – not a good way to study sexual orientation, at least not in a world that forbids homosexuality.”

But perhaps it’s just that where sexual orientation gets more nuanced – where the continuum of sexual orientation and attraction would really be seen – is within the group the WSU study simply categorizes as “non-heterosexual.” The study basically says that most people are oriented toward people of the opposite sex – no huge shocker there. But Norris notes that there is some variability within the classes themselves, particularly among female respondents. (Other studies have also shown that attraction is a more complex matter for women than for men.)

Rather than the ins and outs of who and what turns people on, the study indicates the broad brushstrokes of how people identify within the terms that society most commonly hands them.

And maybe whether or not sexual orientation lies on continuum shouldn’t really be the main headline of the research, anyway. The study also looked into mental health among the survey respondents, and the results indicate that we, as a society, still have some major work to do when it comes to accepting people, regardless of whether their sexual orientation falls neatly into categories or along a continuum.

The study found that, when compared to heterosexual men, nearly twice the number of non-heterosexual men met the diagnostic criteria for depression. Non-heterosexual women showed much greater risk of battling a lifetime of alcohol dependency. Non-heterosexual men and women alike thought about suicide more than their heterosexual counterparts.

“Because of the stigma society has placed on non-heterosexual people, we’re seeing a lot of struggles,” Norris says. “It tears apart families. It interferes with people’s abilities to love themselves, and to find love with others. In answering any of these questions, my major hope is that it helps society understand these natural differences a little bit more.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Samantha Larson

Samantha Larson

Samantha Larson writes about science, the environment, and adventure. Tweet at her @samantson.