How was it for you?

Fifty years ago, Alfred C Kinsey published his groundbreaking report into Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. Below, five generations of Independent writers report on their experience of sexual behaviour in the human female, and ask how relevant Kinsey is to women's lives today
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FIFTIES:
Virginia Ironside
Age 59

Though Alfred Kinsey was heralded as a sexual liberator, I think that you can lay the blame for a lot of sexual misery at this old pervert's door. (And he was an old pervert. He even had sex himself with many of the white, middle-class, gay, sado-masochistic, totally unrepresentative group of Americans that he interviewed.)

The trouble with him was that he approached sex like the biologist he was. He was like a man who tries to understand the thrill of a conjuror's act by revealing how each trick is performed; or convey the pleasure of a great meal with friends by recording how many times each guest masticates each mouthful.

The result is that, ever since his report, sex hasn't been seen as something magical, experienced when two people learn to trust each other, and make love. No, these days, because Kinsey looked at sex in a coldly scientific way, it has now been reduced to a commodity - something that you go out and "get": a leisure activity.

And though women may have been racked with sexual guilt before Kinsey came along, boy, were we worried after the report came out. It was Kinsey who prompted the endless questions from women, such as, "How many orgasms should I have a night?". Or, if you were a man, "How many minutes, how many inches, and how often?" It was Kinsey who made us believe that if we didn't have good sex, we'd probably die of cancer; that if we didn't have a squillion orgasms a night, we were horribly repressed. He was also surprisingly liberal about underage sex.

His report has spawned thousands of sexual-help clinics, sexual-dysfunction therapists, and dodgy medication. While assuaging some sexual guilt, he unleashed thousands of other demons that thrive on sexual anxiety and expectation. The creepy old doc should have stuck to his gall wasps.

FORTIES:
Victoria Summerley
Age 46

When I was 14, Alfred Kinsey seemed indistinguishable from Alex Comfort, who had just published The Joy of Sex in 1972. They appeared to be two scientists who, incredibly, earned good money by talking about people's sex lives; they seemed to have discovered the academic equivalent of the G-spot. This, I later discovered, was pretty unfair on poor, earnest Kinsey, who died the year I was born, four years before the Swinging Sixties. Alex Comfort is said to have rather enjoyed researching his book, especially the bits on group sex, but Kinsey was dragged away from a study of gall wasps into a veritable hornet's nest of controversy over masturbation.

Yet it was Kinsey's report that ensured constant female insecurity ever since. Never experienced orgasm while eating cornflakes? Studies show X out of Y women do. Never had sex while cleaning the bathroom? Hey, what are you, some kind of freak? Ironically, when I was at university, if you wanted to talk about sex, you started talking about the Kinsey Report. If the other party showed any enthusiasm for this topic, you could safely bet they were up for it. Well, it was cheap. If you want to get someone of my generation into bed these days, you have to buy dinner at The Ivy.

Those of us in our forties should be forgiven the odd twinge of bitterness about the sexual revolution. We were too young to experience the Sixties, and our sexual awakening took place during the Seventies, when the rest of the nation was more preoccupied with keeping the lights on (thanks to the miners' strike) than turning them down real low. Then, just when we realised that the Seventies were over, the horror stories started. Incurable gonorrhoea, said to have been bred in Vietnam by careless GIs; genital herpes, a ghastly variation on the humble cold sore; Aids, the new killer. We were too full of social conscience to enjoy the Eighties, yet too inhibited by harsh reality to retreat into a carefree hippiedom.

FORTIES:
Deborah Orr
Age 40

The shocking revelation of the Kinsey Report was essentially that women were just as capable of enjoying sex as men. So it's still weird that this news caused such a furore, because individual experience all over the US must have borne out its truth.

Certainly, the prevailing propaganda was that "nice girls didn't". The attempts to discredit the Kinsey Report confirm that powerful forces wanted that status quo to remain. But presumably, for both women and men, privately having sex that they both liked, there must have been a suspicion that all this was more myth than reality anyway.

One ghastly conclusion of this line of thought is that the vast majority of women, keen for intercourse, familiar with lust, must all have been quietly assuming that they were the exception, with their partners likewise thinking that they'd hit some kind of one-in-a-million virgin-whore jackpot. Which doesn't seem at all healthy.

Whether these women felt guilty or lucky would, I suppose, depend on how much they wanted to conform to prevailing ideas of femininity. One set of social mores that they presumably did stick to, though, was that sexual relations between partners should not be discussed with others, or they might all have learned from their friends what it eventually took scientific research to unveil.

It has become, through the agency of everything from David Lynch movies to daytime chat-shows, a cultural cliché to assume that the most fervid sexual activity is taking place in the most buttoned-up and respectable of suburbs. Likewise, we tend to assume that kerb-crawling in red-light areas or spending night after night in Spearmint Rhino is the preserve of the sexual incontinent.

If you allow yourself to be guided by the major sexual surveys, a theory can be formed that it is the same for entire societies. Kinsey, in 1953, revealed private lives in which women were enjoying sex even though this was not expected of them. The Hite Report, in 1976, well into the sexual revolution, had a rather less upbeat message about women's sexual satisfaction. In 1999, after feminism had taught us that sexual freedom did not have to be another sort of tyranny, another monolithic study, published in the Journal of American Medicine, revealed that about 40 per cent of women were not happy with their sex lives. From this, the assumption can only be that the less we are expected to enjoy sex, the more we do. Or that sexual surveys have no bearing at all on how couples get on in bed.

THIRTIES:
Suzi Godson
Age 38

This dusty old book with its maroon binding and gold typography looks just like the kind of tome I spent my entire education avoiding. But the cover belies the contents. Inside is an absolute sexfest of nitty-gritty analysis. In fact, were it not the work of a doctor, this 1953 edition of the Kinsey Report might read like the obsessive ramblings of a maniacal pervert. Alfred Kinsey's background as a zoologist is clearly evident. He appears to be studying the female of a rather peculiar species, and there is more information on subjects such as oral sex with domestic pets than most of us will ever need. Theoretically, his objective, white-coat approach should make his research feel more clinical. But in practice, it brings out the naughty schoolkid in all of us, and makes the text read even ruder.

Kinsey has covered absolutely everything. And I mean everything. He's not always right and he's not always accurate, but boy is he thorough. From nocturnal sex dreams by religious background (oi veh) to extramarital coital experience by decade of birth (yeah, baby), Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female is a mind-blowing and pretty convincing encyclopedia of sexual observation. Kinsey carried out his research at Indiana University from 1938 onwards. All of his information derives from in-depth interviews with 5,940 women, and Kinsey acknowledges in his introduction that probability sampling, ie, endeavouring to represent a true cross-section of the population was impossible for him given the nature of his subject matter.

Kinsey's methodology may have been completely flawed, but if you get past the fact that he was obviously dealing with a rather broad-minded control group, the book provides a fascinating insight into the behaviour of sexually liberated women in 1950s America. In view of the fact that dictionaries still defined the word masturbation as "self-abuse" 10 years ago, Kinsey should be given credit for managing to recruit as many women as he did, and forgiven for the fact that his results don't accurately represent the moral values of the common- or-garden suburban housewife.

It is only in the last couple of years that it has been possible for surveys to establish a truly accurate picture of public sexual attitudes. Since Kinsey didn't have the luxury of laptops or online questionnaires, he had to rely on the power of persuasion, rampant curiosity, and balls of steel. And they served him well.

Suzi Godson is the 'Independent on Sunday' sex columnist, and author of 'The Sex Book' (Cassell, £16.99)

TWENTIES:
Katy Guest
Age 27

For women of my generation, whose first taste of sexual knowledge usually came from the shockingly grubby pages of Cosmopolitan ("You do what?") and who later graduated to Sex and the City, the Kinsey Report meant no more than a couple of half-remembered lines from Kiss Me Kate: "According to the Kinsey Report/ Ev'ry average man you know/ Much prefers to play his favorite sport/ When the temperature is low." We hardly could have imagined a serious scientist spending all that time looking into the sex lives of our parents, let alone our grandparents. As any child of ex-hippie parents should know, sex wasn't even invented until 1963.

For teenagers growing up in the Eighties, the best source of information about the adult world of Real Sex (though hardly believable to us goggle-eyed 10- year-olds) came from the po-faced sex manuals that our more resourceful friends had discovered hidden in their parents' underwear drawers between the tan tights and the sensible knickers. One that sticks in my mind seemed to be an evangelical treatise about sex in the bath. "If the man is a gentleman," it announced, "he will take the tap end". Fifty years later, Carrie Bradshaw is still sitting in downtown coffee-houses grandly announcing much the same thing with a straight face. For all her saucy posturing, is it possible that Candace Bushnell is just Dr Kinsey in Jimmy Choos?

TEENS:
Willow Wlliams
Age 17

Sex. A source of embarrassment, enjoyment, amusement and angst for all teenagers. Some of us are "doing it" and some are not. Well, not yet.

Only a couple of years ago, the boys would categorise us as either "frigid" or a "slut". There didn't seem to be any hope of anything approaching a middle ground. At around 17 or 18, losing your virginity is expected - obviously within an established relationship at best - but we wouldn't judge someone if circumstances had dictated otherwise.

These days, the boys' attitudes are generally to congratulate each other, but girls' attitudes are varied, as having sex is still a bigger deal for most girls. Once sex is part of a relationship, it feels as if that relationship is more meaningful - having sex shows an emotional commitment to each other that isn't there when you're just snogging down the pub.

Within the last few months, the number of those who have lost their virginity in my year at school has gone up. Among these are some who we would not have expected to have "done it" (we all thought they were more reserved than that). People still expect the best-looking girls to be the first ones to have sex with their boyfriends. Although there's no real logic to this presupposition, it's what, none the less, we all think.

Not all of us have our parents' support or approval, so we turn to friends if we need to. I went with my friend to get her a morning-after pill, when she had made the mistake of having unprotected sex - we were shocked at the price, but at the same time we both felt relieved that we could sort the matter out for ourselves. Understandably, she didn't really want to tell her parents.

My friends may not have heard about the Kinsey Report, but we're all aware of the relevant health issues. Sex education at school is still pretty rudimentary, but we know lots from talking to friends, experimentation, magazines, television and film. They all put us in the picture and make us expect it to be good fun. We have learnt to expect the blokes to carry condoms, but if we're in a long-term relationship, we would expect to go on the Pill for our own peace of mind. I think it's more open these days between the sexes - it's not really embarrassing to talk about sex with your boyfriend.

Some of my friends started young. I wouldn't have felt comfortable with that, I felt I had to be a certain age. A condom fell out of a friend's 13-year-old brother's wallet the other day. I'm assuming it was for water- balloon fights...

It's a learning curve for most of us but they do say that practice makes perfect.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE KINSEY REPORT

By Clare Rudebeck

Alfred C Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953, as the sequel to his study into male sexuality. Kinsey spent 13 years interviewing a total of 18,000 people for his research into their sex lives. The 842-page report was an instant success, selling 270,000 copies in a month. Findings that sent the public running to their nearest bookshop included the revelation that half of all women have sexual relations before marriage, and one in four women commit adultery.

Kinsey was a zoologist who had studied gall wasps for more than 20 years when he was asked to teach a course on marriage. Finding little research into human sexuality, he decided to conduct his own.

The book was banned from libraries of the US Army in Europe, and South African customs officials prohibited bookshops from selling it without permission. Priests in Owensboro, Kentucky implored their parishioners not to read it or its reviews. And doubt was cast over Kinsey's research when it emerged that he had relied almost entirely on volunteers. Were those who wanted to tell the world about their sexual exploits representative of the population as a whole?

Soon after publication, the Rockefeller Foundation cut off Kinsey's funding. Three years later, in 1956, he died.

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