The Primitive Psychology of Alfred Kinsey
By John D. Perry, PhD
Our topic is "Vaginal Orgasm". It is a professional issue for psychologists because for the past 30 years most of us have been telling our patients that there is no such thing as a vaginal orgasm, and as a result, less and less of them are having vaginal orgasms. In terms of the destruction of human pleasure, this may well be the most heinous iatrogenic illness ever perpetrated on western civilization.
The Masters and Johnson Era: 1960-1980.
If you received any formal education in human sexuality after about 1960, you probably were taught that, from a physiological point of view, all female orgasms are "essentially" the same, and that all of them are triggered, in one way or another, by clitoral stimulation. Further, if you read M&J's Human Sexual Response, you would have been told, in Chap. 5, that the Clitoris is the principal erotogenic organ of the female, while (in Chap. 6) the vagina has only two functions, both of them passive. First, it serves as a receptacle for the male organ during intercourse; and Second, it serves as a receptacle or reservoir for semen in the process of fertilization. Essentially that is it. In HSR there is absolutely no hint or mention of any possibility of any woman deriving any pleasure from her vagina.
If, therefore, you were asked by one of your female patients how to achieve orgasm during intercourse, you would probably have quoted Dr. Helen Singer (who received last year's AASECT award). Dr. Kaplan believes that "probably most women were not intended to have orgasm during intercourse". You would, therefore, advise your patient to learn how to enjoy masturbating with a partner or by a partner, and would advise her to forget about ever enjoying intercourse.
You would probably respond that way --- unless you had heard about The G-Spot", or Gräfenberg spot. The "G spot" is my name for what is rapidly being acknowledged as the female prostate gland, although at the time we wrote the book (in January 1982), it seemed too risky to make such an assertion. Only one month ago, in the March issue Urology, was the first medically-respected, peer-reviewed research paper published that asserted unequivocally that autopsy examination findings "support [the hypothesis of] a female homologue of the male prostate".
The assertion of a female prostate gland -- with no apparent reproductive or biological function -- would not in itself be noteworthy if it were not for the functional assertions that have been made about the Gräfenberg spot. The most newsworthy is, of course, that it is the source for an ejaculatory fluid that some women release upon orgasm. We began studying claims of females who said that they ejaculated in the summer of 1979. We found that many of these women identified a specific sexual "trigger point" in the anterior wall of their vaginas. Direct stimulation of this spot caused it to become swollen, in a manner similar to the male erection, into a hard, roundish lump that made it even more vulnerable to stimulation by an inserted object like a finger or even a penis. Some of these women were also experienced masturbators, and they insisted that the orgasm, which resulted from vaginal stimulation of this spot, was distinctly different from the orgasm that resulted from clitoral stimulation. And some of them were kind enough to demonstrate the difference by engaging in both kinds of activities while connected to electronic monitoring devices such as Masters and Johnson had used.
A few weeks later I entered into a project with Dr. Edwin Belzer of Delhausie University to collect samples of the fluid which some of these women ejaculated. Dr. Belzer, in a paper that will be published shortly in The Journal of Sex Research, determined that the fluid was distinctly different from urine in several respects, including high levels of prostatic acid phosphatase and glucose. Belzer also sent me a copy of a paper published in 1950 by one Ernst Gräfenberg of NYC, who had first made many of the same observations we did.
Gräfenberg speculated that the ejaculated fluid was the product of the paraurethral glands. But he also described, in some detail, the sexual sensitivity of the anterior vaginal wall. And he argued that it was at least as important as clitoral sensitivity --- a point that was to cost him the respect and support of Alfred Kinsey.
Interestingly enough, the same women that first interested me in the project had approached William Masters some eight years earlier. Masters had studied a few female ejaculators and had observed the high sugar content of the fluid --- but found no other diabetic symptoms. He therefore concluded that it was a "pre-diabetic" abnormality which he was UNABLE to treat successfully with surgery. Masters would have discovered the G spot, had he not assumed that unusual symptoms were inherently pathological. But Masters was merely following the teachings of Kinsey, who asserted that ejaculation, like pregnancy, was one of the two ways in which males and females differed.
What Freud said.
In order to understand Alfred Kinsey, we must first turn to the context in which he worked. When America ended its isolationist stance and became actively involved in European affairs in the 1940s, Americans brought back --- most important for our purposes --- the newly translated ideas of Sigmund Freud. Kinsey, as an empirical scientist, was outraged at what he considered the moralism and the untestability of Freud's theories, and sought at every opportunity to prove them wrong.
Many people today think that Freud started the controversy over "Vaginal vs. Clitoral" orgasm, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Freud said absolutely nothing about the nature of orgasm, whether vaginal or clitoral. What Freud did talk about were two erotogenic areas, the clitoris and the vagina. Unfortunately, it was essential to Freud's theory of personality development to suppose that, unlike males, that females go through two distinct phases of development; the first phallic or masculine [in which clitoral masturbation plays some part] and the second distinctly feminine. Freud never denied the importance of the clitoris to the young girl; he merely asserted the importance of the vagina to the mature or adult woman. Since Freud assumed that the clitoris was best for masturbation, and the vagina best for intercourse, it seemed perfectly natural for him to identify each zone with a stage of development. Those who would attach special significance to Freud's concept of maturity in conjunction with the vagina quite miss the point. It would have been as unthinkable for a Victorian to advocate the active use of the vagina before marriage as it was to advocate the continuation of masturbation after marriage.
"A man, after all, has only one leading sexual zone, one sexual organ, whereas a woman has two: the vagina -- the female organ proper -- and the clitoris, which is analogous to the male organ. We believe we are justified in assuming that for many years the vagina is virtually non-existent and possibly does not produce sensations until puberty. It is true that recently an increasing number of observers report that vaginal impulses are present even in these early years. In woman, therefore, the main genital occurrences of childhood must take place in relation to the clitoris. Their sexual life is regularly divides into two phases, of which the first has a masculine character, while only the second is specifically feminine. Thus in female development there is a process of transition from the one phase to the other, to which there is nothing analogous in the male. A further complication arises from the fact that the clitoris, with its virile character, continues to function in later female sexual life in a manner which is very variable and which is certainly not yet satisfactorily understood." (1931, 9. 228)
Freud further articulates the process for this transition:
"When at last the sexual act is permitted and the clitoris itself becomes excited it still retains a function; the task, namely, of transmitting the excitation to the adjacent female sexual parts, just as -- to use a simile -- pine shavings can be kindled in order to set a log of harder wood on fire. Before this transference can be effected, a certain interval of time must often elapse, during which the young woman is anaesthetic."(19U5, p. 221)
From these two statements, several hypotheses emerge:
First, a woman has two sexual zones -- the vagina and the clitoris. It should be emphasized here that Freud is NOT contrasting "types of orgasm". The clitoral vs. vaginal orgasm debate is based on post-Freudian distortions of this basic two-zone theory (Jayne, 1980 and in press).
Second, vaginal sensitivity is essentially a post-pubertal phenomenon and is learned on the basis of the experience provided by intercourse.
Third, Freud agrees that female childhood sexual experience is focused on the clitoris.
Fourth, the zones co-exist in "later female sexual life" and the relationship between the zones is admittedly not understood.
Fifth, focus on the clitoris to the exclusion of the vagina in adulthood will abort or distort the learning process, "transfer of sensitivity", i.e., some women will not learn about vaginal sensitivity because they are paying too much attention to their clitorises. This is perhaps the most challenging assertion, in the light of what has happened in the 79 years since Freud first raised the possibility.
The Post-War Climate
It is not possible to understand the scientific developments of the 1940s and 1950s unless we recall the climate of American intellectualism of the decades following World War II. It was, to be sure, a genuine if short-lived renaissance in the academic life of this country. Following the war, veterans flocked to college under the GI bill, thus supporting the rapid development of faculties and research. At the same time, there was a new invasion of intellectual material from Europe which had been held back by the war. Among the [most controversial of these new ideas was psychoanalysis, and in particular, the writings of Sigmund Freud. For every scholar who welcomed the Freudian notions there were at least two who objected. To many Americans, the most objectionable part of Freud's theory was his heavy emphasis on sexuality, but it wasn't that which offended Alfred Kinsey.
Kinsey The Man:
Pomeroy (1972) tell us that Kinsey "was a stubborn man" who frequently "assault[ed] Freudian psychoanalytic theory" (p. 10); Kinsey was "Disdainful of the work of Freud.."(p. 66). Indeed, Pomeroy says "It is not too much to say that Kinsey was downright contemptuous of Freud in some respects." (p. 68). Two aspects of Freud were especially disdainful: First, Freud's moralism (especially about masturbation) and second, "that much of Freud's work was not subject to verification... "(p. 69). Kinsey sought to build the tower of sexual knowledge on the foundation of modern empiricism which served so well in the field of biology.
We have already noted that the notion of two female erotogenic zones served Freud's needs well (as the biological basis for two phases of social development). Kinsey, in contrast, was an empirical reductionist who sought to simplify the conceptual framework. Unlike Freud, he had no need to justify a two-stage personality theory. And since everyone -- even Freud -- agreed that male sexuality was focused in a single organ, Kinsey wanted to believe that the same was true of the female. In his gynecological studies, he sought to identify the one uniquely sensitive organ, which was this focus.
First Assumption: Single Focus:
Kinsey's first assumption, therefore, was that there had to be a single locus of sexual sensation in the female. It must be noted that there is no scientific basis for Kinsey's faith in a unitary locus. In the same way that our base-l0 number system is an often unwelcome intrusion on a nature which seems to be organized differently, so also this assumption. Kinsey had no basis for it other then his mistaken belief that the penis was the locus for the male I say "mistaken" because anatomists have subsequently agreed that the male response consists of not one but two, separate reflexes, emission and expulsion, to use Kaplan's terms. The one focuses on the glans, while the other centers around the prostate. If Kinsey were to do it over today, it is doubtful if he would have been able to assume a single locus for the male.
Thus it was Kinsey, and not Freud, who was responsible for the Vaginal versus Clitoral debate. Freud, as we have shown, believed that orgasm could be stimulated by BOTH vaginal AND clitoral stimulation. (He just thought one was immature and/or immoral.) This unitary focus assumption was the basis for Kinsey's gynecological "vote" in Table 174.
In other words, what Kinsey proposed to do was to define the sensitivity argument in such a way that there could only be ONE answer when previously there had been two. Then he proposed research aimed at finding the best ONE answer to the question of the locus of maximal sensitivity in the human female.
Second assumption: tactile:
Kinsey's second assumption dealt with the nature of the stimulation that should be applied to the single organ. He somewhat arbitrarily decided that tactile sensitivity was the crucial modality. In retrospect, Kinsey's discussion (in chapter 14 of 1953) shows a curious development that suggests he "clarified" his thinking as he developed his argument. He begins by referring to tactile stimulation as coming "from touch, pressure, or more general contact" (p. 570). But by the tine he summarizes the data collected by his gynecologists, he has operationalized "tactile" sensitivity to mean a raw awareness of mere physical contact, usually with a Q-tip. Pressure has become a separate category altogether.
Kinsey's selection of tactile sensitivity as the crucial modality for understanding sexual stimulation was based on an embarrassingly naive view of psychology. Kinsey thought that of all the "senses", only one was pure and unmediated -- touch. In fact, the entire chapter on anatomy of sexual response and orgasm is organized around a 20-paged section entitled "Stimulation through end organs of touch". All of the other senses, which he believed 'operate primarily through the psychic associations which they evoke" (p. 590), were relegated to a single page at the end of the "touch" section. At the outset, we can now challenge the assumption. No modern psychologist would deny that the human cortex is capable of total control over the raw sensory input it receives from the "end organs of touch" located in the skin. Sensitivity and awareness are very much learned capacities, which may or may not develop in individuals.
Even so, Kinsey's selection of tactile sensation as the hallmark of sexuality might not be so bothersome if it were not for the extremely narrow way that he defined it. His one single "psychological" experiment (repeated on several genital locations) consisted of the subjects conscious awareness of the presence or absence of mere physical contact with an object such as a "Q-tip" in the course of a gynecologic examination.
A number of objections have been raised concerning the validity of this "model" experiment. (Its reliability is not in question.) As early as 1955, animal experiments suggested that the "objective" and non-aroused gynecological examination may not even be an appropriate environment in which to investigate tactile sensitivity, but no one, not even Masters and Johnson, has addressed this specific question.
Alternative: Firm Pressure:
A more comprehensive critique is based on what I called the genteel assumption: there is no scientific basis for assuming that genteel physical contact is a valid measure of the capacity for sexual arousal. Until the G spot research, we did not have any highly plausible alternatives. Those of you who have read that book know that almost universally women say that firm, deep pressure is needed to excite the Grafenberq Spot. Similarly, Zwi Hoch of Israel has stated that "firm pressure" is need to elicit vaginal sexual response. Fortunately, Kinsey's staff DID test the vagina for pressure responsiveness; we shall return to that in a moment.
Third Assumption: Common modality:
Kinsey made another assumption which was even more subtle than the previously mentioned ones. He assumed that one mechanism -- tactile contact -- should be applied to the two contending erotogenic zones. At first that might seem plausible, but on closer examination becomes unwarranted. Kinsey set up the experimental test as follows: which of two zones was most sensitive to touch? The one receiving the most votes, he determined, was the winner. but this model does not conform to the real-life situation he was trying to test. Freud had drawn a contrast between the manual stimulation of the clitoris that occurs in (childhood) masturbation, (Freud agreed) and the stimulation that occurs in later in adult life with intercourse when a penis is inside the vagina. ~We can agree that there is some similarity between a finger and a Q-tip when it comes to clitoral stimulation. But I draw the line at accepting a Q-tip as an experimental analogue of the penis. [As one professional woman put it, "So who wants to be fucked by a Q-Tip?" I submit that the nature of the contact which the penis has with the vagina is significantly different from the contact afforded by a Q-tip. For one thing, there is a rhythmic pattern of pressure applied by the penis to the vaginal structures, and it is this mode of vaginal stimulation which must be compared with a equally appropriate mode of clitoral stimulation. Perhaps an analogy will make it clear. The paddle is the proper instrument with which to propel a canoe, and the oar serves the same function with respect to the rowboat. It should be obvious that a Boat race between these two vessels would be prejudiced, to say the least, if both crews were obliged to utilize canoe paddles. But that is exactly what Kinsey did when he assumed that both erogenous zones should respond to the form of stimulation that is more natural to the one than the other.
What Kinsey Found:
As recently as 1972, in his summary of the work of Dr. Kinsey, in referring to the gynecological studies, Wardell Pomeroy states that "when the results were published, there were still those who refused to believe them.. Subsequent research, however, (p. 319). I must take issue with Wardell; it is not because I refuse to believe his results, but precisely because I DO believe his results, that I am forced to challenge his CONCLUSIONS.
Let's look again at his results. Kinsey's gynecologists had found that almost all women were aware of tactile contact at the clitoris, whereas only about 14% were aware of tactile contact on the interior vaginal wall. From this rather clearly demonstrated vaginal tactile insensitivity, Kinsey drew the conclusion of the "relative unimportance of the vagina as a center of erotic stimulation".
Obviously, this led Kinsey to a problem. If the vagina was "unimportant" to the gynecologist, he had to explain why it was so important to women. He acknowledged that a majority of females get from deep vaginal penetration "a type of satisfaction which differs from that provided by the stimulation of the labia or clitoris alone (p. 581)". Since his tests had ruled out tactile sensations within the vaginal walls, he concluded that it "must depend on some mechanism that lies outside of the vaginal walls themselves (p. 58l)".
Kinsey postulated Six Possible sources of satisfaction from vaginal penetration; and one or all may be involved): (p. 581-2)
1. "Psychologic satisfaction" from union. This is the "sentimental female" model, and while there is no doubt that it contributes to the enjoyment of sex for both partners (not just the female, as Kinsey said) it is doubtful if it explains the difference that women report between the physical sensations of clitoral and vaginal orgasm.
2. Kinsey's second source was "Tactile" stimulation from the partner's weight on full body. But the women I've talked to don't count this as one of the benefits of the missionary position!
3. "Tactile stimulation" of vestibule, incorrectly attributed to the interior of the vagina. While there is not doubt that this could occur, it is insulting to women to insist that they cannot tell the difference.
I will, for the moment, skip the fourth and fifth options
6. The sixth, according to Kinsey, is "Tactile stimulation" of vaginal wall - but this, he says, could only be true for the 14% who were aware of the Q-tip in his test. This 14% figure is obviously taken from Table 174; yet Kinsey makes no mention of the 91% (in that same table) who had pressure awareness It is all the more strange since in the footnote to Table 174 he said "...it seems probable that any area which is not responsive to tactile stimulation or pressure cannot be involved in erotic response" (p. 577).
The converse is, of course, that any area which Is sensitive to EITHER touch OR pressure COULD be involved in erotic response --- but Kinsey considered only the first alternative, and overlooked the second.
Kinsey's fourth and fifth options were presented only briefly: He said that the satisfaction of penetration (or engulfment, depending on which side of the action you are on) could come from: a(n) "[unspecified] stimulation" of the vaginal sphincter muscle or "[unspecified] stimulation" of the nerves in the pelvic sling (PC). It is unfortunate that Kinsey did not develop the implications of these alternatives further, because I muscle think they point directly to what we have learned from the Gräfenberg spot. Both the vaginal sphincter and the PC muscle itself are, in part, innervated by the internal Pelvic Nerve, which is most concentrated in the female prostate or G spot.
Incidentally, this was essentially the position first taken by Arnold Kegel, the pelvic muscle exercise physician, in a letter to the editor of JAMA, Dec. 5, 1953, in response to the publication of Kinsey's volume on the Human Female.
Unfortunately, Kegel notes, Kinsey conceived of the vagina as a separate organ, a hollow cylinder, not unlike an unrolled condom. By "vagina" Kinsey understood only the vaginal wall itself --- not the muscles and nerves which surround and penetrate it and tie it into the pelvic structures. He even says that "there is no evidence that the vagina responds separately from the surrounding body" --- but no one ever said it did. Unlike Kinsey, Kegel stressed the interdigitation of nerves and muscles in a healthy pubococcygeus muscle and vagina. But Kinsey was not a clinician, and made no distinctions base) on his subjects' sexual health or physical fitness.
So Kinsey dismissed the physiological alternative explanations, and turned to attack Freud indirectly. On Vaginal Orgasm he says:
"The literature usually implies that the vagina itself should be the center of sensory stimulation, and this as we have seen is a physical and physiologic impossibility for nearly all females." (i.e., for 86%). (p. 582).Kinsey's Table 174. Responses to Tactile Stimulation and to Pressure, in Female Genital Structures.
|Structures||% Responding||Total No.
|Right labia majora||92||854|
|Left labia majora||87||854|
|Right, outer labia minora||97||879|
|Right inner labia minora||98||879|
|Left outer labia minora||95||879|
|Left inner labia minora||96||879|
|Anterior wall vagina||11||578|
|Posterior wall vagina||13||578|
|Right wall vagina||14||578|
|Left wall vagina||14||578|
|Area of Pressure|
|Anterior wall vagina||89||878|
|Posterior wall vagina||93||878|
It is only necessary to define the vagina more inclusively than just the surface skin, and to allow that pressure may be appropriate to its stimulation, to see that Kinsey --- far from proving the vaginal orgasm a "biologic impossibility" has in fact proven just the opposite.
Kinsey went on to correctly observe that, according to Freud, there was a "psychosexual maturation involved" which included "a development of sensitivity within the vagina itself". Unfortunately Kinsey does not provide any cross-tabulation of the information in Table 174. It would certainly be interesting to subject that data to a developmental model, and see if vaginal sensitivity (to pressure) increases with age or maturity. But this crucial test -- implied in Kinsey's text -- is missing in his research.
Kinsey's reference to "subordination of clitoral reactions" in the same sentence gives us a clue as to another misunderstanding of the Freudian position. Freud did not believe that the subordination of the clitoris was a "natural" developmental event; otherwise, he would not have had to recommend it as a task of psychosexual development.
In the previously cited 1953 letter, Arnold Kegel further asserted that, based on his many years of clinical experience, "conditioning of response exclusively to clitoral stimulation interferes with the development of vaginal feeling" (JAMA). In other words, learning to masturbate with only clitoral stimulation, as we have been teaching women for some 30 years, may in fact prevent the normal development of vaginal sensitivity. I have no quarrel with those who would include clitoral masturbation as an essential part of the sexual repitoir of all women. But when they go as far as Shere Hite, for instance, and refer to a clitoral orgasm as a "real" orgasm, and a vaginal orgasm as an "emotional" orgasm, they have mistaken the absence of scientific investigation for the presence of proof. Since the "re-discovery" of the Gräfenberg spot, we can resume a line of research that Kinsey left unexplored in Table 174 some thirty-one years ago.
Subsequent to the publication of The G Spot, one study has been reported which includes explicit sexual arousal in the laboratory. In the Spring, 1984 Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Professor Heli Alzate of Columbia (South America) reported that 45 of 48 coitally-experienced subjects reported erotic sensitivity in the anterior vaginal wall, and two-thirds of them either reached orgasm---or asked the experimenter to stop stimulation to prevent orgasm---when stimulated there.
Perhaps even more striking is Alzate's unintentional confirmation of Freud's "developmental" hypothesis. Although all of his subjects were coitally experienced, only 40 percent of them had previously reached orgasm during intercourse. Most were unaware of any vaginal sensitivity at the outset of the experiments. "Most subjects," he writes, "expressed positive feelings about the experience because of the knowledge of their bodies they had gained. Having a vaginal sensation was particularly striking for those who had never climaxed during coitus. One of the women described her erotic sensation at examination as 'like having a clitoris in her vagina'." (galley proofs). Alzate himself accepts the notion that intercourse is "an inefficient method of inducing female orgasm", without integrating his own research
From a psychologist's point of view, it is necessary to consider the negative associations that have been established with the vagina in the young girl. Only two will be mentioned here First, it is still the case that most young girls are taught that their intact hymen is a marketable commodity to be reserved for future use. Although the age of first intercourse keeps dropping, there is still a long period of socially sanctioned vaginal ignorance or sensory anesthesia which must be suddenly overcome upon sexual "maturity".
Second, the first association that many women have with vaginal sensations is the experience of using a tampon. And although I have known a few women who experienced menses as a time of rejoicing in their womanhood, I daresay their reactions were notable exceptions to the rule. For most women, appreciation of vaginal wall sensitivity as a positive, erotic sensation requires overcoming years of monthly negative conditioning
In summary, I would like to suggest that psychologists can no longer be satisfied with the primitive psychology of biologist Alfred Kinsey. It is time to return to our Father, Sigmund Freud, to see what he actually said; to translate Freud's ideas into testable hypotheses, and conduct appropriate empirical research to ascertain the truth about female sexual response. Indeed, that is already being done, and we are discovering that we have all been on a side-track for a third of a century. This is an exciting time to be involved in basic sex research, and I heartily commend it to you.
Scanned, corrected and reprinted September, 1998.
URL is http://www.incontinet.com/kinsey.htm
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Last Edited: 05/04/05