Carolyn Herbst Lewis: Dropping the K-Bomb

Prescription for Heterosexuality by Carolyn LewisThis week we are happy to have a guest post from Carolyn Herbst Lewis, author of  Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era, which is now available in a new paperback edition. In the book, Lewis explores how medical practitioners, especially family physicians, situated themselves as the guardians of Americans’ sexual well-being during the early years of the Cold War. She argues that many doctors believed that a satisfying sexual relationship with very specific attributes and boundaries was the foundation of a successful marriage, a fundamental source of happiness in the American family, and a crucial building block of a secure nation. She traces how medical professionals gave certain heterosexual desires and acts a veritable stamp of approval while labeling others as unhealthy or deviant.

Today, on the 60th anniversary of the release of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Lewis addresses the context and reaction to the publication in the 1950s and the difficulty of getting medical professionals to alter their definitions of sexual health and sexual citizenship.


Sixty years ago, a great many Americans spent the final weeks of the summer of 1953 thinking about sex. Five years earlier, a hefty scientific volume on the sexual experiences of men had become a surprise bestseller. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male detailed the sex lives of 12,000 American men, revealing incidences of masturbation, premarital and same-sex encounters, and sundry secrets that shocked, intrigued, reassured, and infuriated the nation. Now, it was the ladies’ turn.

Originally scheduled for publication in 1950, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was already three years overdue. Recognizing that this second volume promised to surpass the first in terms of media hype, shock value, and public uproar, the research team’s leader, biologist Alfred Kinsey, had delayed the publication date in order to increase the interview pool. Fearful that his findings would be leaked to the public—and that the U.S. Congress would listen to those calling for an investigation of his Institute for Sex Research on the grounds of suspected communist infiltration—Kinsey released copies for review only to journalists who agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to breathe a word of the contents until August 20, 1953, “K-Day.”

Sexual Behavior in the Human Female skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists amidst both outrage and acclaim. While the Union City, New Jersey Hudson Dispatch asserted that “No Communist Book Could Undermine U.S. Principles as Will Kinsey’s ‘Second Report,'” the Akron, Ohio Beacon Journal commended Kinsey “for tearing the veil from a hush-hush subject.” Retailers quickly picked up on the public’s fascination with all things Kinsey. One lingerie company offered a “Kinsey nightie;” a furniture store gave away the Kinsey volumes with the purchase of a bedroom set. Images of Kinsey and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female were used to sell everything from American automobiles to whiskey. Although the Institute for Sex Research did come under congressional investigation, the public consensus seemed to be that women’s sexuality was as American as apple pie.

The catch, of course, was which women and which sexuality. In the wake of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, various medical professionals used the volume to reinforce the definition of healthy heterosexuality that they had invented and continued to maintain. The good news is that they agreed that healthy women had sexual appetites and enjoyed sex. The bad news is that what counted as “healthy” was limited to intercourse that resulted in a vaginal orgasm. And only if she was married. And preferably if she was trying to conceive. A wide array of desires, activities, and outcomes that the Kinsey Report had revealed were common features of the American sexual experience continued to fall into suspect categories that led to diagnoses of neurosis, frigidity, and perversion. Desire and pleasure were not enough to satisfy the medical definition of healthy. They had to be the right desires and the right pleasures. Deviation was deviant, and women—and men, too, as they had tough parameters of healthy as well—who strayed called all sorts of things into question, including their mental and physical health, their femininity, and their ability to parent.

Even their political affiliations might come under suspicion. As that Hudson Dispatch headline reflected, sexual values were linked tightly to national values. Physicians of the 1950s drew strong connections between sexual satisfaction in marriage, marital stability, community cohesion, and national security. Those couples whose sexual experiences did not reflect the parameters invented by the medical profession risked their own well-being and the proper psychosexual development of future generations. If these building blocks of the nation crumbled, then what hope was there for winning the Cold War?

In rejecting the evidence presented in the Kinsey volumes that contradicted their definitions of sexual health, medical professionals reinforced a brand of sexual citizenship that not only made full citizenship exclusively available to married heterosexuals with children, but also limited those couples’ sexual activities to a strict protocol. It remained difficult for women and men to admit to themselves and others that they had desires and experiences that differed from this vision of normal. The liberation movements of the sixties and seventies would break this silence and force a change in the medical definition of sexual health. Yet, 60 years later, the definition of sexual citizenship remains, if not intact, then certainly pervasive. Hopefully, 60 years from now, this era will seem as quaint as an earlier one in which the contents of a scientific study were likened to an atomic bomb.

This article is crossposted at Nursing Clio.

Carolyn Herbst Lewis is assistant professor of history at Grinnell College. Follow her on Twitter @CaroHerbLew.