Keying Desire: Alfred Kinsey’s Use of Punched-Card Machines for Sex Research
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Keying Desire:
Alfred Kinsey’s Use of Punched-Card Machines for Sex Research

Nineteen - forty was a critical year for the Indiana University (IU) zoology professor Alfred Kinsey. His lifelong interest in entomology was waning, as he had begun to gather the sexual histories of homosexual men and women and their friends in northern Indiana and Chicago. He was preparing his first article on human sexuality, “Criteria for a Hormonal Explanation of the Homosexual,” which sharply criticized research correlating men’s lesser or greater testosterone levels with their sexual preferences. The IU marriage course, during which Kinsey gave illustrated lectures on the anatomy and physiology of human sexual behavior to hundreds of eager undergraduates, was shut down in September after two years by a cautious administration, the university’s dean of women, upset parents, and angry campus physicians. The president of the university gave Kinsey a choice: either he could continue to teach the marriage course under the watchful eye of campus medical staff, or he could continue to gather the histories of faculty, students, and others who provided him with their sex histories in private interviews. For Kinsey, whose strong interest in mass collecting shaped the trajectory of his research life, the decision required little reflection. His part in the marriage course was over, and his amassing of sex histories and organizing of their data increased immediately. In late September of that same year, he drafted a model for understanding gradations in human sexuality, the 0–6 (heterosexuality–homosexuality) scale, in a letter to one of his graduate students.1

Kinsey’s classificatory techniques also reached a turning point in 1940. He moved from using the naked eye and microscope for insect taxonomy to organizing [End Page 105] mass amounts of human sexual behavior data with the help of punched-card machines.2 Kinsey’s rapid adoption of those machines provides insight into the role of technology and mass-produced data in the classification, analysis, and dissemination of sexual knowledge. Some scholars have argued that mid-twentieth-century technologies of classification—particularly punched cards and punched-card sorters—became symbols of depersonalization and alienation in an ever more mechanized world. They note the impersonality of the machines when processing human data: machines separate the data on the card from the individual, thus separating the machine operator and data processor from direct contact or reckoning with the reality of the individual who provided those data.3 As one historian of technology has stated about the late twentieth century, “Every aspect of the human is being converted into computer information.”4 Nonetheless, in the case of Kinsey’s data, aggregating and anonymizing information about human sexuality provided some key groundwork for gay and lesbian civil rights.

Kinsey’s utilization of punched-card machines was indeed a departure from previous forms of sex research, which had focused on qualitative narrative data over quantitative statistical data. Kinsey’s enthusiastic and unapologetic use of machines signaled to academic and psychiatric critics especially that technology had taken over the intimate subject of human sexuality, even if machine-processed quantitative data did not become an integral part of [End Page 106] academic sex research until much later in the twentieth century. For the most part, Kinsey’s adoption of punched-card machines received only minor criticism, and researchers would incorporate machines and data processing into human science research with questions but little resistance.

As is well known, Kinsey and his research team at the Institute for Sex Research (ISR) published two large and dense volumes: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).5 The first (hereafter the Male volume), published the first week of January 1948, was based on 5,300 white American male histories, and the second (hereafter the Female volume), published the third week of August 1953, was based on 5,940 white American female histories. Though much of the volumes’ content and findings were based on punched-card data, the cards and machines themselves have played little part in biographies of Kinsey and histories of the ISR. Previous scholars of Kinsey’s life and work have minimized discussion of his...


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