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The Global Kinsey: Media Coverage, Sex, & Cold War Modernity

Naoko Shibusawa, Brown University

The U.S. press dubbed it the K-bomb. The comparison was irresistible: the Kinsey Report on the Sexual Behavior of the Human Female was launched on August 20, 1953, the very same day the world learned of the Soviet hydrogen bomb.  But the second Kinsey report was not a surprise; it was the much anticipated companion volume to Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male (1949). Both volumes were translated into over a dozen languages and sold hundreds of thousands of copies outside the United States. Around the globe, Kinsey, a middle-aged, family man with three adult children was being hailed as doing “for sex what Columbus did for geography.”

A truly transnational study on media coverage and reception of Kinsey abroad would require archival research on all major continents, but the Library of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus offers some clues in the clippings from domestic and international news outlets and correspondence that Kinsey received from around the world. Seventy-four binders hold 25,293 clippings of media responses to the reports. The vast majority of the clippings come from the United States, but several binders are devoted to European responses and one solely to foreign, non-European responses to the female report. This latter category included European colonies in Asia and Africa. (Non-European foreign responses to the male report are dispersed in general “foreign” responses arranged alphabetically according to nation.) Existing scholarship on foreign responses to the Kinsey reports have been written largely by Europeanists examining the impact of the reports in European nations, and the documents at the Kinsey Institute for the time period show the same bias. So we see that the conversation on Kinsey richest in European nations, as well as in European colonies and industrialized nations such as Japan. This evidence in turns tells us how, where, and why information flowed as it did when the reports first came out.

As U.S. and international media coverage on the Kinsey reports revealed, the reports prompted discussion about a range of issues that ostensibly had nothing to do with sex; they set off soul-searching assessments both within the United States and abroad. Americans used the reports on sexual behavior to assess gender relations, of course, but also class mobility, civil rights, views about work and leisure, the conduct of the Cold War, and scientific "advancement.” Abroad, the Kinsey Reports were used both to measure their own nations and to evaluate the United States. Whether complimentary, dismissive, or harshly critical, the non-U.S. responses to the Kinsey reports nevertheless seemed to accept as axiomatic that intimacies among citizens of the new global hegemon revealed an important core of the global power. Sex measured more than sex. International media coverage of the Kinsey Reports demonstrated how readers around the world used them to in order measure national “progress” or modernity in the era of decolonization.