Alfred Kinsey’s spectrum of human sexuality shocked the world when he published it in 1948. His book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male featured extensive interviews with 5300 people—almost exclusively white males along with a paltry number of racial and ethnic minorities about their sexual histories and fantasies. The second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, came out five years later and made equally shocking claims about the inner lives of 5940 women, also almost exclusively white.
Kinsey’s ethical standards were questionable, especially by today’s standards—much of his research involved sexual contact with his subjects—but he also introduced the world to an idea that previously had little publicity: Human sexuality isn’t confined to the binary hetero- and homosexual standards; rather, it exists on a broad spectrum. Today, most people know that as the Kinsey Scale (though that’s just one way to measure sexuality). It runs from zero to six, with zero being exclusively heterosexual and six being exclusively homosexual. A seventh category, just called “X,” is often interpreted as representing asexuality.
It’s by far the best-known sexuality scale, both for its creator’s fame and for its simplicity, but it’s far from the most accurate or most helpful. In fact, it probably wasn’t ever intended to be a test for participants to take themselves.
Kinsey and his colleagues (among them, his wife) generally assigned their subjects a number based on the interview they conducted. This may be surprising. Many people, sex researchers included, mistakenly believe it was some kind of psychological test conducted exclusively to determine someone’s sexuality. But in a 2014 journal article James Weinrich, a sex researcher and psychobiologist at San Diego State University, dug back into the original Kinsey reports to investigate and found that only a small portion of Kinsey’s subjects were asked to assign themselves a number on the scale. “It was a self-rating only for those asked the question—those who had significant homosexual experience. Otherwise, it was assigned by the interviewer,” he writes.
Since most people’s score on the Kinsey Scale wasn’t their own assessment, it was more or less based on the subjective decision of the expert conductors. That means those online quizzes purportedly telling where you fall on the Kinsey Scale aren’t official in any way.
But that’s not to say that they can’t be useful. Plenty of people—perhaps even most—question their sexuality at some point in their lives. It’s natural. And it’s equally natural to feel anxious, unnerved, or uncomfortable about having feelings that you’re not sure how to categorize or think about. Society has a plethora of negative judgments for anyone who deviates outside of the cisgendered, heterosexual bucket.
Of course, no one has to fall under specific labels. Many men interviewed for sex research, for example, avoid using the term “bisexual” even if they’ve had multiple sexual encounters with other men. San Diego State’s Weinrich spoke extensively with Thomas Albright, one of Kinsey’s original collaborators, who painted a likely far more accurate picture of how the interviews went and the challenges that the study presented. He wrote that a significant percentage of men in the Kinsey sample self-reported that they had “extensive” homosexual experiences, but when asked to rate themselves (men with homosexual experiences were the only ones asked to rate themselves) would self-identify as a zero (exclusively heterosexual) on the Kinsey scale when first asked. If pushed, they might push that back to a one or perhaps a two even as they acknowledge that they receive oral sex from other men.
While just one example, it highlights some of the inadequacies of the Kinsey Scale and of many other attempts to quantify human sexuality. One is that all answers are self-reported, and so rely on people to self-examine. Another is that there may be a disconnect between the attractions a person feels and the label they identify with. Perhaps they only have romantic feelings for people of the opposite sex, but are sexually aroused by men and women.
All of this intricacy is only magnified when you add the spectrum of gender identity. Transgender people, those identifying as gender-fluid or really anything outside of the traditional binary genders are often left out of these sexuality scales.
If you’re questioning your own sexuality, looking at some of these scales might be helpful in getting you to consider aspects of yourself that you might not think of. And if you’re not yet comfortable confiding in another person, these tests and quizzes may be a way of testing ideas and identities. Probably the healthiest way to explore would be with a psychologist who specializes in sexuality (you can find one here, as well as locate all manner of bisexuality-aware health professionals), but if you’re not ready for that step or can’t afford to see someone, these scales may be of some use.
The Kinsey Scale
The oldest and most basic spectrum, the Kinsey Scale is a straightforward numerical scale:
0 - Entirely heterosexual 1 - Mainly heterosexual, little homosexual 2 - Mainly heterosexual, but substantial homosexual 3 - Equally hetero and homosexual 4 - Mainly homosexual, but substantial heterosexual 5 - Mainly homosexual, little heterosexual 6 - Entirely homosexual X - “have no sociosexual contacts or reactions” (Kinsey didn’t use the word “asexual,” but modern researchers interpret the X this way)
Kinsey and colleagues allowed for intermediate numbers, like 1.5, along the scale in keeping with the idea that sexuality is a smooth spectrum. The Kinsey Scale is nice and simple—and that may make it useful to some—but it also focuses on behavior. Cisgender -women who have some unexplored feelings towards other cisgender -women or towards a transgender -woman may not find a place for themselves on the scale if they’ve never acted on those feelings.
The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid
The KSOG tries to remedy some of the nuance that’s not included in the Kinsey Scale. Rather than a single number line, the KSOG is a grid that asks you about sexual attraction, behavior, and fantasies along with emotional and social preferences (and even a few more variables) along a scale from 1 to 7. Importantly, it also asks about these variables in different time scales—past, present, and ideal. (It’s easiest to understand if you take a look at the grid on this page). Perhaps you have historically thought of yourself as an exclusively straight, cisgender male, but now feel some sexual attraction to men like yourself, though you still feel emotionally attached only to cisgender -women. There’s a place for you on the KSOG. There’s also a place for a cisgender -woman who feels equally attracted sexually and romantically to men and women.
It’s downfall is gender identity. In two studies of the KSOG, researchers asked non-cis participants to evaluate the scale on its ability to capture their own sexuality. Many felt it did not. One wrote that “it still does not capture my sexual expression as a genderqueer transwoman for whom the labels “same” and “opposite” sex are incoherent.” Another noted that “As a person who is gender queer and who prefers the same in partners, I have a hard time figuring out if I am homosexual or not! It depends on the solidity of your gender category which I don’t have.”
Multidimensional Scale of Sexuality & MoSIEC
As a reaction to the Kinsey Scale’s limitations, researchers in the 90s developed the MSS and later a more modern version called the Measure of Sexual Identity Exploration and Commitment (MoSIEC). It’s now one of the few (or perhaps the only) scale in the official Handbook of Sexuality-Related Measures.
MoSIEC measures sexuality across four subscales—commitment, exploration, sexual orientation identity uncertain, and synthesis—where participants score themselves on each of 22 statements based on how characteristic they find it. So for example, statement 1 says “my sexual orientation is clear to me,” and you as the test-taker would score yourself on a scale from 1 (very uncharacteristic of me) to 6 (very characteristic of me).
The MoSIEC questions are really intended for researchers, not self-exploration, so we’ll give you the warning here that this isn’t supposed to be a take-at-home quiz. But if you’re curious, you can find the full questionnaire on pages 101-2 of this pdf. The subscores are the averages of the scores for the questions in each subscale, but they’re not divided evenly nor are they in any particular order. For example, the “exploration” subscale is made of up questions 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, and 19. A higher score indicates “higher levels of the measured construct present in the individual” (we did warn you it was for researchers!).
Again, this isn’t a tool intended for lay people, but if you’re really motivated here are the breakdowns for the subscores:
Exploration: 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 19 Commitment: 10, 11, 15, 16, 18, 20 (#15, 16, and 18 are reverse-scored) Synthesis: 4, 7, 13, 17, 22 Sexual orientation identity uncertain: 1, 15, 21 (#1 is also reverse-scored)
The final option: no scoring at all
All of these measures play into both our desire to categorize ourselves as well as our peers, and the necessity of measuring sexuality when it comes to research. But numbers, like labels, can’t possibly capture the complex nature of human sexuality. A quiz or a test can prompt you to consider important questions, but it can’t give you any concrete answers. Don’t stress if you don’t feel like you belong in any one category—nobody really does.