Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A first-of-its-kind longitudinal sex survey found that 50 percent of unmarried women and 33 percent of married women had experienced sexual or emotional desire for women. Katharine Davis’s study set the stage for research, including that of the better-known sexologist Alfred Kinsey, on lesbian and gay lives in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1920, scholars could not legitimately study the sexual desires and experiences of the general public. Religious and cultural views defined normal behavior; unacceptable behavior was considered uncommon, present only among social deviants. Attempts to counter this moral stronghold with data were met with derision and political blockades. [kw]Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal (1929) [kw]Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal, Davis’s Research Identifies (1929) [kw]Sexuality as Common and Normal, Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian (1929) Homosexuality;early studies of Lesbian sexuality;early studies of[studies] Sexology [c]Science;1929: Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal[0300] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1929: Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal[0300] Davis, Katharine Bement Rockefeller, John D., Jr.

Homosexuality in men was recognized among a small stereotyped group of men, but homosexuality in women was a definite threat. The early 1900’s and World War I brought growing social and economic independence for women, with lesbian sexuality regarded as threatening to erode marriage and family. Higher education especially was coming under fire for “uselessly” preparing women for roles outside the domestic sphere and for its assumed tendency to foster “unnatural” desires among women.

Within this context, penologist and social worker Katharine Bement Davis launched an in-depth and revealing survey of women’s sexuality. The survey’s report, Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-two Hundred Women, Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women (Davis) Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women, Factors in the (Davis) contained more than two hundred statistical tables as well as charts and case studies, and was published in 1929.

Davis had by this time distinguished herself from the norm in many arenas. She was one of the first women in the United States to earn a social sciences doctorate and the first woman in New York City government to hold a top position. Davis studied social deviants: women in the penal system of New York. As superintendent of the state reformatory for women, she developed systems for psychological, moral, and physical evaluations of convicted women. Through this system, shorter sentences were given to women identified as easily rehabilitated while lengthier terms were given to those identified as incorrigible offenders in order to prevent “defective” women from perpetuating their kind (in keeping with Davis’s eugenicist principles).

Davis asserted that deviance could not be understood without a thorough understanding of “the norm,” defined as women able to adjust satisfactorily to their social group. She devised a lengthy questionnaire on the sex lives of women, including autoerotic practices, frequency of sexual desire, use of contraceptives, frequency of intercourse, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and emotional and physical intimacy with other women.

Her study was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through the Bureau of Social Hygiene. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., founded the bureau in the hope of funding sex research. However, leadership within the bureau defined a more moderate agenda, consisting of the study of crime, especially related to drugs and prostitution, with a smaller emphasis on birth control, maternal health, and sex education. Davis became general secretary and member of the board of directors of the bureau in 1918, and it was from this role that she began her study.

Questionnaires were distributed through women’s club and college alumnae lists as part of a search for women who had graduated from college no more than five years before the start of the study. The study focused on upper-middle-class, educated, predominantly white women, who were considered to have greater intelligence, and thus more social importance, than the population at large; they thus had the social capital to be considered “normal.” Investigating college graduates, both married and unmarried, also would allow Davis to confront suspicions that lesbian sexuality and the higher education of women were threats to the American family.

Across the seven years that the study was active, one thousand married women and twelve hundred single women, ages twenty-one to eighty-three, responded to the questionnaires. Davis’s findings normalized many types of sexual expression: 71 percent of married respondents reported sex before marriage; 60 percent of respondents had masturbated. Approximately 50 percent of single women and 33 percent of married women reported intense emotional feelings for other women, and half of these identified these feelings as sexual. More important, analyses identified few statistical differences between married and single women who reported these feelings and few differences between this combined group and the other women in the study. Sex with women was not associated with any decrease in overall happiness, and married women with lesbian experience prior to marriage adjusted to marital sex as well as did other women. Thus, Davis framed lesbian sexuality as a common trait among women rather than as an exclusive identity that undermined “family values.”

Davis encountered significant resistance to her study. The publication of its results came with the bureau’s request for Davis’s retirement in 1928. The study sold well in popular and scholarly circles but the results were given select attention. Statistics on premarital and marital sex were cited heavily, but little notice was given to Davis’s overall conclusions. Her findings on sex without men and on women’s sexual desires was routinely ignored.


At a time when normalcy was defined primarily by moral imperative, Davis countered with an emphasis on actual behavior and statistical normalcy. In this way, she was able to redefine lesbian sexuality and place it within the norm of mainstream womanhood rather than within the category of deviant behavior on the margins.

Also, Davis’s survey paved the way for the field of sex research in the United States. In 1922, the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex Committee for Research in Problems of Sex Sex, Committee for Research in Problems of (CRPS) was founded through support by the Rockefeller Foundation, and it operated in cooperation with Davis’s Bureau of Social Hygiene. Alfred Kinsey Kinsey, Alfred joined the CRPS in 1941, and his work was initially funded through this organization. Kinsey’s work continued Davis’s foundational work in normalizing homosexuality through statistical accounting (for example, Kinsey’s 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male reported that 37 percent of males had experienced at least one sexual encounter with another male).

Both Davis and Kinsey are considered forerunners of the work of Masters and Johnson, who, in the 1950’s, were the first to study sex in a laboratory setting. Kinsey’s work also became the catalyst for Harry Hay’s founding of the Mattachine Society by providing evidence that gays and lesbians existed in large enough numbers to be an organizable minority. Homosexuality;early studies of Lesbian sexuality;early studies of[studies] Sexology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Katharine Bement. Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-two Hundred Women. New York: Harper and Bros., 1929.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deegan, Mary Jo, ed. Women in Sociology: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ericksen, Julia A., and Sally A. Steffen. Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faderman, Lillian. To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzpatrick, Ellen. Endless Crusade: Women Social Scientists and Progressive Reform in America, 1830-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Katharine Bement Davis, Early Twentieth-Century American Women, and the Study of Sex Behavior. New York: Garland, 1987.

May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

1869: Westphal Advocates Medical Treatment for Sexual Inversion

1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion

May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

1905: Freud Rejects Third-Sex Theory

1948: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

1952: APA Classifies Homosexuality as a Mental Disorder

1953: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

1953-1957: Evelyn Hooker Debunks Beliefs That Homosexuality is a “Sickness”

December 15, 1973: Homosexuality Is Delisted by the APA

April 20, 2001: Chinese Psychiatric Association Removes Homosexuality from List of Mental Disorders

Categories: History Content