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(BY) On The man who discovered sex
A film about the sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, released this week in Britain, has caused huge controversy in the US and attracted the wrath of Christian lobby groups who have even compared him to Joseph Mengele. Why does Kinsey still provoke such a strong reaction?
Two articles that I found interesting about Kinsey:
The Man who discovered sex: March 5th The Week 05
Alfred Kinsey By Julian Baggini: The Sunday Herald 20 February
How did Kinsey get interested in sex?
In 1938 Kinsey was teaching zoology at Indiana University (specialising in the study of wasps) when he was drafted in to give a course on "marriage" and was appalled to find how little his students knew about sex and how much they feared it. According to a study at the time, 96% of young Americans didn't know the word "masturbation"; when told what it meant 40% thought it caused insanity. The most popular marital guide of the day called oral sex within marriage "the hell gate of the realm of sexual perversion". Kinsey's students often asked him if their habits and desires were "normal"; he had no answer, since no one knew what people did behind closed doors. Kinsey resolved to find out. Having devised a questionnaire of some 300 questions about Americans' sex lives, he travelled the country with four trusted colleagues, jotting down 18,000 "sexual histories". His knack for gaining people's trust (see box) and keeping them honest was vital to his success, but his truly revolutionary breakthrough was philosophical. He approached the sexuality of what he called "the human animal" as a biologist, without imposing any moral judgements.
What did he find?
That Americans were far more sexually adventurous than anyone had previously been willing to admit. In 1948 Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male in which he reported that 85% of white men had had premarital sex, 50% had had extra-marital sex and 69% had visited prostitutes. The Kinsey Report, as it became known, sold 270,000 copies and Kinsey became a celebrity. He was compared to Darwin and Copernicus, and became a favourite punch bag for cartoonists and comedians. But it was one statistic in particular that brought the former zoologist instant notoriety: his contention that 10% of men are gay.
Is that true?
No, and Kinsey never said it. In fact, Kinsey didn't even believe there was such a thing as "a homosexual" or "a heterosexual" - only homosexual or heterosexual acts. What he found was that 37% of men had had at least one homosexual experience, that 10% had been "more or less exclusively homosexual" for at least three years, and that 4% were exclusively homosexual their whole lives (that last figure has been largely verified). Kinsey also developed a scale of 0 to 6, with 0 being purely heterosexual and 6 being purely homosexual. People who fell at the extremes of 0 or 6, he said, were rare. Moral traditionalists were out-raged, accusing Kinsey of deliberately promoting homosexuality. That charge was buttressed years after Kinsey's death, when biographer James Jones revealed that Kinsey, though married, frequently had sex with men.
Did Kinsey have an agenda?
Yes, but it wasn't just about homosexuality. Kinsey was raised in a strict Methodist household, and grew up wracked with shame about his body and his adolescent urges. He wanted to persuade the world that sex was natural, and was determined "that no one else should suffer as he had suffered," said biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Kinsey liked to point out that because America's morality laws prohibited oral sex and other "deviant" acts, even within marriage, 95% of the people he met were sex criminals. Though he posed as a neutral observer, he believed that social mores should be more in line with actual behaviour, and promoted tolerance for everything from masturbation to, in some cases, paedophilia. "There are only three kinds of sexual abnormalities," he once said. "Abstinence, celibacy, and delayed marriage."
How did that go down?
Not so well. Critics said his data was skewed by the way he purposely sought out fringe groups, including prisoners and men who frequented gay bars. In fact, Kinsey’s findings were fairly sound. He weighted his sample to minimise the influence of non-typical groups. But he did play fast and loose with the way his results were presented. He encouraged the media to sensationalise his findings, and always spoke as if more and varied sex was inherently preferable to the opposite. The grumbling about Kinsey's first book, however, was nothing compared with the storm that followed its sequel.
What was his second book?
Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. The typical pre-Kinsey attitude toward female sexuality was summed up by a marriage manual of the time: for men, it said, sex was as-easy as falling off a log, for women, it was "as simple as being the log". In 1953 many men did not know that women could have orgasms, and those who did assumed that sexual intercourse was the sole means to that end. Kinsey showed that most women needed some form of direct clitoral stimulation. He also reported that 63% of women masturbated, and that 14% were capable of multiple orgasms. He also revealed that half of married women had had premarital sex, and that of those, 77% had no regrets. A nymphomaniac, said Kinsey, is "someone who has more sex than you do".
What was the reaction?
Horror. American men were not ready to hear that their mothers and daughters were sexual creatures. "It's impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America," said evangelist preacher Billy Graham. The
backlash included congressional hearings, obscenity charges, and an FBI investigation. Kinsey was branded a communist out to destroy the
American family. Depressed and stressed, he died of heart failure at 62.
Did he die a failure?
He thought so, but his work changed the world and paved the way for the sexual revolution. One by one, states undid laws against fornication, adultery, and sodomy, usually citing Kinsey as their authority. Schools began to teach sex education based on his principles. Today, people who see the sexual revolution as a giant step forward and those who see it as the beginning of America's descent into moral degeneracy agree on one thing: Alfred Kinsey was the man who got it all started.
The secret life of a sex researcher
Kinsey earned America’s respect in part because he looked the very model of a conservative academic – with his grey suit and polka dot tie – said Gore Vidal who was one of his early interviewees, he just ‘looked terribly grey’. But appearances, as James Jones revealed in his 1997 biography, were deceptive. Kinsey and his wife were both virgins when they married, but his work transformed them into sexual enthusiasts. Kinsey had sex with men in his inner circle and encouraged others to have sex with his wife.
In fact, Kinsey’s staff and their wives had sex with one another in every conceivable combination. He used his attic to film hundreds of people engaged in a wide variety of sex acts. For example a 60-year old woman called Alice was roped in for sex with his researchers, because she was able to have dozens of organisms during intercourse. All of this Kinsey insisted, was a necessary part of the research.
Alfred Kinsey’s groundbreaking research was going to tear down barriers,
lift taboos, liberate men and women alike.
So what stopped the sexual revolution?
By Julian Baggini
Three years after an atomic explosion hastened the end of the second world war, a metaphorical A-bomb heralded the start of a global revolution. It was 1948, and Alfred C Kinsey’s revolutionary report, Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male, had just been published. Nearly 60 years later, the sexual revolution Kinsey is credited with starting is still not complete, and if we want to understand why, the new biopic of that pioneering researcher provides plenty of clues. Kinsey and his team interviewed 18,000 men for his first, groundbreaking report. His findings created such a stir that the initial print-run of 25,000 sold out in days. The study claimed that 37% of men had had at least one homosexual experience, 92% masturbated and 69% had had sex with prostitutes. Five years later, the follow-up report on the human female was just as shocking, suggesting that 13% of women had had a homosexual experience, 50% had had premarital sex, and 62% masturbated.
Although some of his methods have been questioned – a number of his interviewees were prisoners – in a sense, the details don’t matter. The mere fact that he had set out to document the sex lives of real people, simply presenting his findings, changed the way we saw sex forever. Most importantly, it led to a fundamental questioning of what was normal, healthy or deviant paving the way for the sexual revolution.
Kinsey was an unlikely revolutionary. A zoologist who dedicated 20 years of his life to the study of gall wasps, he seemed the epitome of the detached, dispassionate nerdy scientist. So when his employer, Indiana University, decided to offer a marriage course to its students, Kinsey must have seemed like a safe choice to impart the basic biological facts, free from any hint of prurience.
With hindsight, Indiana’s appointment was laden with symbolic portent. Before Kinsey, the clergy had the greatest authority to speak on human sexuality, and exercised this power to sustain its own moral agenda. Kinsey marked the arrival of the scientist as chief authority: one who would provide advice and information which was supposedly morally-neutral. This shift was a necessary prerequisite for the sexual revolution that was to follow. For those who were optimistic about the progressivist Enlightenment project, it marked another step in the replacement of old-fashioned superstitious dogma with modern, scientific fact.
Today, however, there has been a loss of faith in the idea of human progress led by science and reason. In the United States, the erosion of Enlightenment values is nowhere more evident than in the growth of a form of abstinence-based sex education which seems designed to keep people in the same state of ignorance as Kinsey’s first marriage course students. Whereas Kinsey was taught as a child that masturbation can lead to blindness and impotence, some American children are now being told that Aids can be transmitted by kissing and petting. Ignorance and fear are back, and being used as blunt weapons by new conservatives determined to reverse the sexual revolutionaries’ hard-won gains, and keep budding sexual desire in check.
Those hoping to resist this anti-liberal backlash need to re-examine Kinsey’s revolutionary ideals .The first rule of war is to know your enemy, and if Kinsey was struggling against anything, it was ignorance. One of his prime motivating thoughts was the extraordinary fact that we knew more about the sexual behaviour of other animals, even gall wasps, than about human sexuality. This was an aberration Kinsey’s studies did a great deal to remove. Not that the fight against ignorance is complete. Sex education is still woefully inadequate in most schools, even without the influence of the more pernicious abstinence-based programmes.
The rise of the scientist as an authority allowed good quality, factual information to become available to all. But science’s strength is also its limitation. Science deals with facts, and as the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out in the early days of the Enlightenment, there is a logical gulf between what merely is and what ought to be. The scientist can describe, but cannot prescribe. Nor is the scientist in a position to predict or control how the knowledge produced will be used by others or influence society. Much of the new fear of science, though excessive, is premised on the truth that scientists can let genies out of bottles, which they are then unable to force back in.
This is why the new sexual openness that the Kinsey report pioneered has not all been beneficial. While it is undoubtedly good that the truth about human sexuality is out in the open, we may legitimately wish to keep our own sexual lives private. But the very idea that sex can be an intimate relation between two people that is no concern of others can seem strangely quaint in a world where sex is presented as “no big deal” and subject to public scrutiny.
Similarly, you don’t have to be a latter-day Mary Whitehouse to believe that the saturation of popular culture with sex has some negative effects. Sex has not so much been allowed out into the open as marched out in mass battalions to occupy it. This runs counter to the spirit of another of Kinsey’s genuinely valuable insights: that people’s sexuality can be distorted and unhealthily constrained by societal pressures. Kinsey saw the unnecessary guilt and torment of teenagers taught that masturbation, a temptation few could resist, could lead to impotence and blindness. He also knew how many people were living a lie, concealing their homosexuality from a society that equated difference from the norm with perversion. And he experienced first hand how ignorance could ruin a wedding night; his virgin wife found their attempts to consummate their union too painful, and Kinsey was too humane to insist on his conjugal rights regardless. They were at least able to ensure it didn’t ruin their marriage.
What Kinsey did not foresee, however, is that the sexual revolution, while sweeping away some pressures, would introduce new ones of its own. Part of the fascination of the endless real-life stories and Cosmo-style sex surveys is that people desperately want to know how their sex lives compare with those of their peers. This brings its own anxieties. Have I had enough sexual partners? Have I had too many? Am I a prude because I don’t enjoy fellating my partner? Is my relationship doomed because we don’t have sex regularly any more? Is every heterosexual but me really trying out anal intercourse? Kinsey wanted to liberate people by showing them the diversity of sexual preferences and practices, so we would be free to be ourselves. Yet the sexual revolution has created its own paradigm to which we feel pressured to conform. If sex isn’t a guilt-free, regular, emotionally uncomplicated part of our lives, we feel like failures.
This is where the zoologist in Kinsey really did lead him astray. In one sense, we are of course “human animals”, as Kinsey described us. For him, sex was just a biological function like eating and defecating. It is only society that stops us recognising this fact and living accordingly. Now we can see the naivety and simple-mindedness of this view. Most people who have experimented with “free love”, including most of Kinsey’s inner circle, saw those experiments ultimately fail because emotions get in the way. For better or for worse, the affective dimension in sexual relations is not an artefact of society, but a natural part of how human beings relate.
If this is true, then the idea that sex can always be emotionally uncomplicated is a utopian myth. Not all sexual encounters are based on love and affection, of course. But only a minority of us can keep our feelings and our sex lives separate in the long run. Kinsey was right to examine sex as a natural human function which is not shameful in itself. But he was wrong to see it as no more than a biological function.
Kinsey also misunderstood his own insight that diversity is life’s one irreducible fact, and so there is no such thing as normal sexuality, only more or less common varieties. Kinsey was led to this conclusion by his work on gall wasps. None of the 2000 specimens he had examined were identical. And if something as simple as a gall wasp displayed infinite variety, then surely humans, and their sexual behaviours, would too.
Kinsey was right. But again, he drew the wrong conclusion. The fact that there is no such thing as normal sexuality does not mean that ideas of right and wrong, or better and worse, can be dispensed with completely. This is evident in a scene in the new movie when Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson, and his assistant Wardell Pomeroy, played by Chris O’Donnell, are interviewing a man who can only be described as a sexual omnivore. Among his countless sexual encounters are many with pre-pubescent boys and girls. In the film, Pomeroy walks out in disgust.
For Kinsey, this was a lapse in scientific objectivity. His interviewers needed to be completely non-judgemental. However, there is ambiguity – if not a downright confusion – about what scientific neutrality requires. Impartiality and an open mind are important in scientific research . But it is much more problematic to claim that this neutrality must go all the way down, and that nobody is ever entitled to make judgements on the people being studied.
This has been the great mistake of the kind of absolute relativism that’s come to be associated with progressive thinking. Tolerance and acceptance of diversity are good , but they have their limits. Yet in their unwillingness to appear judgemental, liberals have been reluctant to condemn practices that are not just statistically unusual but plain wrong. A man who likes having sex with meat pies is just unusual; one who rapes minors is immoral. To say this is not to renege on Kinsey’s initial insight about diversity, but simply to draw out its implications carefully.
Ironically, this very embrace of the plurality of sexuality is responsible for the one misguided value judgement often implied by the sexual revolutionaries. If we are serious about diversity, then we should have no problem with the so-called “asexual” who have little interest in sex, or the sexually conservative. Yet such people are often thought of as “repressed” or “unhealthy”. You can have any kind of sex you want, it seems, but you must have plenty of it. Far from being in the spirit of sexual diversity, such an attitude is itself narrow and repressive.
Unless we learn from Kinsey and his followers’ mistakes, the sexual revolution can never be completed and may even be reversed. Sex should be out in the open, but that doesn’t mean it should be everywhere, or that individuals do not have a right to privacy. There is no such thing as normal sexuality, but that doesn’t mean literally anything goes. Sex is natural, but the natural is no guide to the good. And perhaps most important of all, we should not replace the tyranny of one misguided view of human sexuality with another which, though aiming to liberate us, can instead only shackle us in another kind of chains.
Kinsey should be applauded for leading the revolution, but true sexual liberation still eludes us.
Julian Baggini is the author of What’s It All About?: Philosophy And The Meaning Of Life, Granta, £12.99.
The new film Kinsey is out on March 4
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