Respond to this Article December 2004

The Joy of Sexology

Does it matter that Alfred Kinsey enjoyed his work more than he let on?

By Christina Larson

In September, Fox Searchlight, a film studio known for such offbeat sleeper-hits as Thirteen and Bend It Like Beckham, arranged one of the first screenings of its upcoming movie, Kinsey, which stars a tweed-clad Liam Neeson as 1940s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Movie previews are often glittering affairs, staged in posh Los Angeles or New York venues, attended by impeccably dressed actors, film critics, and publicists. But the Kinsey screening was different. It was held in a small theater in Washington D.C., and afterwards the guests—a motley crew of bloggers, political reporters, and think-tank denizens—hovered around the director, Bill Condon, lobbing high-minded questions about academic freedoms and rewiring societies. These are not the sort of people, that is, who can ensure a film's financial success.

The event didn't make The Washington Post's gossip column the next morning, but its purpose was different: to win articulate friends. Both the studio and the director knew it needed them. Months earlier, conservative activists had launched an onslaught against the film. Radio host Laura Schlessinger and Judith Reisman, author of a book titled Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud, tried to place ads in a Hollywood trade publication alleging Kinsey was a pervert and a pedophile. (Their ads were declined as obscene.) Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, two social conservative organizations, later bombarded newspaper film critics with mailers impugning Kinsey's character and research. When Kinsey opened to the public, the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a network for chastity educators, organized foot soldiers to picket theaters and hand out pamphlets titled “Casualties of Kinsey.” The group's director, Leslee Unruh, explained that “Kinsey should be looked upon in the history books as Hitler, as Saddam Hussein.”

Other 20th century avatars of sexual open-mindedness don't draw comparisons to perpetrators of mass genocide, including those who came earlier and yelped louder than Kinsey. After all, there was Sigmund Freud, who first popularized talk of sex, including deviant sex, beginning in the early 1900s; Margaret Sanger, who advocated birth control to enable women to separate sex from pregnancy in the 1910s and 1920s; Gore Vidal who lionized gay men in literary fiction in the 1940s; Hugh Hefner, who introduced American men to the Playboy fantasy in the 1950s; Mary Calderone, who promoted sex education and founded SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) in the 1960s—the list goes on.

While conservative pitchforks have been raised at each of these harbingers of the sexual revolution, the anger directed at Kinsey even today, a half century after his death, is unique. For decades, every member of Congress who has tried to choke the spigot of federal funding for sexuality or AIDS studies has hurled invectives at both Kinsey and the University of Indiana research center that bears his name. When the 50th anniversary of his books arrived, conservatives marked the occasion by founding new anti-Kinsey advocacy organizations, such as Restoring Social Virtue and Purity (RSVP). Each year, the Abstinence Clearinghouse devotes two hours of its annual conference to debunking a man whose fame and influence peaked generations ago.

Why does Kinsey hold such a distinct place in conservative crosshairs? The answer is the same reason that his studies of American sexual behavior were so influential when they first appeared. Unlike Freud, whose theories were debated by the educated classes, Kinsey published books that everybody read—or read about. And unlike Henry Miller, Bob Guccione, or Xaviera “the Happy Hooker” Hollander, Kinsey didn't present himself as an advocate of sexual license, but as an objective scientist describing the sexual profligacy and heterogeneity that already existed in American culture. It was the apparent impartiality of his data that so shook America's settled notions of sexuality, as deeply as Darwin's theory of natural selection did the literalist Biblical notions of creation.

As with Darwin, detractors have tried for decades to roll back Kinsey's influence by raising questions about the messenger and the reliability of his enterprise, portraying Kinsey as more pervert than researcher, someone who hid his libertine agenda behind a white lab coat. “Kinsey was a promiscuous sado-masochistic bisexual,” charges CWA's Bob Knight, “who tailored his research to validate his sexual appetite. He sought out sexual perversions—he projected that as picture of average American sex life.”

Those who've protested the release of Kinsey, however, could have saved their energy. Though sympathetic to its subject, the film, directed by Bill Condon, is no naïve hagiography; in some respects, it actually affirms the right's view of Kinsey as a man who was far more than a mere observer of Americans' sexual habits—though, of course, it doesn't condemn Kinsey because of it. The screenplay draws heavily on two recent biographies, James H. Jones's Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's Kinsey: Sex, the Measure of All Things, and focuses on the interplay between Kinsey's personal and professional lives. In Condon's treatment, Kinsey's private anxieties—his rebellion against a puritanical father, his wedding-night sexual humiliation—fueled an unflinching devotion to his research, as well as unconventional relationships with his wife and close associates. In the course of collecting data, he encouraged his close researchers to experiment with multiple sexual partners, and he did the same, welcoming both male and female lovers. He kept his wife, Clara, informed of his carnal explorations, and prodded her to take on other lovers as well.

Notably, in one scene, Kinsey and one of his staff assistants, Clyde Martin, (played by Peter Sarsgaard) share close quarters during a cross-country trip to collect interviews. One night in a hotel room, Kinsey sits on a bed professing his idea of a continuum between heterosexual and homosexual behavior, pondering whether most people had experienced, to at least some degree, both impulses. Martin, gazing at his teacher through half-shuttered eyes, then inquires of Kinsey's own urges. The good doctor admits his inexperience, hesitates, and then succumbs to Martin's purring entreaty, “Would you like to do something about it?” The scene cuts away with a passionate kiss, discreetly leaving the watcher to imagine the ensuing choreography.

Kinsey is not the only recent reinterpretation of Kinsey's life that flings open the bedroom door. T.C. Boyle's new novel, The Inner Circle, finds delicious dramatic potential in Kinsey's relationships, professional and otherwise, with a few of his close staff members. As Boyle explained at a book reading in Washington, D.C., though his scenes and most of the characters are invented, he did attempt to be faithful to the available facts about Kinsey's life. Boyle is certainly no mouthpiece for James Dobson, yet one of the book's themes is the deliberate lengths to which Kinsey must have gone to maintain the respectable image of a disinterested scientist. When one of his research assistants, John Milk (who eventually sleeps with Kinsey's wife) announces that he intends to get married, Kinsey exclaims, “But this is great news! To have you married, Milk—don't you see what this will do for the project? You won't be—and you'll forgive me—so wet under the ears, or appear to be, at any rate.”

Each chronicler of Kinsey's life offers a slightly different take on whether his personal life drove his research, or vice versa. To some, he was a tenacious researcher whose innate curiosity probably helped him get closer to the truth. “Kinsey really was that geeky person, trying to get fastidious collection of entire realm of human sexual experience,” explains Dr. Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington. To others, as Kinsey director Condon explains, Kinsey was “an artist, driven through this very deep personal damage, looking for information that would help to heal him.” And to conservative critics, Kinsey was a pervert lusting after approval for his own fetishes by exaggerating the extent which others shared his predilections.

How quaint it seems now that, during his lifetime, journalists who came knocking for Kinsey saw only a ho-hum professor of zoology, happily married, with no apparent axe to grind. As a contemporary Look magazine article read, “Today on the campus of a Midwest university, a soft-spoken, keen-eyed man is quietly at work—producing a social atom bomb.” But then again, maybe those reporters were on to something: The research was far more interesting than the man. His surveys, not his sex life, produced a social explosion.

Gall wasps, trail mix, and road trips

Kinsey was a part of the generation that Arthur Schlesinger, writing in the Partisan Review in 1949, dubbed the age of the “Statistical Soldier,” when Americans' appetite for approaching social questions by accumulating massive case histories reached its zenith. In the 1940s, George Gallup gained icon status for pioneering political polls; GM sales managers plastered their walls with giant weekly maps of counties coded for color preference of cars; and economist Gunnar Myrdal exposed the systematic effects of racism on African Americans with a multi-volume encyclopedia, An American Dilemma.

The epitome of this scientific obsession with quantification, Kinsey, a tenacious student, escaped an unhappy childhood to study biology at Bowdoin College and later Harvard, before settling down in the comparative bucolic paradise of Bloomington, Ind., as a professor of zoology at Indiana University in 1920. His specialty was the physiology of the gall wasp. Kinsey spent much of the Roaring Twenties on solo cross-country road trips, collecting over a million insect samples, which he meticulously labeled, mounted, and arranged on pins in wooden cases, 800 to a box, to catalogue the minute variations in specimens taken from different hillsides.

A workaholic who munched on trail mix at his desk so he could avoid taking a lunch break, Kinsey published articles attacking what he perceived as the laziness of the current crop of leading taxonomists, claiming they had failed to amass adequate data to provide reliable samples. He later turned his glare to the state of research on sexual behavior, an interest stirred in part by rebellion against his puritanical upbringing, by his post-honeymoon perusal of how-to marriage handbooks (he and his wife, both virgins, had awkwardly failed to consummate their marriage on the honeymoon), and by an outbreak of venereal disease in the late 1930s that left college students nationwide clamoring, under the banner of public health, to update euphemistic marriage courses with instruction about protection and contraception.

In 1938, Kinsey was recruited to teach Indiana University's first “Marriage Course.” Before a giddy, curious, and crowded lecture hall—no surprise that the course was hugely popular—Kinsey pointed to slides of male and female reproductive organs, detailed the six stages of sexual arousal, explained methods of contraception, and lectured on “individual variation,” a biology-derived theme that Kinsey applied to the study of sex. Perhaps reflecting on his own anti-climactic honeymoon experience, he told the marriage class, “In an uninhibited society, a 12-year-old would know most of the biology which I will have to give you in formal lectures as seniors and graduate students.”

Kinsey quit teaching two years later to conduct the first large-scale survey of Americans' sexual experiences. He perfected his interview techniques, developed a shorthand to record answers without disrupting a conversation, trained a handful of research assistants, and hit the road for the 48 states in a modified truck with an extra fuel tank and heavy springs for cross-country terrain that his students had nicknamed the “Kinsey juggernaut.” His goal was to collect 100,000 sexual histories; he ultimately got 18,000.

In 1948, he dissected the nation's sex life in the first of two volumes (of a planned series of nine), Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. He methodically sliced Americans' bedroom experience by marital, premarital, and post-marital experiences; by frequencies of intercourse, masturbation, and orgasm; by preferences for position, foreplay, and gender of partner. In 173 graphs and 162 tables, Kinsey correlated these trends with subjects' occupation, education, hometown, church attendance, age at onset of puberty, and a dozen other variables to find, for example, that better educated couples prolong foreplay; that men and women reach their sexual peak at different ages; that blue-collar workers tended to have affairs earlier in their marriage, while white-collars workers tended to stray later. Physiologically, Kinsey demonstrated that masturbation doesn't cause infertility, that nearly every part of the body is sensitive to some degree of erotic stimuli.

Previously, Americans had to rely on pornography, older siblings, and the family doctor for practical tips about sex. The desire for better information—as well as a natural curiosity about what the neighbors are doing and the fact that a dispassionate aura of scientific respectability surrounded the book—made Sexual Behavior in the Human Male an instant bestseller. It sold 200,000 copies in the first two months, and the publisher kept its presses running through the night to churn out enough copies. Time compared the book's release to the blockbuster publication of Gone With the Wind. Mae West published an open letter to Kinsey in Cosmopolitan, offering to compare notes on sexual histories and practices. At the 1948 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, delegates sported buttons proclaiming, “We Want Kinsey, the People's Choice.” He had given a nation the perfect reason to talk about sex—it was scientific.

Hoosier daddy

Despite his fame and the ballooning speaking fees he could command, Kinsey did not proselytize. He didn't tell anyone what they should do—he didn't need to. His research could speak for itself, and he was determined that it not languish in academic libraries. Before the first volume's release, he had been courted by several publishers. Though he accepted the university's recommendation to sign with an academic rather than a popular press, he worked to ensure provisions for distribution to the lay reader, as well as the specialist. He convinced several journalists to let him review their pre-publication articles for “factual” accuracy and often offered such suggested revisions as putting greater emphasis on the fact that his funding came from the reputable NSF and Rockefeller Foundation. He proposed friends and colleagues as book reviewers at several major papers. The initial response to the book was indeed enthusiastic and respectful.

Kinsey's books changed minds—and the law. Shortly after the first book's release, an influential review in The New York Times called for revising state sodomy laws in accordance with Kinsey's data that such acts were not altogether uncommon. Kinsey had documented that a plurality of younger American men were guilty of at least one act then illegal in some or all states, including premarital sex, homosexual sex, extramarital sex, oral sex with a spouse, anal sex with a fiancée, among others. Within a few years, the American Law Institute recommended decriminalizing consensual acts between adults, and many states subsequently revised their penal codes. His data, and that of subsequent researchers who followed in his wake, armed the lawyers who revised penal codes, educators who created sex-education curricula, and gay rights activists who lobbied for social acceptance and against discriminatory hiring policies that institutionalized their treatment as a deviant underclass. They cited his books, though rarely the man himself. Not everyone saw this as progress. Conservatives and religious leaders resented being told “that our brave men home from the Pacific were adulterers, that their wives had been unfaithful while the heroes were at war,” as WWII veteran Col. Ron Ray, now a spokesman for the anti-Kinsey group RSVP, remembers today. Moreover, they bristled to hear a growing chorus of lawyers and activists argue that penal codes shouldn't have a role in enforcing sexual morality because of what this man Kinsey had dug up.

By the time Kinsey's second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was published in 1953, critics like Billy Graham began to whisper that not only was Kinsey's project tasteless, it must be wrong: His record of brides who weren't virgins at the altar, for example, must be skewed, as “no respectable Christian women” would have participated in such a survey. In other words, they began to question how his motives affected his methods.

Let's talk about sex statistics

Kinsey's hitherto unrecognized talents, both as a lover and a self-promoter, make some people more thankful for his work, others more resentful. But did his fantasies lure him to seek interviews wholly or primarily from a circus of sexually unconventional people, leading to fun-house-mirror distortions in his numbers?

As conservatives rightly point out, and anyone working in the field of sexuality research today will acknowledge, Kinsey didn't obtain a statistically representative sample of America. A modern researcher would have approached Kinsey's quest differently. However, Kinsey was neither lazy nor nefarious in designing his enterprise. He worked at a time before modern social science methods for selecting random population had been developed. “He started at time zero. There was no one whose work he was building on,” says Edward Laumann, a professor sociology at the University of Chicago who in 1992 undertook a modern survey of American sexual behavior. “[Kinsey] was a meticulous scientist and a man of sufficient ego, as am I, that he didn't want to be wrong. So he tried very hard to be right.”

There's no master list of the American population from which researcher can easily sample. So Kinsey devised an elaborate system for identifying as many social groups and settings as possible, which he would then visit to solicit interviews. Alert to the danger that his sample would be skewed if the most sexually experienced people were the most loquacious, he made a point of gathering “100 percent” samples—in other words, hectoring all present at a given location to contribute so that he could have a complete portrait of the sex life of a sorority, a garden club, a gay bar, or a church congregation. He visited all 48 states, though, for practical reasons, the largest percentage of respondents came from the Midwest, especially Indiana and its bordering states. He didn't obtain a statistically representative sample, but not for lack of trying.

Conservatives complain that Kinsey's interviews included prisoners and gay-bar swingers in New York, who gave stories from America's wilder side. That's true, but those interviews comprise a small fraction of the overall sample. In fact, one of his research assistants, Paul Gerhard, subsequently removed the prison samples and reanalyzed the data, finding relatively little difference in the overall results. On the other hand, just under half of Kinsey's male interviewees were white-collar workers, which he far overrepresented as a percent of the population in the late 1940s. He similarly over-sampled college and graduate-school diploma holders. If anything, Kinsey's overall sample was flawed, less by the inclusion of inmates or swingers, than by the inclusion of too many people with higher education, who hit the books instead of the altar in their early and mid-twenties.

Those who imagine Kinsey's subjects were primarily picked up at New York's Automat on 42nd Street, a gay prostitute's hangout, charge that in addition to scraping the bottom of the barrel, Kinsey found people inclined to lie to make their stories even more titillating. As with all interview-based research, it's a valid concern that people may be tempted to exaggerate or deny, especially when the question is how often they sleep with prostitutes or the length of their penis. It would be unfounded to say that no one lied to the good doctor. But we do know from Kinsey's sample that he spoke with far more people whose social backgrounds would incline them to deny incidents of sodomy or extramarital affairs, for example, than to exaggerate them. Moreover, Kinsey took active measures to minimize fabrications. Long before subject review boards, he pioneered the idea of subject anonymity to minimize the incentive to fudge the truth, and he repeated questions to check for consistency. In a few cases, he brought back subjects to retell their sexual histories after several years in order to confirm that he was given the same story.

Like a census taken in a given year, Kinsey's interviews represent a snapshot of some portion of America at a given point in time. There's no perfectly analogous data to compare it to. Kinsey recorded that 6 percent of women and 21 percent of men had sex by age 16; in 1995, a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that 39 percent of men and 45 percent weren't virgins at 16. It's no surprise that the figures from 40 years later are significantly different. University of Chicago's Lautmann thinks, for example, that Kinsey's numbers on premarital sex were indeed too high, in part because he over-sampled college and graduate students who postponed marriage longer than the rest of the population. On the other hand, Kinsey approximated the number of exclusively homosexual males at 4 percent of the population. “In fact it's about 3 percent, so that ain't bad,” says Lautmann.

Granting the flaws in his sampling techniques, symptoms of the social science at the time rather than of any secret agenda, the broad conclusions Kinsey drew from his data have held up—and it's those conclusions that ultimately changed the way a nation talked about sex and subsequently kicked the long arm of the law out of the American bedroom: Homosexuality, premarital sex, and extramarital sex were all more common than previously acknowledged. His sociological observations have also endured. Men and women have different sexual learning curves. Members of different economic classes approach sex differently. Masturbation is almost universal among unmarried men. Abstaining is easy for some, much harder for others.

Dr. Strangelove's legacy

In the same year that Kinsey published his volume, the nation's premiere political pollster, George Gallup, predicted that Dewey would win the presidential election. Heeding his forecast, the Chicago Daily Tribune churned out newspapers with the now-famous headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Gallup's polls had led him astray because, among other things, he had failed to include people who did not own telephones—a significant social indicator at the time—and therefore couldn't answer his calls.

Given the time and context of Kinsey's work, it's a tribute to his ability to recognize and wrestle with scientific obstacles that the trends he recorded were within the ballpark; it's remarkable that inferences drawn from them stand up today.

No one trashed Gallup's legacy for the Dewey mishap. Instead, his name is synonymous with one of today's most prestigious polling firms. Modern pollsters have improved upon his methodology and moved the discipline forward. No one has impugned his motives or his character in order to discredit the modern incarnation of political polling. But when there's sex, there's fire—and for 50 years, Kinsey has been burned at the stake.

Conservatives are inclined to think that science is so much hooey when it's produced by researchers with liberal motivations. Now that Kinsey has been exposed as a bit of a libertine beneath his lab coat, and that view has been popularized by a film and a novel—both written by Kinsey admirers to boot—conservatives may think they have the perfect fodder to debunk Kinsey's work and legacy. But Kinsey's sex life doesn't discredit his research any more than Watson and Crick's ambition undermines the discovery of the double helix. It doesn't undercut modern studies of human sexuality, which continually improve upon Kinsey's sampling techniques and methodology. And it won't change the minds of the majority of Americans who now agree with Kinsey's most profound observation: “There is no American pattern of sexual behavior, but scores of patterns.”

Given that his legacy for changing a nation's conversation and penal codes is firmly in tact, conservatives are left to pick apart his biography: “[Kinsey] was probably a pedophile himself,” CWA's Bob Knight told me, “although there's no solid proof, as of yet, that he molested children, and he may have died from a bizarre incident of masturbation in which he damaged his genitals.” Talk about weird science.

Christina Larson is the managing editor of The Washington Monthly.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2003
The Washington Monthly 733 15th St. NW Suite 520 Washington DC. 20005.
Comments or questions ... please email Christina Larson by clicking here