External Articles | Posted: June 23, 2011
The bedroom and beyond
Alfred Kinsey's reports into sexual behaviour were greeted with disbelief and horror. And, despite the sexual revolution he helped to usher in, Kinsey is controversial again. Mick Brown goes in search of the truth about "Dr Sex".
theage.com.au, November 13, 2004
When Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female was published in 1953, the forces of moral outrage and indignation rose against Alfred Kinsey. With the Female report and with Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male , published five years earlier, Kinsey tore back the bedsheets and shone a bright and unremitting light on a field of human behaviour where science had never before dared to venture.
The "Kinsey reports" appeared to draw a sharp and shocking distinction between what society deemed to be "normal" sexual behaviour and what people actually did. In a society where sexual behaviour was rigidly policed by moralists, the churches and the law, Kinsey's dispassionate observations that premarital intercourse, homosexuality, even bestiality, were all part - albeit a hidden part - of the fabric of American life, were incendiary.
Today, Kinsey's revelations seem almost mundane. Some people are gay; women have premarital sex; some men sleep with other men's wives. Quelle surprise! Kinsey has been dead for almost 50 years. Why then should he suddenly be a figure of controversy once more?
A film about Kinsey's life will be released in the US next week. Written and directed by Bill Condon, Kinsey stars Liam Neeson in the title role. At the same time, coincidentally, comes the publication of a new novel, The Inner Circle , by T.C. Boyle, which examines Kinsey and his work through the lens of an imagined autobiography by his first research associate.
Even before its release, Kinsey has been the subject of a sustained attack in the media and on the internet by conservative and church groups, which once again are denouncing Kinsey as the architect of moral degeneracy. One might reasonably ask, why?
In Kinsey's view, there were no "homosexuals", only homosexual acts.
Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1894. His father, a teacher, was a devout Methodist who regarded singing and dancing as ungodly activities and who inculcated in Kinsey a strong sense of guilt about his adolescent sexual urges. In later life, Kinsey would become vehemently anti-religion, considering it a root cause of sexual repression and therefore human misery. He remained a virgin until 27, when he married Clara McMillen - Mac, as he called her. Their first son died at three, but the couple went on to have two daughters and a second son.
Kinsey trained as a biologist and it was as an assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University that he embarked on the first of the two great scientific projects of his life - the study of the gall wasp. Over the course of some 20 years, Kinsey travelled back and forth across America, studying more than 160,000 gall wasps, carefully annotating their microscopic differences. He would bring the same rigorous attention to detail to his study of sexual behaviour.
The period in which Kinsey grew up was one of pervasive ignorance and guilt about sex. In some American states, premarital intercourse was a felony. Oral sex was an imprisonable offence.
Such sex education as existed - virtually none - came under the category of "hygiene".
In 1938, after students at Indiana University had begun to agitate for more sex education, Kinsey was invited to design and present an extramural course on marriage. Appalled at the ignorance of his students and the paucity of reliable scientific information about sexual behaviour, Kinsey began collecting sex histories, initially among the student and teaching body and then beyond. By 1940, he had catalogued 1692 histories and received the first official recognition of his work with grants from the National Research Council and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Kinsey assembled around him a small and trustworthy team of colleagues: Clyde Martin, Wardell Pomeroy and Paul Gebhard - "the inner circle". He broadened the scope of his research, crisscrossing America, interviewing whoever crossed his path - Rotarians and housewives, legislators and farmhands, prostitutes and prison inmates. He took particular pains to infiltrate the hidden world of homosexuals, at a time when homosexuality was not only a crime but widely regarded as a disease. Kinsey concluded that variation in sexual behaviour was so great as to make any definition of "normality" meaningless.
The first volume of Kinsey's findings, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male , based on the sexual histories of 5300 men, was published in 1948. According to Kinsey, 90 per cent of the men interviewed admitted to having masturbated, 85 per cent had engaged in premarital coitus and around 40 per cent had had extramarital affairs.
Most controversial were Kinsey's findings about homosexuality. In Kinsey's view, there were no "homosexuals", only homosexual acts.
He devised an "H-scale", showing homosexual behaviour on a continuum, from 0-6. According to Kinsey, 37 per cent of men had taken "at least some overt homosexual experience" to orgasm.
Ten per cent had been more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years and 4 per cent were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives.
The report sold 200,000 copies within two months. Broadly welcomed by academics, physicians and psychologists, it was attacked by the churches and conservative institutions. The anthropologist Margaret Mead said Kinsey had reduced sex "to the category of a simple act of elimination".
The response to Kinsey's second volume, on female sexuality, published five years later, was to prove even more vehement. Based on 5940 interviews, Kinsey's findings suggested that 50 per cent of all women and 60 per cent of female college graduates had engaged in coitus prior to marriage, and about 25 per cent of all married women had engaged in extramarital sex. More than half the female population masturbated and 43 per cent had performed oral sex with men.
The reaction was widespread shock.
It was one thing for men to have been revealed as sexual creatures, but to suggest the same of American womanhood was simply too much to bear. Kinsey, it was suggested, had clearly confined his inquiries to prostitutes (notwithstanding the appendix listing the occupations of all of his interviewees: they included an acrobat, bus girl, business executive, judge, a Salvation Army officer and a UN delegate).
In the face of controversy, Kinsey strove to protect his reputation and that of his institute by presenting a public face of the utmost sobriety and moral rectitude: the happily married father of well-adjusted children; a man who drank only sparingly and abhorred smoking; whose principal passions were his garden and classical music. All of which was true - up to a point.
It was not until the publication in 1997 of a biography by the American writer James H. Jones that another side of Kinsey and his work began to emerge. Not only, Jones alleged, was Kinsey himself homosexual - somewhere around four on his own "H-scale" - but his quest for knowledge had also driven him to the furthest margins of masochistic sexual behaviour, including circumcising himself without anaesthesia and inserting objects into his urethra. Furthermore, among his inner circle a culture of free love had prevailed that Kinsey had actively encouraged.
Paul Gebhard had just completed his doctorate in anthropology at Harvard when he was introduced to Kinsey by his professor, who felt that Gebhard would be interested in his work. They met in 1946 at the Astor Hotel in New York. Kinsey, typically, quickly persuaded Gebhard to give his own sex history and then asked him to guess the incidence of male homosexuality. "I guessed it was rather rare - 1 or 2 per cent," Gebhard told me.
Kinsey took Gebhard on a tour of Times Square, culminating in a visit to the male urinals at Grand Central Station. "He said, 'Just stand here and watch'. I'd been in that place 100 times and never noticed; it was just a hive of homosexual activity."
Duly impressed, Gebhard decamped to the Bloomington campus of the University of Indiana to join the research. "I felt that it was anthropology; we were just studying our own culture instead of some primitive culture. And I felt this was really important, pioneering work.
We all felt that way."
Gebhard's first task was to learn Kinsey's questionnaire. Kinsey had devised a position-based code consisting of more than 300 squares, each representing one piece of data - age at puberty, first coitus, etc. Interviews took about three hours, and respondents were identified only by number, their names filed separately, accessible by another code known only to Kinsey and his closest associates.
"It was a beautifully designed piece of work," Gebhard said. "The problem was the interviewer had to memorise the whole thing. Combined with learning the interviewing technique, it took me at least six months to get good at it.
"We'd never use the phrase 'Did you ever'. We'd just assume the person had done everything. So we might ask, when was the first time you had sex with any other animal. People often went, 'Whaat!' when you asked that. But we'd say, 'farm boys, pretty common - how about you'? The funny thing is we'd pick up more than you would have anticipated, mainly pet dogs and stuff like that."
It was when Gebhard began talking about what went on in Kinsey's attic that the full measure of his dedication to sex research really became clear. For four or five years, Kinsey had been travelling across America, questioning people on their sexual behaviour, but he needed more. Kinsey realised that in order to know about the neurology and physiology of sex it was necessary not only to question, but also to observe.
So, in conditions of the utmost secrecy, volunteers were taken up to the attic of Kinsey's home where a "workbench" was in place. "We were never able to afford a physician," Gebhard said. "The best we could do was observe and maybe stop-watch it. Trying to get pulse and blood pressure was just too complicated - we couldn't hang on and it distracted them."
It wasn't long before Kinsey's team began filming what went on in the attic. "It made sense,'' Gebhard said.''Kinsey told us, 'We're missing a lot by only observing people. If we're watching their face, we don't know what their legs are doing. And vice versa.' Filming gave you the whole picture."
Mac took it all in her stride, Gebhard remembered. "We'd bring people in - and of course the children had left home by then - and Mac would greet them at the door, then they'd go upstairs, and after they were done they would be lying on the bed, and the door would open and here would be Mac - 'I thought you might like some iced tea and persimmon pudding'."
Thrashing bodies, faces transfixed in a rictus of pleasure - keep that camera rolling! Can you get a temperature reading, Gebhard? It all seems, on the face of it, a distinctly odd business. Sex research is one of the few vocations where suspicions might be aroused that a man enjoys his work too much. But, Gebhard stressed again, this was science. Kinsey felt he could study sex only by stripping away all but its physiological functions. Raw data was the key.
But of course, the line between sex and feelings is not so easily drawn. It is this that T.C.Boyle concentrates on in his novel, The Inner Circle . Written in the form of an autobiography, it tells the story of "John Milk", an affable, ingenuous undergraduate who joins Kinsey as an assistant and quickly falls under his spell.
Embracing Kinsey's libertarian philosophies, Milk has sex first with Kinsey and then with his wife, Mac. But trouble starts when Milk's new wife, Iris, begins an affair with another colleague that tilts dangerously towards love.
Boyle says that the book is not biographical fiction; but it sticks closely to fact, not least in its depiction of how Kinsey's libertarian sexual philosophies came to inform the behaviour of his closest colleagues. The John Milk of Boyle's novel is a clear surrogate for Clyde Martin, Kinsey's first research associate. Martin was a 21-year-old economics major at Indiana University when he first met Kinsey in 1939. Kinsey warmed to the young man, initially employing him to help in his garden, then enlisting him to work as a statistician on the nascent sex project. The relationship quickly developed.
His affair with Martin seems to have begun shortly after Martin became his assistant - Martin assenting more in a spirit of respect than enthusiasm. Kinsey was quite open with Mac about this. When Martin then asked whether he might sleep with Mac, Kinsey was astonished, but agreed to put the proposal to her. Mac happily assented.
This model of an open marriage apparently became the template for Kinsey's inner circle. In 1941, Martin was joined on the team by Wardell Pomeroy, an enthusiastic adherent to Kinsey's credo of guilt-free sexual enjoyment, and his wife, Martha. By the time Gebhard arrived in Bloomington in 1946, an uninhibited atmosphere prevailed among Kinsey's closest associates and "friends of the research".
'Kinsey simply said that whatever people want to do sexually, if there's mutual consent, it was fine with him," Gebhard said. "And if the staff wanted to do so, then great. He didn't tell us to do it exactly, but he made it clear that he sort of expected it."
Not, Gebhard added, that there was much resistance. "I felt like a child that fell in a candy store."
By now Martin was married, to another Indiana student named Alice. When Martin left town on a research trip with Kinsey, Gebhard and Alice began an affair. Nothing unusual there. The problem started when it became, as Gebhard put it, "too intense". A wounded Martin brought the affair to the attention of Kinsey.
Kinsey, said Gebhard, was a firm believer in marriage. He also believed that to a couple unburdened by guilt and repressive social convention, extramarital sex should pose no threat. But romantic love was dangerous. Kinsey told Gebhard it had to stop.
In T.C. Boyle's novelised account Kinsey emerges as a sort of sacred monster - part genius, part tyrant - a man with the gift to bestow sexual freedom and then withdraw it at will when it became inconvenient.
"It was his power that interested me," Boyle says. "Firstly to persuade all these average people to give out their sexual histories to him and trust him as though he were their doctor. And further, to then involve this small, select group in his libertine sexual mores; so that even if a character like 'John Milk' has some scruples and some second thoughts, they're all buried in this wash of reassurance and the charisma of Kinsey, who controls their destiny in some way."
"You've been to the house?" Anne Call, Alfred Kinsey's eldest daughter, gave a fond smile when I explained that Gebhard had taken me there to show me the attic. "We were so happy there."
At 80, Call remains a remarkably vigorous woman. She long ago made it a rule not to talk to the media about her father, but she had decided to make an exception. So much had been written about him over the years, she said, so little of it true.
People had the idea that because of her father's work the standards in the Kinsey home were somehow more lax than they should have been, she said, but nothing could be further from the truth. At the age of 14, Call and her brother and sister were all sat down by both parents and given a tutorial on the facts of life.
Much later, her father recorded her own sexual history, just as he did with almost everybody he came into contact with. "It was scientific. It was just practical and for a good cause. I believe that Daddy was as pure a scientist as you will find," she said.
When James Jones' book was published, Call refused to read it, but she was aware of the things it said about her father: "I'm just glad Mother wasn't alive to read it."
Did she believe her father was bisexual? "I absolutely do not believe that."
And the affair with Clyde Martin? Call drew in her breath. "First of all my father's ethics were above reproach and that would not have fitted his ethical standard; absolutely not."
There was something both poignant and puzzling in this answer. One could understand Call's determination to defend her father's reputation. But would Kinsey himself have regarded bisexual activity or adultery as disgrace? Surely not.
What then of the suggestion that her mother had an affair with Martin? "My mother would be the last person in the world to have an affair. She was really pretty square. Their personal lives were pretty much by the rules of the day; you stayed true to the person you were married to."
In 1954, in the wake of the furore that greeted the Female report, the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew its funding for the Kinsey Institute. Kinsey, who had planned further studies - on homosexuality, prison inmates and prostitution - was devastated.
"He felt that what he'd done had been disregarded; that Rockefeller had betrayed him," Gebhard remembered. "He became slightly paranoid towards the end, comparing himself with Galileo and so on. He always had a substantial ego, but anyone of a weaker ego could never have done what he did." Kinsey died in 1956, at the age of 63.
How significant was Kinsey's legacy? He has been described as the architect of the sexual revolution, held accountable for all its manifold blessings and evils. But it is probably truer to say, as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy puts it, that the Kinsey reports "summed up the spirit of the age before the age had learned that that was its spirit". So why, then, should Kinsey remain a figure of such controversy almost 50 years after his death?
The answer lies in chapter five of the Male volume, dealing with "early sexual growth and activity". Included in this chapter were a series of statistics recording incidents of children's orgasms, "timed with second-hand or stopwatch".
Curiously, these observations were almost totally ignored at the time of the report's publication in 1948. It was not until some 40 years later that anyone thought to ask how Kinsey had come by this evidence.
The catalyst was Judith Reisman. A former singer-songwriter turned anti-pornography campaigner, Reisman now runs an organisation called the Institute for Media Education, advertising herself as a public speaker on "fraudulent sex scientists, sex education and the power and effect of images and the monopoly media to alter human behaviour". She has close links to conservative Christian groups.
In 1990, Reisman co-authored a book, Kinsey, Sex and Fraud , attacking what she called Kinsey's "junk science" and alleging that "Kinsey's research involved illegal experimentation on several hundred children".
In the face of a growing furore, in 1995 the Kinsey Institute issued a statement maintaining that Kinsey had drawn all of the data on children from a single source. This was later revealed to be Rex King, perhaps best described as an omni-sexualist. Kinsey had been referred to King by Robert Latou Dickinson, an erstwhile gynaecologist who also had an interest in sex research.
Kinsey travelled to Arizona, where he met King once to record a sexual history that included many incidents of incest, bestiality and pedophilia; they continued to correspond and Kinsey used much of King's material as "scientific studies" in his chapter on pre-adolescent sexuality.
"That," said Gebhard, "was Kinsey's big mistake." There was never a thought in Kinsey's mind, Gebhard added, that he should report King to the authorities. Utter confidentiality was a cardinal rule in all the research, even for a man as morally reprehensible as King.
King was not the only pedophile with whom Kinsey had contact. In 1998, a Channel Four documentary revealed that he had corresponded with Fritz von Balluseck, a former Nazi officer. In the 1950s, Von Balluseck was found guilty of having committed sexual assaults on more than 30 children, many of them Polish Jews living in a ghetto under his command during the war.
In response to the documentary's allegation, the Kinsey Institute issued a statement saying that Von Balluseck had first written to Kinsey in 1955. In his reply, Kinsey was "non-judgemental, as usual. But he did point out how strongly society condemned such behaviour." Kinsey, the institute stated, had no idea Von Balluseck had been a Nazi; nor was any use made of information from the man.
Nonetheless, it is this connection that Reisman has used as the focus of her campaign against Kinsey, describing him as the "leader of the most barbarous international pedophile sex ring of the 20th century" and his research as rivalling "the Nazi experiments described at Nuremberg".
Last year, Reisman released an open letter to Liam Neeson, the star of the forthcoming film about Kinsey, asserting that the film would place him in "a hideously inaccurate role, much like playing the monster Mengele as a mere controversial figure". According to the film's director, Bill Condon, the campaign has extended to letters being sent to Neeson's mother in Ireland.
Kinsey, Reisman told me, was "absolutely a pedophile. The evidence is incontrovertible in my view." When I asked what evidence she had to support that allegation, she replied: "Everything he wrote. Nobody but a pedophile could write what he did."
In fact, there is no evidence that Kinsey ever engaged in pedophile activities. The present director of the Kinsey Institute, Dr Julia Heiman, believes that allegations of Kinsey's "pedophilia" are a way to try to discredit the work of the institute.
"He did collect data from people who had sex with children, but he absolutely did not engage in these activities himself," says Heiman. "To report is not the same as encouraging or doing anything to lend legitimacy to it. But in this country now, simply raising the charge creates a sense of guilt."
Heiman, a doctor of psychology and clinical psychiatry, is the institute's fifth director since Kinsey's death. One might have thought that Kinsey's reports and all that followed had left no mysteries about sexual behaviour but Heiman insists otherwise: "We know essentially nothing about sexuality, in my opinion." What the institute is now concerned with, she said, is "connecting the physiological, the psychological and the behavioural" aspects of sexuality, "and in doing that helping to define healthy as well as problematic sexual functioning".
The sexual histories of the 18,000 people interviewed by Kinsey and his inner circle remain under lock and key in the archives of the institute. Since Kinsey's death, the code that links each history to the name of the subject has been handed down from each director to the next like holy writ.
Among them are the sexual histories of a large tranche of the great and the good, the mad, the bad and the unimpeachably virtuous of American law, politics, academe and arts of the day - including W.H. Auden, the Beat authors Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the world's first transsexual Christine Jorgensen, Gore Vidal and Marlon Brando.
Heiman says that they will never be made public. "I'd be fascinated to read them myself. But I believe we need to honour the essence of Kinsey, which was total confidentiality." She smiled. "Some things are just private."
- Telegraph Magazine