The man who took sex out of the closet

Alfred Kinsey outed America's sexual secrets -- while keeping a few of his own.

Published November 5, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

The history of sex in America falls into two large, unequal, yet clearly defined periods. The first era belonged to the Puritans, the Victorians and related figures of restraint and misery. People were supposed to battle their urges. If they did not win that fight, the consequences were dire -- even if nobody got caught (or pregnant, or the clap). For within the individual psyche, society had posted a heavily armed policeman who would bludgeon you with guilt and toss you into solitary confinement to brood over the transgression. Information about sex was largely anecdotal and seldom reassuring. This epoch of libidinal prohibition lasted until Jan. 4, 1948. The following day, Professor Alfred C. Kinsey of Indiana published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male." Whereupon, as the expression has it, the earth moved.

At first glance, the "Kinsey report" -- as the book was instantly dubbed -- made an improbable candidate for the bestseller list. Issued by a publisher specializing in medical texts, it was thick and somewhat forbidding. Its pages were packed with graphs and statistical matrices; the prose was definitely that of a scientist writing for an audience of his peers. Kinsey was a biologist at Indiana University. Until the first week of 1948, his professional reputation rested firmly upon decades of research into the taxonomy of the gall wasp -- an insect he had studied with exceptional patience, thoroughness and attention to variety.

But it was precisely its scientific, morally neutral handling of data that made "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" such an explosive book. As far as Kinsey was concerned, the species "man" was an orgasm-seeking mammal. In 10 years of research, the professor and his staff interviewed some 12,000 men and women, using a questionnaire that gathered more than 200 separate items of information about their sexual histories. Kinsey's investigators were trained to show complete indifference to what they heard during interviews: "Gradually one learns to forego judgment on these things," Kinsey wrote, "and to accept them merely as facts for the record." The frequency and sources of erotic gratification were noted down in a top-secret code (which it took several months for new researchers to learn, since Kinsey never wrote out the key). Back in Indianapolis, the reports were transferred to punch-cards, and the numbers laboriously crunched using a primitive computer.

It was a triumph of scientific method. And Kinsey's results were startling and unambiguous. People were having more sex, of more kinds -- and in the process, breaking more taboos and laws -- than anyone had previously imagined. The book, dry as it was, must have had a powerfully aphrodisiac effect on most readers.

Up to 70 percent of the population, Kinsey found, performed intercourse exclusively in the missionary position. On the other hand, the questionnaires also revealed "that there is no part of the human body which is not sufficiently sensitive to effect erotic arousal and even orgasm for at least some individual in the populace." One table indicated that men between the ages of 16 and 20 might expect to sustain an erection for 42.88 minutes (which sounds about right, if memory serves). Correlations between educational level and likelihood of performing cunnilingus were established with much precision: If you had a college degree, you probably did it; if not, you probably didn't. Over a third of the men questioned had "some homosexual experience between the beginning of adolescence and old age" -- although only "about 6.3 percent of the total number of orgasms is derived from homosexual contacts." Blue-collar men tended to have a lot of extramarital adventures during the early years of their marriages, before submitting to the rigors of monogamy; the trend among white-collar men was exactly the opposite. Around 17 percent of farm boys eventually bothered the livestock.

"Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," at a pricey $6.50 per copy, quickly sold its first printing of 20,000. Within a few months, 200,000 copies sold in hardback in the United States alone. The book was soon translated into eight foreign languages (not including Russian, though presumably there was a room in the Kremlin where authorized personnel could examine a copy). The critical reception was slightly more equivocal; a few colleagues expressed reservations about Kinsey's research. How representative was his sample, given that a lot of the interviews had been gathered in prisons? How truthful were the respondents? Was Kinsey's statistical methodology up to snuff? But most articles greeting the book were celebratory. The research had been funded by the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation. It met the hunger for information on a topic always on people's minds -- and did so in a spirit very much in keeping with the postwar cult of science. (As one of the researchers on the team later put it: "In America, we like to count things.") Sex had joined the March of Progress.

There were songs about Kinsey, and jokes, and quite a few cartoons. My favorite shows a suburban matron, her copy of the report concealed behind a gardening magazine, glancing across the living room at her husband, who is smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper -- quite oblivious to the fact that she is eyeing him with a look of alarm, suspicion and/or disbelief. An article in McCall's assured its readers that "Yes, There Is a Mrs. Kinsey." The wife of the scientific pioneer had "a wholesome, girlish air." Being married to "Prok" (as she affectionately called Prof. K) meant sacrifice, including quite a bit of loneliness, for her husband kept a busy schedule. He was determined to collect 100,000 interviews. Even so, they led a homey enough private life. Mrs. Kinsey made clothes for their children. There was a photograph of the professor's daily bag lunch. Returning from the lab, he enjoyed "persimmon pudding, highly spiced and topped with whipped cream." His research might be controversial, but Kinsey himself was an old-fashioned guy.

Five years later, his report on "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" was greeted with great media fanfare, if not quite so much enthusiasm as the first report. Cold War tensions had something to do with it. Kinsey's inquiry into what women were doing in bed caused the Rev. Billy Graham to worry for the country's moral purity. Some junior McCarthyites came sniffing around, wondering if Kinsey might not have been the dupe of secret communists on the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation. He began to have trouble funding his Institute for Sexual Research. The final years of his life were often stressful and unhappy: He was a long, long way from meeting his goal of collecting 100,000 interviews. But when Kinsey died in 1956, an editorialist in the New York Times lauded him as "first, last, and always a scientist," which would have pleased him considerably. Other obituaries compared him to Galileo and Darwin.

That was rather overblown. Yet Kinsey's effect on society was profound and enduring. It did not rise and fall with his bestseller status. Penicillin and the pill rendered sexual experimentation less dangerous, and Kinsey's statistics did seem to encourage it. Women in their late 30s discovered that, according to science, they were in their sexual prime -- which must have inspired some profound changes of attitude, and habit, over the years. A couple of tiny organizations, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, took courage from Kinsey's findings on homosexuality. His two doorstop-sized volumes became, retroactively, the manifestoes of sexual revolution and the counterculture. That was presumably not the intention of the scientist from Indiana. Professor Kinsey tended to vote Republican.

The pre-Kinsey era is difficult to imagine today, when even the phrase "sexual revolution" sounds rather quaint and various orgasm-seeking mammals grab the microphone every afternoon to edify the television audience. With "Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life" by James H. Jones, we have a biography of the man that is fully in keeping with the spirit of the age he helped to create. Five decades ago, McCall's projected a charming image of the bow-tied professor as career-minded head of a nuclear family. The new biography adds a little something to that picture: It turns out that Professor and Mrs. Kinsey were involved in a long-term minage ` trois with one of the guys from the lab. And that is one of the tamer revelations.

Jones, who teaches history at the University of Houston, has written the third book-length account of Kinsey's life. It will probably also be the last one, for a while. No one could ask for, much less read, a more detailed book. The gall-wasp years are treated with unprecedented thoroughness. Kinsey's efforts to secure funding for his research are chronicled, memo by memo. When he goes to Chicago for the first time to conduct surveys, we are informed how many rooms were in the hotel (400) and given an enticing description of the amenities (every room "came equipped with a radio, circulating ice water, and its own bath or shower"). The author spent a quarter of a century researching the book; you do not soon lose sight of that fact.

Just as one's eyes start to roll back in the head, however, comes one of the book's revelations. Kinsey was, by preference, mainly homosexual. He did date a woman, once, and very shortly thereafter asked her to marry him, which she did. Consumation was delayed for quite a while, because of their mutual ignorance of the mechanics involved. At some point in adolescence, Kinsey developed a taste for masochistic practices of a really cringe-inducing variety. (Two words here, and then I'm changing the subject: "urethral insertion.") He also had some pronounced voyeuristic and exhibitionistic tendencies. On bug-hunting field trips in the 1930s, he liked to march around the camp in his birthday suit, and he interrogated his assistants about masturbation. That his career was not destroyed by such behavior is, in itself, pretty remarkable.

When he shifted his attention to the statistical analysis of sexual behavior, Kinsey managed to keep up the appearance of strict scientific propriety -- another small miracle. But at his institute, the first generation of researchers (and their spouses) evolved into something out of "The Harrad Experiment." And in his passion for gathering data, Kinsey's indifference to moral questions was exceptionally thorough. The most telling case was his amicable -- in fact, collegial -- relations with an interview subject known to posterity as "Mr. X," whose sexual history required 17 hours to record (most people took about two). Over the years, Mr. X had molested a few hundred children. When Kinsey learned that X kept exceptionally thorough notes on this activity, he came to think of the man as a pioneer in sexology. In the 1948 report, the data on the sexual capacity of preadolescents all came from the files of this amateur scientist, though Kinsey made some effort to disguise the fact.

Jones had access to the Kinsey papers and interviewed many of the scientist's friends, family and co-workers. The startling details about Kinsey usually come from two intimate friends, cited in the footnotes as "Anonymous A" and "Anonymous B." (Jones is so thorough a researcher that one tends to assume he has checked the credibility of his sources carefully.) The book's eyebrow-raising parts make it sound more sensational than it actually is, however. Most of the time, it resembles Kinsey's own work: dry, calm, laborious, exhaustive and exhausting. Its blend of microscopic detail and incidental titillation make this a very typical, if gigantic, specimen of the contemporary academic biography. So does its implicit metaphor of Kinsey's life as a performance -- as manipulation of appearances and of the media. When journalists were granted an audience with the esteemed biologist, they invariably found that Kinsey wanted to interview them, too. Having their sexual histories on file at the institute gave a subtle, perhaps subconscious interest in confirming the scientific rigor of the whole undertaking. But fueling his work was a spirit anything but dispassionate and disinterested.

An associate reports that Kinsey "looked on the Judeo-Christian attitude toward sexuality as a real curse." His father had been a pious, domineering soul, and Jones reads Kinsey's entire career as an attempt to escape the man's influence -- especially the guilt over his own desires. That effort was not perfectly successful: "On one occasion when his inner demons plunged him to new depths of despair, Kinsey climbed into a bathtub, unfolded the blade of his pocketknife, and circumcised himself without the benefit of anesthesia." The pelvic inflammation that contributed to the final decline in Kinsey's health was the result of such self-punishing behavior.

All of which should delight conservatives -- who, being unable to stuff the genie of libidinal experimentation back into the bottle, will at least have the pleasure of documenting that Kinsey himself was a refugee from Krafft-Ebbing's "Psychopathia Sexualis." But what does it add to the discussion of his findings?

Not much. Over the years, Kinsey's statistics and his methods have been debated at length, and found wanting in the rigor and precision he claimed for them. (A detailed analysis of the two reports can be found in the brilliant chapter on Kinsey in Paul Robinson's "The Modernization of Sex," published more than 20 years ago.) And the libertarian undercurrents of the whole project were not exactly invisible, either. Almost 50 years ago, Mrs. Kinsey told the readers of McCall's that her husband's work represented "an unvoiced plea for tolerance." Today the plea itself seems pretty commonplace. What horrifies is the brutality Kinsey visited upon himself -- and the sheer joyless obsessiveness of his research, with its monotonous orgasm-counting. As cold as the blood of an insect.

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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