Sexual Behavior in the Social Scientist

Was Alfred Kinsey a pioneer or a pervert?

Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life
By James H. Jones
Norton; 937 pages; $39.95

In his fine earlier book, Bad Blood, James Jones exposed one of American medicine’s most shameful episodes: the Tuskegee experiment, in which doctors enlisted a group of black men with syphilis and, without their knowledge or consent, withheld treatment so as to observe the natural progress of the disease. In this new biography, Jones outs Alfred Kinsey. He “lived with two terrible secrets: He was both a homosexual and a masochist.” Everything else about him seems to follow. “The answer” to why he worked so hard “lies in his private life.” His “spring-coil vitality” was the product not of a naturally energetic constitution, or a passion for science, or even old-fashioned ambition, but of “stupendous guilt.” He presented himself as a man of science but actually he was a “crypto-reformer who spent his every waking hour attempting to change the sexual mores and sex offender laws of the United States.” (Not exactly. He also spent 15 years researching gall wasps and was a serious gardener, hiker, and record collector.)

Others may have had an inkling of his secret agenda but only now can the truth be told. It is the following: Kinsey believed, in the words of one informant, that “if only he could get the facts to people life would be a lot happier and less guilt ridden.” And moreover, “he was a great champion of tolerance and liberality.” Apparently only a guilt-ridden masochistic homosexual could be driven by such suspect and cleverly disguised views. Kinsey fooled many. “The irony, of course,” is that many distinguished scientists who knew his work intimately “were not able to see beneath the surface.” “Incredible as it may seem,” the vice president and senior editor of the premier medical publishing house also “failed to question Kinsey’s scholarly objectivity.” Not Jones.

The perpetrator of all these deceptions may not have been the “successor to Darwin,” as many contemporaries thought, but he was arguably the paradigmatic social scientist of his generation, a man who more than any other made the study of human sexuality a respectable and legitimate field of inquiry. The author of the groundbreaking best sellers Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), he was the pioneer in finding out what Americans actually do in bed and with whom we do it. That Kinsey had intense homoerotic relationships with his graduate students is certain. He was into group sex and he masturbated. His sexual life unquestionably extended beyond the missionary position within monogamous marriage, but then, as his–and much subsequent–research showed, so does that of most Americans. More than likely, he had “orgasms derived from homosexual contact.” But he also had a long, loving, and complex sexual relationship with his wife, Clara, and found stimulation in heterosexual pornography. Whether he was a homosexual, readers can decide for themselves.

Jones’ relentlessly hostile readings of the evidence, however, make this difficult. When a graduate student on a field trip writes about Kinsey’s “prick nibblin tent,” Jones suggests that “it is not hard to suspect that oral sex was going on under canvas tops,” because “Berland was a man who usually meant what he said.” (Berland also said that the retiring president of Indiana University had “shriveled balls,” and worried lest he himself “be castrated for biting a coed’s tit.”) Kinsey’s assignment of “0” to the exclusively heterosexual and “6” to the exclusively homosexual in his famous scale leads Jones to comment: “[H]ow interesting that he should assign this [heterosexuality] no value.” One can only wonder what snide comment he would have made if Kinsey had flipped the values.

The evidence for Kinsey’s masochism–mostly the reports of anonymous sources–is much more difficult to assess. Consider Jones’ pièce de résistance: On “one particular evening,” in response to “his inner demons,” and more specifically to the Rockefeller Foundation’s rejection of a grant application, Kinsey allegedly hanged himself by the hand and balls from an overhead pipe “long enough for this self-appointed Messiah of the sexually despised to experience much pain and suffering, precisely as he had intended.” (Forget the mocking tone; it pervades the book. Any reformer is invariably described as a “chronic” or “habitual” “do-gooder.” Forget, too, the absence of even the semblance of evidence for Kinsey’s inner state here as elsewhere: Kinsey “must have felt” ambivalence about gardening because it threatened his “fragile sense of masculinity.”) A footnote reveals that the one anonymous source for this episode of “self-torture” who is actually cited was apparently not an actual witness and that it can at best be dated between 1951 and 1955. In the note, Jones also suggests that a “massive pelvic infection,” which Kinsey suffered in the fall of 1954, may “pinpoint the most likely time” and, of course, corroborate the incident. But back in the main text he says Kinsey had an “infection in his pelvic region”–probably glomerular nephritis, a different and more probable diagnosis–which would make the public “cover story” (that a strep throat caused the problem) far likelier. Readers can decide for themselves if they care.

They may not. Suppose Kinsey were a card-carrying homosexual masochist; it would seem to have little bearing either on his commitment to tolerance or on his scientific practice. Even if his private life were relevant, once again Jones’ unrelieved disdain for his subject obscures any possible connections. Kinsey never did anything for innocent reasons. Even when he tried to write well he was “craft[ing] his prose with the care of a man for whom words are weapons.” He can’t win. On one page he is charged with listening to music analytically, in keeping with his general penchant to dominate, and on the next with barely keeping from having an erection listening to the songs of Hugo Wolf.

Whatever the problems with Kinsey’s data, they had nothing to do with his sexuality. He manifestly did not, as Jones claims, “place a meaty thumb upon the scales” so that he was “virtually guaranteed” that he would find what he was looking for. Again and again Jones himself reports that Kinsey was “surprised” at this or that result. If indeed–following common wisdom–he really did disparage “the sexual capacity of women,” the volume on the sexual response of the human female nonetheless contained all sorts of things he was not looking for. Twenty years before Masters and Johnson, for example, he discovered that, contrary to the then-dominant view, the great majority of women experienced not vaginal but clitoral orgasm.

Of course, Kinsey’s statistics were and are open to criticism. His is not a random sample and it’s not clear exactly what population it represents. That said, a blue-ribbon committee of the American Statistical Association concluded that the interviews themselves were remarkably probing and that, under the circumstances, a random sample was impossible. Most of us would respond to the phone call or knock on the door from a total stranger announcing that we had been randomly selected to tell them when we started to masturbate or how often we had been unfaithful to our partners with a polite “no thank you, not tonight.” Jones, of course, claims that the committee of statisticians was manipulated into supporting Kinsey and that his efforts to improve the quality of his statistical work were merely cosmetic. The remarkable fact is that his numbers have proven to be so robust and that the archive he assembled–of sexual history and sundry other material–remains unrivaled.

Finally, Kinsey’s insistence that there was no such thing as a homosexual–a subspecies of humankind–but only an infinite shading of variation, a continuum of practices, seems to have had more to do with his training as an entomologist than with the nature of his own desires. He inherited from his graduate-school mentors a resolute anti-essentialism. This is a man who, before he collected 18,000 sexual histories, spent 15 years collecting 300,000 gall wasps in order to argue, as he would again later, against the ontological reality of established taxonomic categories.

A self-righteous tone suffuses this biography: The author clearly feels he has exposed the dirty secrets that inspired his protagonist’s “crypto” agenda of reform. In fact, there is nothing “crypto” about his agenda; writing about sex for a lay audience in the 1940s and 1950s was an openly revolutionary act. It was still illegal under various 19th-century “Comstock” laws to disseminate information about birth control in many states. Kinsey, like every other social scientist since the Enlightenment, was simply obeying the central tenet of his discipline: that the scientific study of society is possible; that the results of such study are a better basis for policy than, say, the Mosaic interdiction against homosexuality. Moreover, the fact that Kinsey had a sexual life, however nonstandard it was, would not render him incapable of objectivity in writing about sex. “Value-free” social science does not demand that its practitioners have no values. It means that they gather and interpret their material fairly and argue about its interpretations rationally. By these criteria Kinsey fares well. That he exaggerated the power of biology, failed to deal with love, and perhaps overextended the protective umbrella of tolerance is beyond doubt. But overinterpretation or even misinterpretation are not the same as bias.

It is distressing that in this time of AIDS it could still be said that Kinsey’s passionate interest in human sexuality could only be the product of perversion. The book’s cynicism is even more distressing, symptomatic as it is of a larger cynicism that seems to have gripped our public culture. We seem to believe that all human action is motivated not by the desire to know or improve the lot of humankind, but only by the basest motives of greed, power, and self-aggrandizement. Kinsey was of another age. “How characteristically American,” wrote Lionel Trilling of SexualBehavior in the Human Male, in its “impulse toward acceptance and liberation, the broad and generous desire for others not to be harshly judged.”