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Sex Shamans: Alfred Kinsey

by Rebecca Adams

Sex Shamans: Alfred Kinsey

Alfred C. Kinsey was a pervert

Let me qualify that. For a middle aged biology professor in Indiana, for a world expert on the North American gall wasp, for a bow-tie wearing Eagle Scout in the 1940s, Professor Alfred Kinsey, also known as Prok, was a sexual pervert.

He did not molest children. He never engaged in any kind of coercive or non-consenting sexual activity. He did not hurt or cajole anyone.

He did, however, train himself to insert things like pencils and toothbrushes (bristle-end first) into his urethra. He strengthened his testicles to hold his entire body weight. He pierced his foreskin and eventually circumcised himself with a fountain pen.

And he was bisexual; roughly a 4 on his own 0-6 scale of Heterosexuality/Homosexuality. He and his research team existed as a community of open marriages and relationships, sharing each other sexually and exploring their varieties of sexual response. He encouraged select friends to have sex with his wife. He participated in or watched numerous orgies. He attended strip shows, and he filmed men and women masturbating, copulating, and fellating.

When I tell this to my conservative friends, they shrink back in horror, saying, "He was a freak, he was sick! And people believed his work?" People not only believe his work, they still cite it as the most accurate and comprehensive analysis of American sexual behavior in the history of sex research. Is it okay for us to trust the work of someone whose sexuality is so clearly outside the mainstream?

We can go but a little way toward understanding Kinsey's sexual development -- we can look at the facts and draw conclusions, formulate untestable hypotheses. We can go much farther in determining whether or not this profoundly complex man's sexual extremes confounded his research.

First, why was Kinsey a freak? Well, you might become one too if you were raised by a domineering, evangelically Methodist father and equally downtrodden (and equally Methodist) mother in the first years of the twentieth century. If you too suffered a series of life-threatening illnesses before the age of 10, which permanently damaged your spine and heart. And if you possessed a piercing intelligence, unquenchable curiosity, and a passionate drive to prove yourself.

Everything in Kinsey's early environment suppressed and inhibited his natural inclinations. His father pressed him into engineering when he wanted to study biology. His religion pressed him into chaste purity while his natural instincts drove him to explore. His physical weakness forced him to use his body and mind cautiously.

Kinsey spent his life fighting these restraints. His many serious childhood illnesses left him with a curved spine and a weak heart. As a boy, Kinsey was constantly teased and tormented for that frailty. To combat his weakness, Kinsey became a Boy Scout. He rocked through outdoorsy and craft skills to become one of America's first Eagle Scouts. He went on long hikes and began collecting flowers, insects, ferns, and other bits of his environment. Reveling in his superior intellect and newfound stamina, Kinsey would drag schoolmates on tedious nature walks, lecturing them on the surrounding flora and fauna.

When Kinsey learned about evolutionary theory in high school (it was, and still is, revolutionary and highly controversial), he relished it. Over the course of his biological education, evolution scrubbed his mind clean of Methodism, leaving behind only a masterly work ethic, dazzling public speaking skills (from his Sunday school teaching), and an abiding bitter cynicism for anything religious.

Kinsey's father wanted him to be an engineer and Kinsey obediently spent two years at a technical school before he confronted his father and stormed out to study biology at Bowdoin College. He then went to Harvard for his graduate education. By the age of 27, Kinsey was an assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University, a budding world expert on the Gall Wasp.

There is no record of any romantic relationships at all during these years.

Sexually, Kinsey internalized the teachings of his hyper-religious father and suffered a terrible guilt over masturbating. Desperately shy around girls, he never had a girlfriend, never even dated. The year he moved to Indiana, he met and married his wife. His real sex life at last began and the last shackles of his repressive upbringing fell away. His father, his God, and his overdeveloped conscience fell away, but the damaged physiology remained and haunted him to his death.

Moving beyond these events and into the psyche molded by them, we can only conjecture about what Kinsey's brilliant but somewhat tortured mind did with all of this. It seems likely that his sexual orientation was inborn but repressed throughout his early life. It also seems very probable that his polyamory was an intellectualized product of a rebellion against Methodism and Victorian mores.

The reasons for the mutilation of his genitals are more complex. Kinsey was not a masochist. That is, he did not want to be humiliated or tortured. But it seems clear that he liked to hurt himself. This could be a lot of things. Was he subconsciously punishing himself for his experimentation? Was he seeking to control his uncontrollably damaged body? Was he simply exploring the sensations that bridge pleasure and pain? The best answer is probably some combination of these. Kinsey's sexuality is a richly complex ecology that we may never fully comprehend. But now we have a rough idea of why Kinsey was a pervert.

The next question is, how could such a pervert produce work that changed the course of American sexual morality? And is his work valid?

In his 1997 biography of Kinsey, James Jones attempts to prove that Kinsey's personal sexual proclivities biased his work. For example, why did Kinsey find so much homosexuality? Because he was a homosexual and wanted to justify his own inclinations? It's certainly something that happens, particularly in the social sciences and when statistical methods, so easily manipulated, are involved. But is it true?

Kinsey found that approximately 10% of men had had almost exclusively homosexual relationships for at least three years, and that 4% had had only homosexual relationships in their lives. Later surveys found only 7% of males had homosexual experiences during more than three years of their lives. (For more details, see the Kinsey Institute's webpage on the prevalence of homosexuality.)

We see three things here. First of all, Kinsey was not wrong. Second, these surveys came after Kinsey: there are no surveys of homosexuality that predate Kinsey's landmark volumes on human sexuality. We might say that, without Kinsey, these studies would never have happened. Finally, we see that each of these surveys defines homosexuality differently, and that dialogue was initiated by Kinsey and his scale of Homosexuality/Heterosexuality.

What about Kinsey's studies on statistics of pre- and extramarital sex in American women, rates of bestiality, and the ubiquitousness of masturbation in males? Each of these stands up to investigation. Kinsey's two massive volumes, Sexuality in the Human Male (1947) and Sexuality in the Human Female, (1953) are scientifically sturdy works. The Christian Right, who even now revolt against Kinsey's numbers, are just incorrect to say that the studies significantly misrepresent sexuality in America.

Kinsey was a scientist, a Harvard-trained entomologist focused on finding and classifying variety. After twenty years and a paradigm-altering tome on the variation of North American Gall Wasps, Kinsey turned his acute biological analysis to human sexuality. Instead of warping his approach, Kinsey's personal inclinations allowed him to accept sexual variances that would have been incomprehensible, embarrassing, or disgusting to most academic researchers of his time.

In 1938, Kinsey began giving biology lectures in a marriage course for married or engaged seniors at Indiana University. (Precisely how he contrived this position is unclear. Was he asked? Did he volunteer? Did he engineer the entire course so that he could teach sexuality? Your guess is as good as mine.)

Kinsey ended his lectures by suggesting that his students give him their sex history. So he started with students. Over those first semesters he developed the method that would obtain the most accurate, thorough, and densely informative sex histories ever gathered. How?

The questions assumed the subject had done everything possible. "When did you last make love with a pig?" for example. And Kinsey's interviewing technique was sharply honed to observe for deceit and to mask surprise. His eyes never left the subjects and his blank but kind expression never dissolved into disgust or shock.

Few staff members actually did interviewing. Training to perform interviews took months and involved not merely mastering the carefully neutral technique, but also memorizing the hundreds of questions and the labyrinthine scoring method.

Many interviewees experienced the conference as a kind of confessional, where they could admit all their sexual sins and be forgiven. Kinsey frequently offered advice after interviews, and invariably returned correspondence from interviewees seeking support, information, advice, and sometimes even money. This survey, this instrument, in the hands of a well-trained interviewer, gathered more and better information than any instrument of sexual survey before or since. The data are irreproachable.

From his students, Kinsey moved into other populations: prisons, the homosexual underworld of Chicago, the art world of New York, professionals, psychiatrists, pedophiles, children, anyone. Many potential pitfalls of sex surveying were overcome by Kinsey's approach. He sought to obtain histories from 100% of groups: fraternities, prison inmates, groups of hikers, any bunch of people brought together for some reason other than their sexual identities. In obtaining 100% samples, Kinsey could generate a representative picture of the population.

As the project grew, as his funding expanded, so did Kinsey's staff. He surrounded himself with intelligent men, hardworking to the point of obsession, sexually open-minded, and, whenever possible, and roughly his own age. In other words, he collected people like himself.

The team shared mutually exploring sexual relationships. Nearly all of the team had sex with nearly everyone else on the team. The intellectual goal of this was to improve the quality of their interviewing by deepening their understanding of the sexual experience of their subjects and eliminating judgment. Another goal was to live the life of sexual guiltlessness and amorality that Kinsey, himself, saw as the perfect sexual world.

Kinsey's survey, the product of trial and error in interviewing Midwestern undergraduates, worked. Kinsey's deviance did not seek to over-represent homosexuals or any other variation on sexuality. If anything, his sexual attitudes and behavior allowed him and his staff to accept the variety and ubiquitousness of sex in America. Their openness in turn created an atmosphere of acceptance both in interview sessions and in the best-sellers that reported their findings.

Far more detrimental to his work were his non-sexual kinks: his need to control every aspect of the research process; his unbending stubbornness; his generalized lack of understanding of statistics. He had other eccentricities too. He collected avidly (from his first fern collections to a valuable collection of erotic art and photography), he loved music, he was ahead of his time in his advocacy of nakedness as natural and normal.

But we have to conclude that the primary author of two of the most important books in the history of sex research was a sexual deviant. Not many non-tribal people in his time pierced their foreskins. Then again, not many people alter the sexual attitudes of an entire nation. Not many people legitimize the scientific study of a repressed aspect of humanity. Not many people have a world famous sex research institute named after them 50 years after their death, a research institute which still commands the respect of professionals and receives funding from NIMH.

Not many people could be all the things Alfred Kinsey was. I doubt anyone would much want to be like Kinsey, even if they could. But without his peculiar combination of scientific rigor, evangelical acceptance of all things sexual, and personal variety, we would not have some of the most important work ever done in the field of sexual science. Love him or hate him, Alfred Kinsey is among the most important figures in the history of sex in America.

©2001 by Rebecca Adams

Reader Comments

Rebecca Adams is a clinical intern, researcher, web designer and docent at the Kinsey Institute


No, You Show Me Yours First

In 1950, a shipment of pornography for the Kinsey Institute was seized by the Indiana Police Department. The FBI investigated the case as a possible violation: interstate transportation of obscene material.

Eventually the bureau dropped the matter based on a court decision that an object is not legally obscene "if the person importing it had a genuine scientific purpose."

Still, the bureau took the opportunity to get some inside information on how the institute was getting its pornography.

Dr. Paul Gebhard, Kinsey's successor, and Dr. Wardell Pomeroy, the institute's field director, were interviewed by an FBI agent, and they showed him their "pornography collection".

"They estimated that they had approximately eight decks of cards containing obscene photographs, several books of an obscene nature, various latex goods, and miscellaneous devices similar to the 'man in the barrel' which they classified as humorous devices," the agent wrote.

Gebhard turned down the agent's request to furnish any names of those who were providing the institute with pornography, but the FBI maintained hopes that it could tap into the Kinsey Institute as a source of pornographic material "of investigative interest."

In 1959, the tables turned, and the institute went to the FBI hoping to gain access to its vast collection of pornography for a pending report on sex offenders.

An internal memo in Kinsey's FBI file in late 1959 reveals that the bureau didn't recognize the request as legitimate. A bureau informant reported it as "a devious plan for obtaining pornographic material from the State of New York through the FBI."

According to Athan Theoharis, FBI authority and professor at Marquette University, the bureau had an extensive collection of pornography -- and perhaps still does -- but at the time it was well guarded and could only be accessed with the permission of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Theoharis said Hoover hoped to keep the material away from the agents and that pornography records were routed separately from other bureau records.

Room 7625, a memo stated, held the agency's collection, but Hoover would not release it to the institute.

"In so far as any material which The Bureau has, it is not going to be made available to this outfit," Hoover wrote.

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