Last edited: March 07, 2005

Profile: Alfred Kinsey: The Swinging Detective: He Opened Our Eyes to Sex

The Sunday Times, March 6, 2005

Sexual intercourse began, Philip Larkin famously declared, “in nineteen- hundred-and-sixty-three, which was rather late for me/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP”.

It would certainly have seemed late to Alfred Kinsey, whose famous report was finally closed in 1963, seven years after the death of its author, a man who talked about and probably indulged in more sex than anyone from Casanova to the Marquis de Sade.

Almost half a century after Kinsey’s death in 1956—possibly brought on by sexual exhaustion—a film of his life starring Liam Neeson has rekindled the battle he ignited for the soul, or at least the libido, of modern America.

The radical right has called for hellfire damnation on anyone involved and even liberal critics have called it schmaltzy hagiography. There is no doubt that the so-called father of the sexual revolution was more than a little in love with his job. As his wife Clara, with whom he presented the public picture of the wholesome American family, famously commented: “Alfred is so busy. Since he got interested in sex, I never see him.”

Kinsey, the Harvard-educated entomologist whose first obsession was the study of gall wasps, lived the outward life of the stolid scientist, insistent that his scandal-provoking, bestselling studies of human sexuality were the product of purely statistical research.

In reality he was a bisexual libertine who thought the only abnormality was abstinence and whose biographer believes that he twisted his methodology to justify—and gratify—his own sexuality.

The fame he acquired was not the sort to gratify his father, a dour Methodist engineering teacher from Hoboken, New Jersey, who banned dates with girls, Sunday newspapers and held the God of Wrath in higher esteem than the God of Love. Alfred, born in 1894, had a repressed, miserable childhood, was kept ignorant of sex and was tortured by his occasional homoerotic fantasies.

The Kinsey Report, as it became popularly known, was two books, the first of which, entitled with deliberately dull scientific sterility Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, came out in 1948 and the second, on the female, in 1953.

The first book, with apparently scientifically irrefutable evidence collated from thousands of anonymous interviews, claimed that almost all men masturbated, 10% were homosexual, adultery was commonplace and young men on farms had sex with animals. America was knocked sideways.

In a country picking itself up after the second world war and in the grip of paranoia about the cold war, no news could have appeared less welcome, except that it sold its 200,000 print run within weeks and “generated more headlines than the atomic bomb”.

Homosexuality had previously been equated with communism and Congress’s committee on un-American activities was unamused to hear what activities most Americans actually did get up to. Even today the biopic has evoked outrage from sharp-toothed dinosaurs of the new right such as Concerned Women of America which compares Kinsey to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor, or Morality in Media, which says that Kinsey’s legacy is Aids, abortion, child abuse and internet pornography.

How did Kinsey happen? His repressive religious parents have a lot to answer for. When Kinsey, the bright young science nerd, married Clara McMillen, a chemistry student, they were so ignorant about sex that they failed to consummate the marriage for several months.

Such ignorance was so common that in 1938 the Association of Women Students petitioned the University of Indiana, where Kinsey had moved from Harvard 18 years earlier, for a course for students who were contemplating marriage. Kinsey, the zoology professor, was asked to co-ordinate it.

His first discovery was that information on human sexual experience was almost nonexistent and what did exist was extremely value-laden. He set out to correct that by collecting and collating evidence from interviews in which people were asked an average of 300 questions, the answers entered on punch cards.

To help him he employed the sort of people such dry scientific work might require: Clyde Martin, an economist, Wardell Pomeroy, a psychologist, and eventually Paul Gebhard, an anthropologist.

In the meantime, encouraged by the president of Indiana University, Kinsey had given up the marriage course in favour of the sex research—allegedly “pure and simple”—and even won funding from the respectable Rockefeller Foundation.With his square jaw, shock of upright hair and bow ties, he cut a deliberately classic masculine scientist image.

The Institute for Sex Research, as it was originally called, was set up in 1947, just before publication of the first explosive report. But as James H Jones revealed in his 1997 biography, Kinsey was getting more out of his work than most people.

He and Clara, after sorting out their initial sexual difficulties, had begun to experiment with others. Long before he began his official research Kinsey had enjoyed going on expeditions with groups of young men at which they sat naked around the campfire and he encouraged them to discuss their sex lives.

He encouraged his team to have sexual relations with each other, insisted that they share their partners and built up a bisexual wife- swapping community in which sex acts were frequently filmed.

Thanks to an introduction from a friend he gained access to Chicago’s secretive homosexual community ostensibly for research purposes but, according to Jones, “in truth Kinsey was socialising. He liked what he saw”.

Gore Vidal, the novelist, recalled meeting him in 1948, just before publication of the first report, and was impressed by his clinical manner.Vidal said Kinsey presented himself as a “sex detective” keen to “investigate” the truth behind the stereotype that people in the arts world were more inclined to homosexuality. He noted that they met in the Astor hotel in Times Square, a haunt of soldiers and sailors returning from Europe. Rich pickings for a researcher but also a prime pick-up point.

The sexual escapades going on in the attic of Kinsey’s house in Bloomington, Indiana, were by now getting out of control, including self-circumcision with a razor blade and bizarre genital stimulation with a toothbrush. Pomeroy, the researcher with movie-star looks, had volunteered to help Kinsey “on experimental grounds” with sadomasochistic stunts but disappointed him because his heart was not in it.

Most controversial, then and now, was Kinsey’s attitude to children. They were excluded from his sexually active group but the team interviewed young offenders and he exchanged correspondence with a man who was eventually convicted of a paedophile murder.

Kinsey insisted his reasoning was that science was non-judgmental. Notably he refused to compromise his sources to help J Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, conduct a witch-hunt against gays in the State Department, a supreme irony given that Hoover himself was later revealed to be a cross-dressing homosexual.

Kinsey’s volume on female sexuality provoked more outrage, shattering icons of American femininity with the statistics that 50% had extramarital intercourse, nearly two-thirds had masturbated and 45% had performed oral sex, illegal in some states. More sinister, perhaps, he compared negative reactions by young girls to sexual relations imposed by older men with “children’s dislike for spiders”.

He also believed women were less sexually responsive than men; he recognised the role of the clitoris, but thought that male and female genitalia were mismatched. It took Shere Hite, the sexologist, in the 1970s to re-evaluate the female orgasm. She, rather than Kinsey, is responsible for massive sales of vibrators today.

Even so, when the Kinsey reports came out, their impact on American society was likened to that of Darwin’s theory of evolution. And there are still plenty of people who don’t want to believe that, either.

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