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