The Case for Dr. Kinsey

A review of two biographies of the controversial sex researcher

Alfred Kinsey has had to wait well over a decade for a biographer, but suddenly he has two. These books complement each other nicely, however. Nearly half of Cornelia Christenson's volume is devoted to the years before Kinsey launched his extensive sexual study in 1938, while Wardell Pomeroy's book is concerned almost entirely with post-1938 developments. Christenson offers an especially convincing portrait of Kinsey's childhood, contrasting the austerity of his family life with the sense of release and mastery he derived from the exploration of nature. Her analysis of his early intellectual interests is equally insightful, as is her account of his romance with Clara McMillen, his first date (he was twenty-six at the time) and his wife within a year. Inevitably, however, Pomeroy's volume commands the greater attention. It is substantially longer, and as with Ernest Jones's life of Freud, it has the character of an official biography, since it is written by one of Kinsey's earliest and closest associates.

Like Freud, Kinsey discovered his historical mission rather late in life. He was an accomplished zoologist and the world's foremost authority on the gall wasp when, at the age of forty-four, he turned to the study of human sexuality. Too much can be made of this transformation, and Christenson's book draws attention to important similarities between the work on gall wasps and that on sexuality. In both undertakings Kinsey became transfixed by numbers. He gathered an enormous collection of wasps-over four million insects-and in his analysis of this immense sample he sought to undermine accepted categories of entomological classification, just as he would later seek to dissolve received categories of sexual classification. In both of the grand projects that absorbed his life, one might say, he functioned as a taxonomic critic.

Still, the decision to abandon wasps for sexuality was a remarkable one, and neither Christenson nor Pomeroy is particularly helpful in accounting for it. It was occasioned by Kinsey's participation in an experimental marriage course at Indiana University. Students in the course came to him for advice about their sexual problems, and out of these quasi-therapeutic situations grew the famous interviewing technique through which he eventually collected 18,000 sexual histories. The interviews lost their original therapeutic character only gradually, and one can speculate what might have happened had Kinsey taken his therapeutic role more seriously. Pomeroy states flatly that "he would have been one of the greatest therapists in history." Certainly he possessed a dazzling ability to establish rapport with persons from all walks of life. Moreover, even after the interviews had been transformed into purely information-gathering sessions, they continued to exercise a kind of cathartic effect.

I suspect that Kinsey's great project originated in the discovery of his own sexual ambiguities. I also suspect that Pomeroy holds the same opinion, but that for ethical reasons he is unable to say so. Soon after he joined the project Pomeroy deciphered the code Kinsey used to disguise the identity of the histories. He was thus able to read Kinsey's own history, as well as those of his wife and children. Furthermore, during the period of their association Pomeroy and Kinsey took each other's history every two years in order to test the consistency of their recall. In composing his biography, therefore, Pomeroy had access to all the details of Kinsey's sexual development, but he was bound to silence by the ground rules of the project, which guaranteed confidentiality even in death.

Pomeroy has respected his obligation scrupulously. However, his treatment of one incident suggests that Kinsey may have discovered in himself the homosexual tendencies he would later ascribe to a large portion of the population. After remarking on the unexceptional character of Kinsey's professional and domestic life before 1938, Pomeroy continues, with an air of mystery and significance: "Yet there was one event that made these years far from ordinary for him. It was his friendship for a student, Ralph Voris ... Voris became the closest friend Kinsey ever had; their relationship probably meant more to him than any other." Voris died of pneumonia in 1940, and Kinsey was heartbroken, especially as he had hoped to share the challenge of his new project with this younger friend.

Pomeroy doesn't explain in what sense the relationship was unusual. Inevitably it calls to mind Freud's friendship with Wilhelm Fliess, "the only really extraordinary experience in Freud's life," as Ernest Jones described it. Like Kinsey, Freud entered the relationship after making an apparently satisfactory marriage, and he later confessed that "some piece of unruly homosexual feeling" was at the root of it. Moreover, the relationship with Fliess, along with the death of his own father, precipitated the crisis in Freud's life that led to the birth of psychoanalysis. Admittedly I am reading between the lines of Pomeroy's account in suggesting that a similar experience may have led Kinsey to discover his identity as a sexologist. If there is a paradox here, it is in the highly emotional and apparently sublimated character of the relationship with Voris, since Kinsey's subsequent research, much to the dismay of his critics, tended to emphasize the behavioral manifestations of sexual life.

Pomeroy's account of the project's development in the forties and fifties makes compelling reading. We are treated to a highly dramatic rendering of the many trips, lectures, interviews, visits to prisons, gay bars, and whorehouses that enabled Kinsey to collect his data. The book also contains vivid portraits of Kinsey's coworkers (Pomeroy himself comes across as an immensely likable man) as well as a skillful analysis of the institutional and financial arrangements that made the research possible. Two substantial chapters are devoted to Kinsey's relations with the press, and there is a fascinating account of the role of Dean Rusk, who, on becoming president of the Rockefeller Foundation, brought its support of the project to an abrupt end.

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