Flashbacks November 2004

Dr. Kinsey's Revolution

Articles from the 1920s through the 1990s comment on sex in America and the influence of Dr. Alfred Kinsey

This month, the film Kinsey starring Liam Neeson opens nationwide. Neeson plays Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana University zoology professor who until his mid-forties was best known as an expert on an insect called the gall wasp. By the time Kinsey began to teach an experimental marriage course to coeds in 1938, he had gathered more than four million of the stinging bugs. It's not surprising, then, that when students started coming to him for sex advice, the quasi-therapy sessions soon evolved into what Kinsey knew best: data collection. Over the next decade, and with support from the National Research Council (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation), Kinsey and his assistants gathered 18,000 sexual histories. The job was all-consuming. He left teaching and in 1947 founded the Institute for Sex Research.

Kinsey's team asked volunteers hundreds of questions on such subjects as masturbation, fantasy, sexual positions, affairs, homosexuality, premarital sex, foreplay, and sex with prostitutes. Among his findings: 11 percent of married males had anal sex at a frequency ranging from once to often; 36 percent of men experienced a same-sex orgasm; 13 percent of females did the same; about 50 percent of married men had an extramarital affair; and 26 percent of women did the same. His two landmark studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) were published to instant success and controversy. The reason for both was simple: the Kinsey Reports, as they became known, suggested that the sex being talked about in public was rather different from the sex going on behind closed doors.

Kinsey claimed that his goal in conducting his research was simply to fill a gap in the knowledge about sexual practices—to take a purely scientific approach and remove morals from the sex equation, leaving only numbers. "We are the recorders and reporters of facts," he said, "not the judges of the behaviors we describe." But even scientists editorialize. In a review of two biographies of Kinsey that appeared in the May 1972 Atlantic, Paul A. Robinson suggested that Kinsey's apparent impartiality in itself served as an endorsement of certain behaviors:

Whatever their motivation, the Reports were all the more effective polemically for their seeming disinterestedness. Instead, for example, of stating outright that premarital sex was desirable, Kinsey simply documented a high correlation between premarital sexual experience and sexual "adjustment" in marriage, leaving the reader free to opt against adjustment if his moral code demanded.

Many Americans were shocked and offended by Kinsey's data. "The controversy that greeted the publication of Kinsey's two Reports," Robinson wrote, "was perhaps the most heated since that unleashed by Darwin's Origin of Species." Even certain intellectuals, Robinson noted, disapproved of an examination of sexual experience that removed sex from its emotional context. Robinson pointed to a critique by Lionel Trilling in Partisan Review:

Trilling charged that the Male volume was not the neutral scientific document it pretended to be but a highly tendentious work with a permissivist bias. He granted that the Report's intentions were generous, but he regretted its naïveté and its fundamentally materialist notion of human sexuality.

In "Are Americans Well Adjusted?" (January 1961), a critique of a 1957 national survey on mental health, Charles J. Rolo went further. "The claim made by Dr. Kinsey and others," he wrote, "that their findings are 'an accumulation of scientific fact' is at best an exaggeration; the data collectors themselves concede that imponderables—the way a question is worded, the skill of an interviewer—influence their results." In Rolo's view, the Kinsey Report had a clear bias: "[It] breathes the spirit of American liberalism. It was obvious that Dr. Kinsey, despite his pose of scientific detachment, dearly wanted us all to have a good sex life."

Of course, whether or not one had a good sex life was hardly a matter of public discussion in the era before the Reports were published. Two decades before Kinsey appeared on the scene, in "Courtship After Marriage" (November 1921), "Another Bachelor" (as the anonymous author referred to himself) called such squeamishness into question. He began his piece by lamenting the great number of unmarried members of society, writing of the "over-strained, atrophied women doomed to live out their lives unmated and deprived of their rightful inheritance [to give birth]."

"Something must be decidedly wrong with our civilization," he suggested in his introduction, "to permit such a state of affairs." One of the culprits, he believed, was Puritanism:

Many a boy and a girl brought up in a Puritan environment have come to regard the first attractions of sex as something utterly unholy... They have turned to ascetic discipline and severe torments of the soul, until their outlook has become badly distorted, even at times to the extreme of insanity. These unhappy victims of Puritanism have been prevented from realizing that Nature is only asking her own: that she rejoices in the instinctive revelations of sex; that adolescence is as natural as breathing, and must not be too long absorbed... Puritanism, in its peculiar definition of moral purity and its gloomy approach to marriage, has created a stuffy atmosphere in which it is excessively difficult for men and women to meet naturally.

Even marriage, he suggested, does little to improve couples' attitudes about sex. "Many a young mother finds herself condemned to a painful reticence and evasion," he wrote, "at a time when she should be boldly exultant in her supreme realization of Nature's greatest miracle." A chaste discussion of sex, perhaps, but an endorsement of it nonetheless.

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Katharine Dunn is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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