The Case for Dr. Kinsey

A review of two biographies of the controversial sex researcher

By Paul A. Robinson

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.

Although an official biography, and. a sympathetic one at that, this is also an admirably candid book. No attempt has been made to disguise Kinsey's failings. Pomeroy characterizes him as warm, persuasive, enthusiastic, yet at the same time driven, authoritarian, and totally intolerant of criticism. Above all he emerges as a man of great passion, who at one point in his life seriously hoped to become a concert pianist, and whose tastes in literature and music were deeply Romantic.

The controversy that greeted the publication of Kinsey's two Reports was perhaps the most heated since that unleashed by Darwin's Origin of Species. And as with Darwin, there were two levels of criticism, the scientific and the moral. The scientific criticisms were directed largely at statistical weaknesses in Kinsey's research, especially the overweighting of certain groups in the sample, such as prisoners. These objections considerably troubled Kinsey, who, for all his preoccupation with gathering ever more histories, was rather unsure of himself as a statistician. From our present vantage point the statistical criticisms seem quite inconsequential. It may be statistically significant, for example, that Kinsey's figure of 37 percent for the proportion of men who had had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm was slightly exaggerated, and that the correct figure is closer to 33 percent. But this sort of revision hardly undermines the essential impact of Kinsey's revelation.

Kinsey dismissed all moral criticisms of his work as "moralistic," that is, as inspired by prudery. As a debating technique this was exactly comparable to Freud's labeling all criticisms of psychoanalysis "resistances." Both tactics are infuriating, since they deny the possibility of legitimate intellectual dissent. Yet Kinsey was probably justified in most instances. Much of the criticism was moralistic, even when it appeared in secular and liberal guise.

The moral critique was advanced most subtly by Lionel Trilling in an article originally published in Partisan Review. Trilling charged that the Male volume was not the neutral scientific document it pretended to be but a highly tendentious work a distinct permissivist bias. He granted that the Report's intentions were generous but he regretted its naivete and its fundamentally materialist notion of human sexuality.

There was some justice in these strictures. Kinsey never recognized that by asking certain questions rather than others he committed himself to a particular conception of sexual life, which, while "objective" in the sense that it did not contradict the facts, was nonetheless partial. He tended to ask about physical acts, not about the internal states accompanying them, and he naturally found it easier to measure the quantity rather than the quality of acts. Kinsey's methodological unselfconsciousness probably cannot be defended—except to say that it is a common failing—but his decision, to measure acts and to stress quantity is, on the contrary, quite defensible. Against Trilling's emphasis on quality and psychological context, Kinsey made the legitimate assumption that nothing is so important in sexual life as numbers. The Reports revealed the extraordinary extent to which we differ precisely in the amount and the specific physical forms of sexual activity we desire. A good deal of sexual unhappiness, Kinsey suggested, results from the pairing of individuals who are incompatible in sheer physical and quantitative terms. There are, of course, other considerations in a sexual relationship, not to mention a romantic or marital relationship, and Kinsey perhaps underestimated their importance. But it was his virtue to have drawn attention to the material realities of sexual life that high-minded critics dismiss too easily as merely "mechanical."

The critics were right in asserting that the Reports had been inspired by moral as well as scientific principles At least implicitly, both the Male and Female volumes argued against existing sexual restrictions by showing that actual sexual behavior bore little relation to those restrictions. The degree to which Kinsey's intentions were consciously moral remains unsettled. Pomeroy reiterates the claim that the project was guided solely by the desire "to find out...what people did sexually." 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 so demanded.

No doubt Kinsey ranks with Freud, Havelock Ellis, and now Masters and Johnson among the great sexual researchers of our century. Yet I am inclined to question Pomeroy's judgment that he belongs with the scientific immortals. Whether because of inherent intellectual limitations, or because he was forced to devote so much of his energy to the monumental task of gathering the facts, he left almost nothing in the way of concepts with which to interpret those facts. His few ventures into the realm of explanation were both tentative and simplistic. He inclined to a crude associationist theory of sexual behavior, arguing that sexual preferences, like preferences in food, were based on what one happened to encounter first. There is thus nothing in his work to compare with Freud's grand theoretical design, which, whatever its inadequacies, at least addresses itself imaginatively to the great sexual mysteries. I don't wish to belittle Kinsey's empirical accomplishment or to deny the depth and generosity of his moral commitment, but what one misses in his work is some effort to construct a reasoned explanation of the human sexual experience. As a theorist, although not as a researcher, he falls short of the immortals.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1972/05/the-case-for-dr-kinsey/303645/