What I admire most about the new movie “Kinsey” is its re-creation of a world in which Victorian attitudes enshroud human sexuality in taboos, ignorance and repression. It shows how badly mid-20th century Americans really needed Alfred C. Kinsey.
No scientist has polarized Americans more than this pioneer sex researcher. Nearly 50 years after his death, critics revile him as a charlatan and a fraud, while his many admirers lionize him as the architect of the sexual revolution, the patron saint of gay liberation and the archetype of a new postmodern American icon: the scientist as cultural hero.
Kinsey’s findings on Americans’ sexual behavior signaled “the end of ‘hush and pretend,’ ” to use the words of a contemporary. In “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” both national bestsellers, he revealed the jarring gap between official morality and what Americans actually did in their private lives.
Before Kinsey, sex between a man and a woman within the institution of marriage was the only sexual act sanctioned by society. Based on face-to-face interviews with more than 18,000 people, Kinsey disclosed that Americans of both sexes -- and in substantial numbers -- masturbated, engaged in premarital and extramarital sex, had homosexual sex and, most shocking of all, had had sex with animals.
Many stunned and disbelieving Americans demanded to know more about Kinsey’s science and the reliability of his data. Beginning with the publication of his first book in 1948 and continuing today, he and his team, along with their findings and methodology, have been finely dissected and scrutinized. During his lifetime, Kinsey’s research was the subject of more than 500 academic symposiums at which high-powered scholars analyzed every detail in his books, especially those data that bore directly on sexual mores, sex education and sex-offender codes.
But most of the discussions centered on three issues: Kinsey’s research methods, the representativeness of his sample and his penchant for editorializing.
Face-to-face interviews were the essence of Kinsey’s methodology, but critics questioned whether interviews were the best instrument for cutting to the truth of people’s sex lives. This concern was misplaced. Kinsey and his associates were remarkably skillful interviewers; the information they collected was trustworthy and complete. In short, you can take Kinsey’s data to the bank.
Whether his data are representative of the general population is another matter.
Only a random sample can yield such information, and Kinsey’s sex histories plainly fall short of that standard. For example, devoutly religious groups are underrepresented, while prison inmates are overrepresented. But that doesn’t mean the data are of limited value or useless.
Conceding his sample was not random, Kinsey repeatedly said that it was impossible to obtain such a sample in his field. Victorian morality and guilt shut too many people up. The next best thing, Kinsey argued, was to interview people who agreed to cooperate. Statisticians call this a “grab sample.” If such samples are large enough, are drawn from different regions of the country and include people from a variety of backgrounds, they can yield data suggestive of the general population.
The American Statistical Assn. reached much the same conclusion. In the early 1950s, it appointed a blue-ribbon panel to evaluate Kinsey’s data. The committee’s final report praised Kinsey’s studies as the best sex surveys available at the time, agreed that random sampling was impossible in sex research and basically endorsed his improvisational methods to handle the statistical challenges of his work.
Critics were right to accuse Kinsey of editorializing. Although he claimed to be a scientist merely reporting the facts, his books are filled with assumptions and deductions, and he presented his opinions as if they were facts. His goal was to promote acceptance and liberation of human sexuality and to decry the harsh attacks on people whom society branded as aberrant. In short, Kinsey was a social reformer who was passionate about the applications of his research.
Kinsey and his associates compiled more data on human sexual behavior than any researchers in history. His two volumes remain an invaluable resource, largely because they provide benchmark data. Used with caution and intelligence, they shed light on many important social issues, ranging from birth control to sex education to equal protection under the law for gays.
No discussion of Kinsey’s work can avoid his private life. Kinsey, who was married with children, was sexually attracted to men and had several homosexual relationships. His sexual history also included sadomasochistic behavior.
Do these facts taint his science?
In recent years, some people have contended that if science is the product of personal needs and motivations, this fact somehow tarnishes scientific discoveries. Kinsey’s science was driven, in part, by his needs, but those needs were not idiosyncratic. They were deeply embedded in the culture. His problems, albeit in exaggerated form, were the nation’s problems.
Kinsey showed that we are a nation awash in sexual secrets and that ours is a culture of two-way mirrors and hidden truths. One reason his findings prompted so much discussion was that many people recognized themselves in his data.
So why should we be surprised if Kinsey had secrets of his own? If anything, his private life makes his work more human and more understandable.
Indeed, Kinsey’s private life largely explains his evolution into a passionate social reformer. When he first studied the literature on human sexual behavior, he discovered that science had produced only a handful of surveys on human sexuality and these were of poor quality. He became a sex researcher to fill this gap in the literature, but he also wanted to close a hole in his heart.
As a child, Kinsey experienced firsthand the guilt that comes from repressive Victorian attitudes and teachings about sex. As an adult, he believed that sexual repression was not only morally wrong but deeply harmful to society, and he hoped that his research would produce a social dialogue that would eventually promote sexual freedom and acceptance of human sexuality. He especially wanted to prepare a place at the table for gays and lesbians, whom he believed were victimized by prejudice and bigotry.
Human sexual behavior continues to be a bitterly contested terrain in our culture wars. Many conservatives want to criminalize and restrict certain sexual behavior, while many liberals demand sexual tolerance as long as the parties are of age and their conduct consensual. Kinsey remains at the epicenter of this battleground, precisely where he stood more than 50 years ago when his monumental research brought science into bedrooms, pulled back the covers and shocked the nation.