November 2, 1997
Father of the Sexual Revolution
From the New York Times Review of Books.
A new biography of the man who studied sex the same way he studied insects.
By RICHARD RHODES
The biologist E. O. Wilson once offered to show me ''Kinsey's collection'' at Harvard's Agassiz Museum. We threaded through dimly lit halls to a bright room lined with sturdy wooden cases with horizontal drawers. With a flourish, Wilson rolled open one drawer after another to reveal thousands upon thousands of what looked like small winged ants mounted two deep on pins, facing right in orderly rows. ''Cynipidae,'' he announced. ''Gall wasps. Kinsey was the world expert on gall wasps before he turned to human sexuality.''
For the pioneer sex investigator Alfred C. Kinsey, studying gall wasps and what he liked to call ''the human animal'' required similar strategies of collection. The counterpart to his Agassiz treasure is a gathering of cards annotated in code and stored in file drawers at the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, which preserves some 18,000 sexual histories, the most extensive record of human sexual behavior ever compiled. Attacks on Kinsey for his temerity in exposing America's sexual secrets in his landmark studies ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Male'' (1948) and ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Female'' (1953) often focused disingenuously on his methodology; the irony that the same methodology had merited praise when he applied it to gall wasps did not cheer him.
Kinsey presented himself to the world as a scientist and a conventional husband and father -- Professor Kinsey, whom even his wife called Prok. It was an essential disguise for a man exploring controversial territory, but he was in fact far more complex. James H. Jones, a historian at the University of Houston, reveals in this rich, awkward biography that Kinsey was energetically bisexual -- Jones says ''homosexual'' despite Kinsey's continuing sexual relationship with his wife -- and a serious masochist. Kinsey also organized group sex among his senior staff, their spouses and outside volunteers, which he observed and had filmed, evidently to condition his investigators to their work and bond them together under his paternal authority as well as to record sexual behavior directly.
The boy was father to the man. Kinsey suffered a rigid, inhibited childhood, growing up in Hoboken and South Orange, N.J., under the thumb of a dictatorial petit-bourgeois father who taught at the Stevens Institute. By the time Kinsey escaped in 1914, at the age of 20, leaving home permanently after two years at Stevens to attend Bowdoin College in Maine without family financial support, he was one of the nation's first Eagle Scouts, a Y.M.C.A. camp counselor, a churchgoer and a serious pianist. Privately, still a virgin, he struggled with homoerotic feelings and punished himself during masturbation by running a toothbrush up his urethra.
After Bowdoin, Kinsey did graduate work at Harvard under the celebrated entomologist William Morton Wheeler. Wheeler collected ants (his vast collection preceded Kinsey's into the Agassiz Museum); Kinsey took up gall wasps: small winged but usually terrestrial insects that bore holes into roses, blackberries, goldenrods and oaks and deposit eggs whose larvae secrete a chemical that stimulates the plants to grow swellings called galls, on which the pupae then feed. Multitudinous and various, they had hardly been studied before. They had, Jones notes, ''fascinating life histories.'' Some species reproduce in alternating generations, so that the offspring, Kinsey would write, ''bear no more resemblance to their parents, for instance, than a sheep bears to a goat, or a squirrel to a groundhog'' -- no more resemblance than Alfred may have felt he bore to his father.
At Indiana University, where he found appointment as an assistant professor in 1920, Kinsey met and married a confident undergraduate chemistry major named Clara McMillen. She became Mac to his Prok. For a honeymoon, they camped out in the White Mountains. They were unable to consummate their marriage for months, and then only after Mac had minor genital surgery, but four children followed by 1928. They designed their own house. Kinsey grew an immense garden, wrote a textbook and traveled the United States collecting gall wasps.
Brilliant originals come in two kinds: emotionally stable and emotionally extremely labile. Marriage, family and the sublimation of work were not enough to suppress Kinsey's intensifying lability. He dropped religion, studied up on sex, counseled students and strangers in its arts, worked in his garden on Sunday mornings nearly naked and began seducing male graduate students on field trips. Exploring the scientific literature, he discovered that human sexuality was terra incognita, much as gall wasps had been. ''You know,'' he told a colleague, ''there isn't much science here.'' It was from this intensifying interest, Jones demonstrates, and not, as Kinsey claimed later, because students brought him questions, that his decision in 1938 to begin collecting histories emerged. There was double meaning in Kinsey's assertion early in ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Male'' that ''modern taxonomy is the product of an increasing awareness among biologists of the uniqueness of individuals, and of the wide range of variation which may occur.'' The first unique individual who caught the emerging sexologist's attention was Alfred C. Kinsey himself.
Jones questions Kinsey's motives for studying sexuality. I found his assaults on those motives both patronizing and simplistic. Describing the student counseling sessions that supplied Kinsey with his first interviews, Jones writes snidely that they ''afforded Kinsey the perfect cover for immersing himself in the intimate details of other people's lives,'' adding, ''however compelling his prurient needs, altruistic motives also came into play.'' These and similar condescensions ultimately vitiate what might have been an exceptional biography. Jones appears to cherish the quaint notion that good science is disinterested science, that a scientist must somehow contrive to avoid emotional investment in his work. Kinsey was viciously attacked in his day for reporting data rather than making moral judgments. Unable to distinguish between the personal values that motivated Kinsey and the careful protocols that guided his scientific project, Jones concludes that Kinsey was promoting a hidden agenda of sexual liberation and tries to use that conclusion to impeach his work.
Sometimes Jones attacks what he calls the ''materialism'' of science itself. Kinsey's ''was not an original mind,'' he claims; ''his ideas reflected little more than the materialistic, mechanistic concepts of scientific positivism.'' Jones harnesses up these antique hobbyhorses, riding an old and moribund debate between science and religion.
As he had with gall wasps, Kinsey drove for quantity from the beginning of his researches into sexual behavior. Only abundant data could bring the range of individual variation to light. Later, he would be criticized for his sampling strategy, which favored 100 percent samples of large groups in lieu of the randomizing that his controversial subject matter made impossible; however, the leading statisticians of the day examined his sampling carefully and gave it a clean bill of health. Sixty-two histories collected in six months in 1938 became 671 in 1939 and 959 in 1940. In the prime years of surveying during World War II, Kinsey and his two key associates were interviewing several thousand men and women annually. All the questions were memorized, delivered rapid-fire in whatever argot the subject spoke, and Kinsey laughed at the notion that exaggeration and lies might escape him. Interlocking questions, determined eye contact, vocal denunciation if he suspected prevaricating: all enforced honesty. So did his increasing and finally unparalleled depth of experience. One of his backers would write that Kinsey was ''a genius in this extremely difficult field of inquiry.''
What he discovered shocked the nation. By today's measure, Americans in the first half of the century were sexually oppressed; the gulf between public standards and private behavior was extreme. Homosexuality and adultery were held criminal, masturbation a cause of mental illness, premarital sex profoundly shameful. Kinsey revealed all these practices and many others considered perverted -- oral sex, for example -- to be commonplace. He was the first researcher to investigate homosexuality in depth and to defend it as normal variation. Jones, to his credit, emphasizes the importance of that work, which the glare of Kinsey's heterosexual investigations has obscured and which contributed vitally to the march toward tolerance that continues today.
Kinsey found support for his research at the National Research Council and the Rockefeller Foundation, shrewdly obligating his sponsors in those organizations by collecting their sexual histories. Jones's investigation of the politics of foundations, so significant a factor in research financing today, is masterly and demonstrates what this biography might have been had his provincialism not obscured his view of Kinsey and his work.
With the publication of ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,'' Kinsey found himself under relentless attack. The most vicious assaults came from the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, who perceived a threat in his quantitative and tolerant view of sexual variation, and from intellectuals like Margaret Mead and Reinhold Niebuhr. Mead, Jones says, ''criticized Kinsey for upsetting the balance between ignorance and knowledge upon which social restraint depended,'' a curious position for a scientist to take. When ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Female'' was published, Niebuhr attacked the man who defended women as sexual and social equals for his ''abysmal ignorance of the complexities in the heights and depths of the human spirit.'' (''I am a great lover of music,'' Kinsey replied to a similar attack, ''but if I were a physicist studying sound, I would be resistant to the notion I had to write a treatise on the esthetics of music.'' ''It was not that he considered love unimportant,'' Jones writes. ''It was simply that science had not yet discovered a way to measure love.'')
When Dean Rusk assumed the direction of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1952, Kinsey was soon cut off. Homophobic McCarthyism put the fear of God into the brave Eastern Establishment, but men of the ruling generation thought public discussion of sex beyond the pale in any case. Kinsey had dreamed of collecting 100,000 histories; his dream was not to be. Buckling under the stress of failing financing, he took to more extreme masochism, at some point even circumcising himself with a pocketknife without anesthesia. Heart disease flared. An embolism killed him in 1956, at the age of 62; his institute moved to a lower profile and barely survived, though Kinsey's successors were able in time to rescue it.
Jones's biography, which was researched across a quarter of a century, improves as it goes. His final assessment of his subject is positive: ''He was a pioneer, an explorer who blazed the trail for those who followed. It was he who convinced most Americans that human sexual behavior could and should be studied scientifically and, just as important, that scientific data should help inform discussions of social policy.'' I wish Jones had reconsidered his earlier attacks on Kinsey's scientific integrity in the light of this more mature and balanced view.
Kinsey knew better. ''He had read translations of the work of Max Hodann, of Germany, a pioneer in the field of sex research,'' his associate Wardell Pomeroy writes, ''and was extremely enthusiastic about his work. When a friend reminded him that Hodann was an avowed Communist who had died in exile, Kinsey answered, 'What has that to do with the excellence of his work?' ''