Let’s Talk About Sex

The Kinsey Controversy

Revolutionary Worker #1262, December 19, 2004, posted at rwor.org

Letter from a reader:

Kinsey —seeing this movie was a warming experience in an increasingly chilling atmosphere. Here was a man, a scientist, a nerd, who saw a great need for humanity and who brought his talent and effort to bear to meet that need. In doing so, he changed the world, and himself. I don’t know how many people remember Alfred C. Kinsey and the two "atomic bombs" he dropped on the world: in 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male , and in 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female . He has been credited by some for launching the "sexual revolution" in the 1960s that more of us do remember. And now Kinsey , the movie, seems to be the next onscreen battleground in the culture wars.

Cut to Bloomington, Indiana in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Married college students at the University of Indiana were so ignorant of sexuality that they practically demanded a course be taught on the subject. As fate would have it, a seasoned entomologist who evidently had peaked in his study of the gall wasp stepped forward and offered to teach the course. He knew that the alternative was for sexuality to be taught as "hygiene," meaning continued ignorance and suppression. As shown dramatically in the movie, the course became quite popular. But the students asked more questions than Kinsey could answer. Confronted with these challenges, Kinsey had a choice: continue the course or do research on the subject of human sexuality. The rest is history.

This is a very enjoyable, enlightening, and provocative movie, so I’ll try not to say too much about the plot.

I must say though, as a social scientist who studied Kinsey in the 1970s, that the opening scene was worth my dime. Here was Kinsey painstakingly training his younger colleagues in his now famous interviewing techniques. Researchers still study these techniques. In the Male volume, he spends 25 pages describing them in detail: "Putting the subject at ease," "Assuring privacy," "Establishing rapport," "Systematic coverage," "Avoiding bias," etc. As a trained taxonomist, Kinsey knew generally how to approach an investigation using the scientific method, but he also knew how to listen to his colleagues and subjects, and he developed an entirely new way to find out what was in their heads in as objective a way as possible given the daunting challenges. Only a handful of these highly trained interviewers took all of the 18,000 or so sexual histories contained in the two volumes.

The movie also shows the forms that Kinsey developed to take coded notes so as to assure confidentiality. In the acknowledgments in his first book, Kinsey thanks the many people who contributed histories: "It has taken considerable courage for many of them to discuss such intimate aspects of their histories, and to risk their confidences with the scientific investigators. They have contributed in order that there should be an increase in our knowledge of this important aspect of human biology and sociology." He failed to mention his own courage. His writing was definitely dry, and many people didn’t really read the books after buying them because they failed the titillation test, but the content was volcanic. He went up against conventional wisdom, and a lot of conventional authority, especially with the Female volume coming at the time of the Cold War. He died in 1956, not long after the volume on female sexuality was released, evidently quite discouraged in his efforts to raise funds for the continued survival of the project that later became the Kinsey Institute.


What was so molten about the results of these studies? It seems that in every category of sexual behavior, there was more of it going on than conventional wisdom predicted. 92% of males and 62% of females masturbated, 37% of males and 13% of females had at least one same-sex experience to orgasm, there was lots of oral and anal sex, premarital and extramarital sex, etc. Not only were these sorts of behaviors not widely spoken of, most of them were illegal. Kinsey stated that 95% of the males interviewed engaged in sexual behavior that was defined as illegal in many state laws.

Today the same fucking hypocrites who dogged Kinsey himself are now calling for a boycott of the film, hounding the actors and sponsors and anybody else who supports it. Talk-radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger called for a boycott of the film, and Concerned Women of America have a flyer on their website to download and distribute at theaters. Catholic Outreach has published a book called The Kinsey Corruption: An Exposé on the Most Influential "Scientist" of Our Time . Robert Knight, director of the conservative Culture and Family Institute in Washington, said evangelical Christian and Catholic groups also want to bring to bear the political clout they demonstrated in the political election. In reference to Kinsey he said, "Just as Reagan was not content to contain communism but announced a rollback, pro-family organizations are not content to protest the latest outrage anymore, but will seek legislation and will punish sponsors of lewd entertainment." The authority that all of these sources rely upon is long-time Kinsey critic Dr. Judith Reisman.

Who is the "good doctor"? Her degree, buried in a lengthy resume, is in communications. Her journal articles, also hidden and poorly cited, consist of two diatribes against Kinsey published in two pseudo-scientific journals, the Journal of Human Sexuality (a Christian, anti-gay publication of George Rekers) and The Journal of Ethnology and Sociobiology (a publication that promotes theories of eugenics). She lists herself as a member of Women in Neuroscience, without any specialized training or research in that area. She is a darling of the National Review , the magazine of William F. Buckley. Using her obvious skills in publicity, she has parlayed her unsubstantiated claims against Kinsey into an industry, including many magazine articles, speeches, television talk show appearances, and court testimony (including against the exhibition of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). When she published her first book Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud , she sued the Kinsey Institute for its response to her allegations. Her suit was thrown out permanently "with prejudice."

What does Reisman say about Kinsey? "He found pedophiles all over the country, sought them out and encouraged them to engage in sex with children and report on it to him." She also alleges that he cooked his statistical data and based many of his findings on interviews with convicted sex offenders.

James Jones, who by all accounts is not a particularly sympathetic biographer in his Pulitzer Prize winning Kinsey: A Public/Private Life , and whom Reisman herself quotes, stated that there is no evidence for either allegation, and that Kinsey was "a rigorous scientist to his fingertips." And Jones, unlike Reisman, actually did research, spending years interviewing Kinsey’s colleagues, family, and acquaintances. If you read what Concerned Women for America and the other Christian fascists are saying about Kinsey, relying on Reisman, Kinsey actively directed, paid for, and encouraged sexual molestation of and experimentation on children. What he did, as explained clearly in the book, and further illuminated in the movie, was to interview nine men who had molested children (and one who evidently kept meticulous records of what he did). He wanted to document the sexual responsiveness of the entire species—he wanted to get to the truth about the range of human sexual behavior.

As for his statistics, Kinsey was well aware of the fact that his samples were not random, and that he would never be able to get a random sample. He tried to compensate in various ways, including by getting a very large sample over the entire country, and by sampling 100% of various subgroups. There have been subsequent reanalyses of some of the data, including after taking out all of the prison population, with no basic change in the result. In fact, there were several surprising comparisons of various populations, including of college age men and women (the largest sample) with a large sample of men and women their parents’ age, also showing little difference in the sexual behaviors engaged in. But he clearly did not condone sexual predation or abuse.

Whatever his flaws and excesses (well depicted in the movie), Kinsey was a scientist. But not to Reisman, who says, "He was a change agent—the most significant change agent in American cultural life in the 20th century. The consequences of this sexual adventurism include AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, child sexual abuse, incest, and pornography." Here is what she sums up in her article in the Journal of Human Sexuality in 1996: "Prior to the Kinsey Reports, American law held that not only were sodomy, adultery, fornication and the like transgressions, those who committed such acts were themselves unacceptable. Post-Kinsey, these once-criminal acts and their actors began moving toward acceptability. The new law system used Kinsey as its primary and only scientific authority, and pointed America in a downward direction, promoting today’s entire panoply of sexual deviances more common to the Pre-Christian era." The National Review,in its 1997 cover story on Reisman, states: "As her experience shows, tolerance is not the all-pervasive dogma of our day, but is specifically withdrawn from people and institutions who behave as if no revolution in sexual mores has occurred, or who obstinately question its wisdom." In other words, in a manner of turning reality on its head that is typical of these reactionaries, the right wing claims that Reisman is the scientist who is being suppressed.

As the RCP’s post-election statement put it: "On November 3, George Bush called up the newly elected Republican senators who believe in such things as the death penalty for abortion providers and banning gays from teaching and said, ’It’s time to get the job done.’ Capitalism personified, Bush told the press, ’Let me put it to you this way: I earned political capital in the campaign, and now I intend to spend it.’ He is full of himself—on a mission to take this whole nightmare to an even more intense, more repressive level." This will be felt by the people of the world in large and small ways. Sex researcher Gilbert Herdt, who runs the National Sexuality Resource Center at San Francisco State University, said, "I have been in this field for 30 years, and the level of fear and intimidation is higher now than I can ever remember."

Focus on the Family spokeswoman Kristi Hamrick said, "We want to have a serious intellectual conversation about who Kinsey was and what he did." For the last two years, ever since Hamrick’s organization learned that director and writer Bill Condon (who also directed Gods and Monsters ) was planning to make the film, they have been working to enlist scholars outside the evangelical Christian community to help debunk Kinsey’s research. They came up with Judith Reisman.

O.K., let’s have a serious intellectual conversation. If Kinsey made scientific errors, the truth can only help those of us working for a better world. But these Christian fascists are not interested in truth or reality. And the irony is that they are repeating the same lies that Kinsey discovered were keeping a whole generation of youth in the dark about human sexuality. A serious intellectual conversation cannot possibly be based on the ignorance and superstition enforced by the Christian fascists—whose views of sexuality are entirely bound up with enforcing and reinforcing patriarchal values and traditional sex roles founded in large part on the historic subjugation and suppression of women. That is why they find the movie Kinsey so threatening and why they are afraid of the truth. And the consequences of this ignorance to humanity—the pain and oppression that has been visited on people for thousands of years as a result of this theocratic nonsense—are totally unacceptable.

I highly recommend the movie Kinsey to all those who want to change the world—let’s get it on!