In Defense of Sex and Science

Review by Helen Cantor

I now see one Alfred C. Kinsey, author of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (human American male, Ned Rorem noted, since our habits differ from Moroccans, say, none of whom is ‘gay’ while all indulge, when possible, in same-sexuality).
I got to know Kinsey in 1948. His book came out a month after The City and the Pillar, and the shocked
New York Times would not advertise either.... I like to think that it was by observing the easy trafficking at the Astor that he figured out what was obvious to most of us, though as yet undreamed of by American society at large: Perfectly normal young men, placed outside the usual round of family and work, will run riot with each other.... Kinsey gave me a copy of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, with an inscription, complimenting me on my work in the field. Thanks, Doc. But it wasn’t all work.
- Gore Vidal, Palimpsest (1995)

Although species may be discrete, they have no immutable essence. Variation is the raw material of evolutionary change. It represents the fundamental reality of nature, not an accident about a created norm. Variation is primary; essences are illusory.... Kinsey, who understood the implications of evolutionary theory so well, was a radical anti-essentialist in taxonomy.... His anti-essentialist perspective proclaimed two truths about variation for wasps and people alike apparently homogeneous populations in one place (all college students at Indiana or all murderers at Alcatraz) would exhibit an enormous range of irreducible variation, and discrete local populations in different places (older middle-class women in Illinois or poor young men in New York) would differ greatly in average sexual behaviors.
- Stephen Jay Gould, Of Wasps and WASPs, The Flamingo’s Smile (1985)

Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey’s great contribution to the extension of human knowledge — and diminution of human misery — was his fearless exploration of human beings real sexual behavior which had never before been studied in such a broad and objective way. The appreciations above, fittingly, are from two other great secular humanist intellectual figures of 20th-century America. Writer Gore Vidal is a critic of the follies of the American Empire and Christian cruelty through the ages. Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s writings have popularized the discoveries of evolution and modern science. All three have done much to counter the forces of blind bigotry and religious superstition used by the ruling class to keep people mentally crippled, fearful and divided.

The recent movie Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson and directed by Bill Condon, is a welcome antidote to the blood-drenched religious hysteria of Mel Gibson’s creepy blockbuster The Passion of The Christ. Kinsey is a sensitive portrayal of the scientist, his researchers and wife and family, as well as some of those thousands of people across America who poured out their sexual histories in response to his thorough face-to-face questionnaire technique. The movie is based on the sympathetic biography, Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things, by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (Indiana University Press, paperback edition published in 2004), with some condensing and small changes for "artistic license." (Unless otherwise noted, facts cited are from the book.) As the author points out, "Kinsey was unique in three things: the rigour of his science, his invention of a totally new form of interview, and above all... Kinsey was read or known by, not just the whole of America, but at one time nearly the entire Western world." In other words, millions of people knew, for the first time in history, what was really going on over at the neighbors’ (and down on the farm), at least in mid-20th century America. They got quite a shock.

Kinsey’s two works were each around 800 pages long. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953, published the same year Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex came out in English) were bombshells. They laid out in amazing and undeniable detail the fact that 19 out of every 20 Americans had broken at least one law having sex. James A. Morone, in Hellfire Nation (Yale University Press, 2003), a survey of "the politics of sin in American history," summarizes a few of Kinsey’s results:

"85 percent of the white male population had premarital sex, 30 [actually 37] percent had reached at least one orgasm through homosexual contact, 50 percent had committed adultery, and one out of six farm boys had copulated with the animals.... One wife out of four had committed adultery; one of two had sexual relations before marriage; 62 percent of the married women regularly masturbated, higher frequency correlated directly with more education."

Also among Kinsey’s most shocking findings was that 4 percent of white adult males were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives. The Kinsey research team took almost 18,000 sexual histories; the male and female volumes each used material from around 5,000. His two initial books (many more were planned) used only about 10 percent of the total data Kinsey and his researchers collected!

Science vs. Religion

Kinsey was born in 1894, literally in the horse-and-buggy era. In fact, when Kinsey began teaching at Indiana University in 1920, university president William Lowe Bryan still came to work in a horse and buggy. The world was a very different place. By Kinsey’s death in 1956, Christine Jorgensen had the first sex-change operation, the U.S. had the atomic bomb — and the workers in Russia, who made a revolution in 1917, by 1956 lived in a state which was a superpower rivaling the U.S. Two world wars between competing imperialist powers, slaughtering millions in the name of profit, had raked their bloody claws across the century. Yet movie audiences watching Kinsey today, another half century later, still find much that is painfully familiar, especially the vehement religious and political reaction to Kinsey’s research. We see today similar assaults on sex and science — centrally evolution — by bigots in and out of government.

Why have things changed so much and yet so little in this regard? Capitalism has developed industry, and therefore science, tremendously, yet people remain divided into classes whose interests are irreconcilably opposed. Racial oppression, inequality, poverty, bigotry of all sorts and the subordination of women remain. People’s real sexual lives and the laws continue to conflict — look at the explosion of reaction over gay marriage. To justify this contradictory, seemingly irrational situation, irrational justifications are necessary — thus the continued value of religious superstition to class society.

The story of Kinsey himself is one of continual conflict between science and religion. As the movie shows, he found escape in nature from the strict Methodism of his father. The influence of his high school teacher, Natalie Roeth, who forthrightly taught him about Darwin and evolution, was profound. These revelations, as Kinsey’s biographer Gathorne-Hardy puts it, "were to be the single most important intellectual influence on Kinsey’s life; that, and science itself, were gradually to replace Christianity as his spiritual centre of gravity." As Marxist working-class revolutionaries who want to change this world and end human exploitation and oppression, we’re firmly on the side of science, which studies the natural world and validates theories by observation and experiment, as opposed to religion which asserts blind faith in an unreal, supernatural power controlling events.

Kinsey had a long career as a scientist, studying gall-forming wasps, before he got into human sex research. In 1926 a basic text he wrote for high school classes, An Introduction to Biology, was published. The book stated as scientific fact Darwin’s principles of evolution and natural selection. But at that time, anti-evolution frenzy was sweeping the country — especially in Tennessee (scene of the Scopes Monkey Trial the year before), Arkansas and North Carolina. In Mississippi the teaching of evolution was banned from all schools, while populist William Jennings Bryan and his followers managed to get anti-evolution legislation introduced in 14 more states. Kinsey and his editors thus had to change the word "evolution" in his book to "changes with time."

What Kinsey thought would be his life’s work, the study of the tiny, winged yet flightless gall wasp, occupied almost 20 years. Known as "get a million" Kinsey for his relentless pursuit of specimens, Kinsey eventually managed to collect over five million individual gall wasps. And the most important thing about them, he told his students, was that each one was different. Why is this so important?

The late biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould, in Of Wasps and WASPs, gives two related reasons. First, Kinsey’s work was based on the principle that variation itself is the fundamental reality of nature. The key principle here, as Gould puts it, is that "species...have no immutable essence" [emphasis added]. That is, there is no norm, no abstract baseline for what is the right or ideal form of a species. Thus to understand a given population, variations within it must be studied, and the larger the sample the better. Obviously this relates directly to Kinsey’s sex research.

The second important aspect of seeing variation as the raw material of evolution is in its social impact. Like many great ideas and innovations, evolutionary principles arose in conflict with older ways of thinking. Evolution directly counterposes itself both to the rigid, authoritarian, unchanging precepts of religion and to what is ultimately merely religion’s secular guise, the philosophy of "idealism." Living things — wasps, flowers, people — do not have an "immutable essence," or ideal form around which variations cluster. In real life, each one is individual, and that individuality itself is one of their most valuable aspects. Kinsey’s ability to extend this approach to human beings, and to their sexual behavior, enabled him to extract, with great sensitivity and patience, amazingly frank sexual histories from people of all social classes and backgrounds.

There are broader social implications, as Gould notes: "Antiessentialist thinking forces us to view the world differently.... We lose criteria for judgment by comparison to some ideal: short people, retarded people, people of other beliefs, colors, and religions are people of full status." To put it another way, to hate and fear change and variation is a hallmark of reaction and religious superstition.

The Kinsey Reports: Facts vs. Morality

"It is a fact-finding survey in which an attempt is being made to discover what people do sexually...."
- Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, Introduction to Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

"[Kinsey’s results] reveal a prevailing degradation in American morality approximating the worst decadence of the Roman empire. The most disturbing thing is the absence of a spontaneous, ethical revulsion from the premises of the study."
- Dr. Henry Van Dusen, president, Union Theological Seminary

In 1948, following World War II, the first "Kinsey report" on males, applying the basic principles of science to study of the human animal, produced an uproar. Of course, accurate sex histories depend on the reliability of the interviewees, as Kinsey was aware, thus his meticulous research techniques. The war, as all major conflicts do, had already brought out some rather dramatic changes in human behavior. Here the swashbuckling young "literary lion" Gore Vidal enters the scene, both as subject of a Kinsey history and guide to the very gay (albeit publicly unacknowledged) world of New York City at the time. He reminisced in his memoir Palimpsest about the era in which he met Kinsey:

"I also discovered, that magical winter [1945-46], the Everard Baths, where military men often spent the night, unable to find any other cheap place to stay. This was sex at its rawest and most exciting, and a revelation to me. Newly invented penicillin had removed fears of venereal disease, and we were enjoying perhaps the freest sexuality that Americans would ever know. Most of the boys knew that they would soon be home for good, and married, and that this was a last chance to do what they were designed to do with each other."

Kinsey, who himself enjoyed same-sex encounters, spent a fair amount of time in the Everard Baths, and did research at Gore Vidal’s fondly remembered Astor Bar, where, as Vidal wrote, "At any time of day or night, hundreds of men would be packed six-deep around the long oval black bar."

A valuable book by Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (Free Press, 1990), describes the impact military life had on previously isolated gay and lesbian youth, who found one another in conditions of both intense stress and license. This "anything goes" context explains some of the strange frenzy of the later McCarthyite crackdown on homosexuals as well as Communists. There really were, as it turned out, thousands of homosexuals in the State Department, and the rest of the government, and the rest of society, and everywhere, for that matter (unfortunately not the case with Communists). And there was Kinsey with his massive scientific book to prove it. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover actually tried to get Kinsey to testify on behalf of the government’s witchhunts of gays; horrified, the scientist quite properly refused. (The term "gay" or "homosexual" is used here for convenience; Kinsey felt humans exhibited such a range of sexual behavior that to force all same-sex encounters into such a rigid category was inaccurate.)

Obviously it’s impossible to summarize some 1,600 pages of his published research. This review can only touch on a few highlights, those that most cut across the grain of prevalent morality, then and, sadly, today. Kinsey’s overall finding that humans are not inherently very monogamous, that is, "faithful," was probably less of a shock than spokesmen for "respectable society" claimed (a casual survey of blues or country & western lyrics leads inexorably to the same conclusion). What was shocking was that a "high culture" intellectual, a Harvard-trained scientist, should count promiscuous behavior, or "sleeping around," as a legitimate expression of sexuality just as worthy of consideration as married sex, and that the history of a poor, working-class homosexual should be just as valuable as that of a wealthy, upper-class academic in terms of understanding human sexuality.

If for males, the prevalence of "gay sex" was the big shocker, the 1953 volume on women was most shocking in its assertion that women are sexual beings, and show quite a bit of independence and determination in finding satisfaction, too. As noted before, the 1953 survey showed that half of women had sex before marriage, one-quarter had committed adultery and 62 percent of married women masturbated. Here Kinsey comes up against that icon of the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, for whom he didn’t have much use — although it is undeniable that Freud’s work helped shatter Victorian strictures by making sex a legitimate topic of study, at least among intellectuals, thus making Kinsey’s own work easier (so did Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 19th-century studies of deviant sex and Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering sex questionnaires based on large samples). In Kinsey’s view, not only were Freud’s theories built on unreliable, minimal field data (anathema to such a relentless collector), but masturbation and homosexuality, being neither rare nor abnormal, could not possibly be evidence of neurosis. Most significantly for women, Kinsey vehemently disagreed with, and disproved, the then popular Freudian and male-chauvinist theory of "the vaginal orgasm," to which healthy, mature women were supposed to aspire. As Kinsey proved through clinical studies, the vagina has practically no nerve endings to stimulate. The clitoris, as most women know, is the center of orgasmic reaction (which is why clitoridectomy, cutting it off, is such a barbaric crime, as we wrote in "The Crime of Female Genital Mutilation, Women and Revolution" No. 41, Summer/Autumn 1992).

Kinsey’s biographer Gathorne-Hardy relates:

"He had heard in 1949...of a little township in deep Kansas where all the women were reputed to have orgasms easily, routinely and always in ordinary intercourse. This was not usual. Kinsey drove down and found that they had developed a way of soothing their little girls, a rubbing and petting technique of the genital area which did soothe them but also brought them to orgasm, a learnt reaction they thereafter retained."

This raises the extremely tricky question of childhood sexuality. The movie portrayed a Kinsey interviewer recoiling in open disgust (something they were rigorously trained not to do) and Kinsey himself giving a stern little lecture on consensuality to a male subject who admitted to sex with children. As the Kinsey biography points out, however, "At its most basic Kinsey saw sex as simply a matter of physiological reactions and sensations which were fundamentally pleasant.... Theoretically, therefore, as far as Kinsey was concerned, there was nothing automatically wrong with child-adult sex." Nor is there; the problem with such encounters is the inherently unequal power relationship and determining what is really effective consent. This for us is the determining factor, not artificial and repressive laws.

Another question, not really touched on in the movie, is why weren’t results from black people included in the studies? It was not because of racism on Kinsey’s part. In fact, he made intensive efforts to seek out black men and women for his surveys, though he apparently felt his sample was inadequate. Stephen Jay Gould noted that: True to his convictions about the fundamental character of variability, Kinsey knew that he did not have enough data to reach conclusions about black Americans or to extrapolate to other nations and cultures.

Anti-Sex Reaction Then and Now: "Why kNOw"?

"Why kNOw?" is the grotesque name, highlighting the word NO in know, for an "abstinence only" group seeking to expunge real sex education from the public schools today. This can only lead to an increase in sexual misery, disease and death: that correctly used condoms can greatly reduce the risk of HIV transmission, for example, is something every sexually active person needs to know. But knowledge itself is seen as evil — a very intentional Biblical concept, recalling the myth of Eve and the tree of knowledge, whose fruit was forbidden. Sex research is under renewed attack and so is teaching evolution in the schools; "intelligent design" is the new code word for forcing scary Old Testament myths on schoolchildren.

Fifty years after Kinsey, why are ignorance and fear about sex again being pushed on society? Why are the same people from the book-burning 1980s Reagan era, like the ridiculous yet sinister Judith Reisman, still running around loose trying to convince people sex is a crime? Reisman, recall, is the former Captain Kangaroo songwriter who got over $700,000 from Reagan’s Justice Department to study pornography, and is now calling for a Congressional investigation into Kinsey’s work, charging he was a "sex offender." "The consequences of this sexual adventurism include AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, child sexual abuse, incest and pornography, she charges." According to a recent New Yorker (6 December 2004) "Talk of the Town" piece, "Reisman also endorses a book called The Pink Swastika, which challenges the 'myths' that gays were victimized in Nazi Germany." The anti-Kinsey campaign isn’t just a few oddballs, either. New York City’s PBS TV station, WNET, panicked and refused to air a spot for the movie Kinsey because of right-wing pressure. A scientist at San Francisco State University said about sex research, "I have been in this field for 30 years, and the level of fear and intimidation is higher now than I can ever remember" (New York Times, 9 November 2004).

So why have things changed so much and yet so little? At bottom it is a question of the level of social struggle. This is a class-divided society, as we said. It is wracked by racial oppression and the segregation of black people, by the subordination of women and children within the institution of the family, and by the enforced poverty and exploitation of labor that are the lifeblood of capitalism. The capitalist profit system and its state must be shattered through socialist revolution and replaced with an integrated workers government, which will run production for human need. This will lay the basis for social alternatives in caring for children, the sick, the elderly, housework, etc. — to the oppressive family, which is shored up by the ruling class as its transmission vehicle for private property (thus requiring female sexual monogamy to ensure the husband’s legitimate heirs). Religion, which enforces mindless subordination to "higher authority" and is responsible for so much guilt and misery, will wither quickly through education once its state props are kicked away. And in a world of plenty, most of the misery and despair which seeks solace in religion will be gone.

Until then, different periods of upheaval will result in some surges forward and some periods of reaction in the struggle for human freedom. Thus, following the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953, instead of a blossoming of sexual possibilities in the U.S., down came the ax of the hideous witchhunts of the McCarthy years, as not only Communists but homosexuals and lesbians were relentlessly purged and ostracized from society. Many thousands of gays were also kicked out of their jobs and some even committed suicide, as an important new book by David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare (University of Chicago Press, 2004), details. The soldiers returning after World War II expected their jobs back, so women were pushed out of the factories and told to just be little dependent housewives again.

A decade later, seething resentments broke out. Black World War II veterans, used to fighting gun in hand, weren’t about to be pushed around again by Jim Crow laws. This kicked off the civil rights movement for black freedom. The U.S. became embroiled in the long, losing Vietnam War. A generation was inspired by the heroic battles of the North Vietnamese fighters and rebellious guerrilla leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba, who successfully challenged the U.S. empire. In the 1960s to 1970s there were, briefly, some fruits of "sexual liberation" — women got "the Pill" and abortion rights, the gay liberation movement took off as broad political radicalization led to greater freedom in the personal sphere. This died down as the U.S. managed to extricate itself, albeit badly wounded, from Vietnam.

Today’s reactionary climate is conditioned by a long ebb in class struggle and the historic defeat of the working class in the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and associated East European deformed workers states. But deep tensions remain and things change: the reactionary McCarthyite ’50s exploded into the 1960s. The movie Kinsey is an encouraging sign of resistance to today’s wave of reaction, a valuable history lesson and a reminder of the final goal of socialist revolution: the expansion of human knowledge and freedom, and its extension to every human being, in all aspects of life.

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 839, 7 January 2005.


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