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 wasnt
- 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 Flamingos
Dr. Alfred C. Kinseys 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 Goulds 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 Gibsons 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
Kinseys 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 Beauvoirs
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 Kinseys 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 Kinseys 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 Kinseys
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 Kinseys 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. Peoples 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
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 Kinseys
biographer Gathorne-Hardy puts it, "were to be the single most
important intellectual influence on Kinseys 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,
were 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 Darwins
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 lifes 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
The late biologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould, in Of Wasps
and WASPs, gives two related reasons. First, Kinseys 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
Kinseys 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 religions 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.
Kinseys 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
"[Kinseys 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 Vidals
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 governments 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 its 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. Kinseys 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 didnt
have much use — although it is undeniable that Freuds
work helped shatter Victorian strictures by making sex a legitimate
topic of study, at least among intellectuals, thus making Kinseys
own work easier (so did Richard von Krafft-Ebings 19th-century
studies of deviant sex and Magnus Hirschfelds pioneering sex
questionnaires based on large samples). In Kinseys view, not
only were Freuds 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).
Kinseys 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 werent
results from black people included in the studies? It was not because
of racism on Kinseys 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 Reagans Justice Department
to study pornography, and is now calling for a Congressional investigation
into Kinseys 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 isnt just a few oddballs, either. New York Citys
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 husbands
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, werent 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.
Todays 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 todays 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.