Considering Kinsey

In April 2005 I was having a pretty tough time. A paper that my partner and I had presented at a conference on our research with polyamorous women had proved very interesting to the press and had prompted articles in nearly all the national newspapers as well as international ones. Most of these referred to my own personal bisexual polyamorous identity as well as my research because I had used my relationships with men and women as examples of a polyamory in our paper. I had never coped with anything like it before. Every day for a week I woke up terrified about what the newspapers might say that day, and overwhelmed by the number of emails I was receiving from programme-makers and journalists. I was anxious about what my colleagues, where I worked and in my academic societies, would make of some of the tabloid headlines and the way my personal life was being presented alongside my research Suddenly I was out to everybody in my life and everyone had an opinion on what I had done, from calling me stupid and questioning my sexual identity motives in presenting the research, to being pleased that I had increased awareness of polyamory to this extent.

It was in this context that one of my partners took me along to see the biopic Kinsey about the pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956). He thought it would do me good to watch a film about somebody who had researched sexuality and who had stood by his work even when his personal life was under attack. I found the film incredibly powerful, and certainly resonated with the appalling time Kinsey had in the press after having dealt with the relatively tiny amount of, mostly positive, press interest I had received. Kinsey himself fascinated me. How could somebody work so incredibly hard in the face of such huge opposition? Alternative sexualities certainly aren’t completely accepted today, but they are not regarded as sins, crimes or sicknesses in the way they were back in 1950s America. And it was in this context that Kinsey stood up and told the world about the prevalence of same-sex sexual behaviour, pre- and extra-marital sex, and masturbation. I was also interested in the way his own bisexuality and non-monogamy influenced, or were influenced by, his research. I immediately bought the biography that the film was based on (by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy) and read it from cover to cover. This article gives a summary of the life and works of Alfred Kinsey (as depicted in the film and biography), and concludes with reviews of the film from the three other BCN readers.

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Kinsey was vital to the history of the recognition of bisexuality because he was one of the first sexologists to recognize that people could be somewhere between entirely heterosexual and entirely homosexual, and, in fact, that most people were. However, he did not start as a human sex researcher, but was rather a zoologist who spent the first twenty years of his career studying gall wasps, taking detailed measurements of hundreds of thousands of these creatures which he had collected from all over America.

The film and biography imply that several factors conspired in Kinsey’s abandonment of this research in favour of studying human sexual behaviour. First, there was his own sexually frustrated upbringing, in a family where his father (a Methodist preacher) forbade sexual relationships with girls and knowledge of sexual matters. The film shows Kinsey as a Boy Scout leader telling one of the other boys how to avoid masturbating. There are also hints that Kinsey had sexual interest in other boys, and he certainly had what Gathorne-Hardy refers to as a ‘romantic friendship’ with one of his fellow scouts and subsequent sexual relationships with male friends. Then, there was Kinsey’s own experience when he got together with his wife, Clara McMillan (Mac), in 1921. Sexual inhibitions at the time meant that neither of them knew much about sex and, on their honeymoon, they found that they were unable to have intercourse. There is a wonderful scene in the film where Kinsey ends the awkward silence between them by proposing that he will sort this out the way he would any other problem and seek advice from an expert. They see a doctor who diagnoses Mac with a thick hymen which can be corrected by surgery, but also assesses Kinsey’s role in the problem by asking the couple to estimate the size of his penis against a ruler: it is beyond the lengths measurable on the instrument.

Perhaps the key factor in turning Kinsey towards human sex research was his teaching at Indiana University, which brought him into contact with students who were being harmed by the prevailing ignorance and negativity surrounding sex, just as he had been himself. He began to see them individually to answer their questions about sex. He then started a ‘marriage course’ where he provided frank information about human sexual behaviour. As he taught this course he realized that students were mostly concerned that what they desired or did sexually was abnormal. There was very little information available about what constituted ‘normal’ human sexual behaviour so Kinsey began to interview students confidentially so that he could provide them with ‘established facts’ about human behaviour and not just conjecture. He was amazed to find an astonishing diversity of experiences and began to cast his net wider, developing an extensive interview for eliciting sexual histories, and questioning people from all walks of life.

Over the years Kinsey obtained funding to further his research and recruited several other people to conduct his sex history interviews. The film cleverly starts with these interviewers quizzing Kinsey and Mac themselves about their lives, something that Kinsey insisted on in order to ensure that they had the interview techniques down perfectly. Whatever interviewees told them was written down in a special code so that it was kept completely confidential, something that arguably meant that he obtained more honest responses than many other sexologists have. As part of the interview, Kinsey established his famous seven-point scale of sexual orientation. Kinsey stayed away from any considerations of sexual feelings or identities in his research, purely focusing on sexual behaviour (what someone does or has done rather than what they are). This was part of his aim to be completely scientific. For that reason he never referred to bisexuality as identity but only to heterosexual and homosexual practices.

The first book based on the research, Sexual Behavior and the Human Male, was published in 1948, drawing together the results of 18,000 sex histories. This was followed by Sexual Behavior and the Human Female in 1953. The latter volume, particularly, was deeply shocking to a puritanical America of the 19950s since it found that women have orgasms and many were sexually active before marriage. Some of the key findings included in these two books are reported below.

Key findings from the Kinsey reports males females
Have masturbated 92% 62%
Have had pre-marital intercourse 85% 50%
Have had extramarital intercourse 30-45% 26%
Have had at least one homosexual encounter 37% 13%

The famous ‘1 in 10’ statistic also comes from Kinsey’s male volume. That was the number of men who reported being more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years.

To get a full picture of Kinsey’s character it is best to read the biography, because the film cannot really get across the complexities of this man in ninety minutes. It seems that he was on the one hand driven and extremely perfectionistic, working extremely long hours, collecting massive amounts of data, and hating to admit that he was wrong about anything. On the other he was kind and compassionate, almost to a fault. He answered ever letter he received over the course of his career and was often obviously deeply moved by the stories of the people he spoke to. He expected a great deal from the other people in his life, often imposing his beliefs on his co-researchers, for example making them have the cold showers that he believed to be beneficial for good health when they were on the road. He battled on with his work even after the negative publicity around the female volume and the withdrawal of his funding, even though it was proving extremely detrimental to his health. He was extremely serious but not without a dry sense of humour. Before the film reviews from other BCN readers I will conclude with one of my favourite moments in the film is this one which takes place in one of his lectures.

Kinsey: Who can tell me which part of human body can enlarge a hundred times? Umm……… Miss!
Student: I’m sure I don’t know, and you have no right to ask such a question in a mixed class.
Kinsey: I was referring to the pupil of your eye, young lady, and I think I should tell you that your are in for a terrible disappointment.