Doctor Sex, Ph.D.

Are we all Kinseyans now?


Alfred C. Kinsey is controversial again. A biologist who spent the first part of his career as an unobtrusive cataloger of gall wasps, Kinsey was, depending on whom you ask, either the harbinger or the catalyst of the sexual revolution. His frank catalogs of American sexual practices, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), were a revelation at a time when many Americans still told their kids that touching yourself down there was a form of "self-abuse."

Now Kinsey is the subject of two major works of fiction, Bill Condon's film Kinsey and T.C. Boyle's novel The Inner Circle. Indiana University, where Kinsey was based for 36 years and created the institute that bears his name, apparently sensed a propitious occasion to move a few copies of Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's 1998 biography: It has issued a new paperback edition of Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things. It is an indication of the religious right's loathing of Kinsey that the picture, probably the least titillating movie ever in which sex plays a central role, prompted protests and denunciatory press releases.

For many who bemoan the greater sexual openness of the last half-century, Kinsey is not merely a messenger to be shot but a figure imbued with an almost supernatural power to change the culture. If only Kinsey's influence could be undone, they sometimes imply, the last 50 years would switch into rewind, a sexual implosion ending with the lid clattering closed atop Pandora's Box. For those who celebrate the sexual revolution, the doctor was the ultimate father confessor, listening patiently to the nation's sex history, then improving on absolution by declaring that almost none of it was a sin after all.

Condon's film, while occasionally painting Kinsey as irritable or emotionally obtuse, is a passion play, with Kinsey a martyr to the cause of sexual liberation. Seen in The Inner Circle through the eyes of an admiring younger colleague, John Milk (a barely disguised version of Kinsey collaborator Clyde Martin), Boyle's Kinsey is a more domineering, far less sympathetic figure who inspires in colleagues and subordinates the kind of terror his own father had once inspired in him. Taken together, these portraits capture the paradoxes of the real Kinsey: Rebelling against a strict Methodist upbringing of the sort that had caused so much sexual frustration, he became an evangelist for sexual liberty. And as he became the imperious head of a personality cult, he preached total freedom but demanded total fealty.

Yet The Inner Circle reads as an encomium next to the bilious assessments of Kinsey's detractors, among whom monster seems to be the favored epithet. Most of their criticisms are hysterical. Because Kinsey used data gathered from the sex histories of pedophiles, for example, he is absurdly charged with suborning child molestation. Even the very real flaws in Kinsey's studies—his tendency toward Skinnerian reductionism, his relatively unsophisticated statistical methods—are magnified beyond recognition. Many people, for instance, "know" that Kinsey is responsible for the "discredited" claim that 10 percent of the population is gay. But he never said any such thing: His actual claim was that about 4 percent are exclusively homosexual, while 10 percent are predominantly homosexual for periods of two years or more.

It's well known that Kinsey's extensive sample of sexual histories—still used as a benchmark for contemporary sex researchers—relied too heavily on subjects in prisons or mental hospitals, a fact he belatedly recognized and attempted to correct in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Less well known is that one of his colleagues, Paul Gebhard, re-examined the data sets in Human Male with those suspect histories excluded and found that the effect on Kinsey's conclusions was insignificant.

It's easier to focus on Kinsey's flaws because so many of his then-radical findings—adolescent masturbation all but ubiquitous! premarital sex rampant! married couples performing oral sex! millions of gays among us!—now seem so obvious as to barely deserve mention. But some of Kinsey's other discoveries, though uncontroversial among professionals in the field, remain unassimilated.

At a preview screening of the film in Washington, D.C., director Condon offered the surprising opinion that Kinsey would have had strong reservations about the contemporary gay movement. Americans still tend to think of sexuality in binary terms: a world of absolute straights and gays, with the mysterious bisexual tacked on as an afterthought. Kinsey mapped sexual orientation on a seven-point scale, on which exclusive heterosexuality and homosexuality were only the extremes—a scale further developed by later researchers. That view has penetrated popular consciousness far less than Kinsey's other findings. (Some gay activists may fear that a less rigidly binary view of sexuality would give ammunition to traditionalists: "If it's all a fluid continuum, then why can't you change?")

Kinsey's more complex picture of sexuality reveals that, in a sense, even the term gay rights is unfortunate. After all, we don't refer to free speech as "political agitators' rights." Perhaps a more Kinseyan conception would encourage us to recognize "gay rights," if we must use the term, as rights we all enjoy, whether or not we care to exercise them.

The tendency to make sexual politics into identity politics may have been exacerbated by Kinsey's own strategy of focusing on the prevalence of different sexual behaviors—homosexuality, masturbation, sado-masochism—on the theory that "everybody's sin is nobody's sin." The doctor's thought is well-intentioned, but it doesn't make much sense. Philately is doubtless more aberrant than deception, but that tells us nothing about their relative morality.

Better is the lesson Condon's Kinsey offers in one of his lectures on gall wasps: "If every living thing is different, then diversity becomes life's irreducible fact." Kinsey tried to tell America that all sexual behavior is normal. A better lesson might be that, in the bedroom and elsewhere, we're all fantastically weird.?