Liberation? Perversion? Or a Guy with a
October 5, 2004 3:33 PM   Subscribe

Alfred Kinsey: Liberator or Pervert? (New York Times link, I hope you know the drill by now.) A newish movie explores the life of Alfred Kinsey, sex researcher and founder of the Kinsey Institute. Kinsey was author of the controversial book Sexual Behavior In The Human Male. The controversy has blossomed oh these many years later with accusations that Kinsey's work is fraudulent, and conducive to child based porn and fantasy. The ultra-right seems obsessed with sexualizing his research in terms of "protecting the children". His observations have been linked to the addictive, destructive nature of pornography, that twists our notions of sex and love, and even enables the sexual abuse of college students in class. (Yeah, I know, that last sounds kinky, doesn't it?)
posted by Wulfgar! (11 comments total)

O'Rilley as part of his crusade against Indiana University had one of the people making the accusation that Kinsey's sex research involved the abuse of thousands of children. The fact that Bloomington, IN during the 50s was not that big of a city and didn't have thousands of children to abuse was conveniently not brought up.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:52 PM on October 5, 2004

I'm halfway through T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle, which also deals with Kinsey. According to Boyle, Kinsey and his team travelled all over the place gathering data, so that defense alone won't fly, KirkJobSluder.
posted by muckster at 4:19 PM on October 5, 2004

muckster: However, the Riesman claims are pretty specific that the abuse occured on the Indiana University campus. In fact, much of the accusations are based on a misinterpretation of a single table that does not report the results of experiments, but data extracted from the diary of a pedophile. When children were interviewed by Kinsey, they were interviewed with their parents present. A more detailed reporting of how the how the data was obtained reveals that Riesman's claims all stem from a single source among 5,000.

In regards to lurid details about Kinsey's sexual life, it should be noted that the most extreme accusations seem to be both speculative and uncollaborated.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:52 PM on October 5, 2004

That is not to say that Kinsey is not without his flaws. He does seem to be guilty of misrepresenting his research data. His choice to protect a couple of the pedophiles among his research subjects, and his willingness to take his interview and diary data at face value is highly problematic.

But the other side seems to be just as willing to distort the data in order to claim that Kinsey supervised experiments with a huge population of children, and to put much of the social woes of the later 20th century at his feet.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:16 PM on October 5, 2004

I knew two people who were both undergraduates at IU at the height of Kinsey. The story behind the story was that the whole region had been tormented by bible-thumpers, and the Kinsey Institute, with the blessing of the IU President, gave them a profound kick in the shins.

Both of these people considered it to be like the Scopes Trial, as far as a conflict between science and modernity on one side and reactionary fundamentalism on the other, with the prize being what the purpose of higher education was supposed to be: religious or secular.

IU had been purposefully built in Bloomington to get it far away from the sin available in Indianapolis, and had been lorded over for many years as a quasi-religious school.

The IU President, Herman B. Wells, a brilliant and crafty administrator, set up the Institute so that while it was on University property, it was not part of the University, per se, and so the fundies couldn't lean on the Regents or the State Legislature to great effect.

The overall effect was as expected: such interesting, cutting-edge research drew all eyes, and lots of research dollars to IU, which dispelled the fundies like shining sunlight on vampires. And Wells, disdaining football, turned those academic dollars into academic success, doubling or tripling the size of the campus, and making IU a powerhouse for many years in several academic fields.

Kinsey, for his part, whether or not his research was valid, blew apart the "old morality" and ushered in the Sexual Revolution.
posted by kablam at 5:18 PM on October 5, 2004

I blame Kinsley for the fact that young boys masturbate too!

Damn liberal!
posted by nofundy at 5:28 PM on October 5, 2004

kablam: Was he the trigger or just part of the gestalt? The psychanalytic school was redefining sexuality, Anais Nin and Henry Miller were being published in the states. Bertrand Russell had been banned from teaching philosophy in New York the previous decade for exposing the arbitrary nature of much religious morality. The Beats were starting to broach the theme.

We talk about THE sexual revolution rather than A sexual revolution. The 1960s was not the first sexual revolution of the 20th century. And certainly the Kisney Reports were influential, but I don't think they would have become such hugely popular and contraversial works if they had not been seeded into an environment where the revolution was bubbling under the surface.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:35 PM on October 5, 2004

According to the Kinsey report
Every average man you know
Much prefers to play his favorite sport
When the temperature is low
But when the thermometer goes way up
And the weather is sizzling hot
Mr. Adam
For his madam
Is not.

-- Cole Porter, lyrics to "Too Darn Hot" from "Kiss Me Kate", 1948

This section was changed in the 1953 film version to "according to the weather report..." and "much prefers his lovely-dovey to court...", but the censors totally missed the double entendre in the last five lines. Sneaky Cole.
posted by Asparagirl at 5:43 PM on October 5, 2004

KirkJobSluder: Whew! I would have to go with the evolution, rather than revolution approach. The social conflict between the modernists and the reactionary fundamentalists in the US takes on some major waves in the 20th Century, and not just on the subject of sexuality.

The first victory for the fundies was WWI prohibition, which was followed by a major defeat, the "How can Johnny go back to the farm when he's seen Paris?" massive demographic shift from rural to urban America.

The modernists then advanced with the Roaring Twenties, only to be crushed in the great depression--a golden age for fundamentalists. Then the pendulum swung back, the New Deal smiting the fundies.

World War II again caused a major change, with the integration of women into the workplace, and the first efforts to do the same with African-Americans. The fundies were pretty helpless to stop either of these without appearing un-patriotic. Post WWII, the fundies were really fading, desperate to hold on to far more power than they were entitled. The veterans dismantled much of their official power--refusing the University Alma Mater system of control. Vets demanded an end to chaperones, limits on automobiles and off-campus housing, and other long standing policies.

By 1947, when the Kinsey Institute was founded, the fundie influence was in shambles. Indiana was a hotbed of reactionary thought (think of the KKK of the 1920s, HQ'ed in Indiana), and was almost central to the middle American bible belt (which today is much reduced from what it once was.) However, the modernists in Indiana wanted to attack the fundies where it hurt. They wanted to poke them in the eye. And IU was the perfect place to do it.

So, to your trigger v. gestalt question. I would say trigger for the sexual revolution, giving academic credibility to what people wanted to hear; to start the ball rolling; to get people talking about sexual mores, laws, practices and prejudices. But at the same time, I would say that they were part of the greater gestalt of the conflict. The conflict that still goes on today.

It could be said that at the time there was tremendous pressure for change. The average person could easily say to themselves: "The negro shouldn't be segregated from the white"; "Divorce should be legal"; "Adultery shouldn't be a crime", with lots of etc's. And only a small minority of reactionaries stood against change.

But today, much of the inertia has been lost, by dint of success. There isn't the popular fire to overturn oppressive ideas and laws that there was. Most people would shrug even at the thought of teaching anti-scientific principals in schools, such as "creation science." So once again, the fundies try to bring back reactionary morals laws, to integrate religion into school, and to impose legal restrictions against things they oppose on religious grounds.
posted by kablam at 8:31 PM on October 5, 2004

The notion that Kinsey created the sexual revolution is ludicrous. Kinsey died in 1956, but widespread moral condemnation of premarital sex did not significantly decrease in opinion polls until 1969. Due to the collapse of the double standard, there was also a sharp increase in white women who lost their virginity before marriage starting in the mid-sixties or so. Both of these events came over a decade after Kinsey's death, by which time more earthshaking events (e.g., the aging of the Baby Boom, the civil rights movement) had already intervened.

As for Kinsey's methodology, he used nonrandom samples, because he assumed that it was too politically unpalatable in his era to ask a random sample of respondents about hot-button topics like sexuality. Kinsey was probably right about random sampling in sex surveys, because the first large-scale study of sexual behavior using random samples of Americans did not emerge until the Laumann survey of 1992 and did not get "written up" until 2000. Laumann had attempted to get government funding for his work, including a planned survey of teen sexual behavior, but opposition from right-wingers like Jesse Helms and William Dannemeyer squelched that, because these congressman preferred a policy of "ignorance is bliss" when it came to homosexuality and teenage sex. Here's a good article about the politics of sex surveys that should put this all into context.

It's also important to know that Kinsey's methods would be considered out-of-date and slapdash by social scientists now, but they were cutting-edge at the time. Survey research and analysis of samples was in its infancy at the time, as anybody who knows about the Literary Digest's botched prediction of the 1936 presidential election could tell you. Kinsey's methods were examined in a book-length report by the American Statistical Assocation. According to this summary, "Shortly after the Report was released, the National Research Council contracted the American Statistical Association to examine Kinsey's findings in detail. This study of Kinsey's methods took 6 years to complete, and by the time it was finished, much of the financial support for Kinsey's research had been lost. However, the ASA concluded that Kinsey had done some of the best work ever in his field."
posted by jonp72 at 4:36 PM on October 6, 2004

Just the standard for premarital sex attitudes may also be deceiving as a single standard for the sexual revolution. For example, Playboy magazine started publishing in 1953, long before the Civil Rights movement or the baby boom generation were out of short pants.

According to one of the previously mentioned IU undergraduates, now graduates, the arrival of Playboy in neighboring Illinois was "like the end of the world."

In other words, the sexual revolution came in waves, not evenly geographically or culturally. Books and magazines were affected long before movies and the theater. The coasts long before middle America. Academia before the rest of society.

And there are still small regions in the US that have blue laws, prohibit alcohol, and severely restrict sexual display.

So Kinsey should be given credit, if not for the totality of the sexual revolution, at least for starting one wave of openness, and in an unlikely place. And knowing what he was doing in doing so. He was flaunting authority and he knew it.
posted by kablam at 8:27 PM on October 6, 2004

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