I wonder if you can imagine a world in which you had literally no idea what sex was, and had no way of finding out. A world where you thought that you could impregnate yourself by touching your genitals, a world where semen was finite and you would die if you ran out of it. A world in which you considered yourself totally abnormal for having uncontrollable sexual desire and thought anyone else who did was probably a prostitute, criminal, or insane.
The fact is, that world was reality for pretty much everyone prior to 1948, when Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (and its follow-up Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953) demonstrated rather conclusively that masturbation, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, homosexuality, and sexual fantasies were all completely normal, indulged by significant numbers of the population, and that no-one had (scientific) reason to feel guilty about anything that crossed their mind. It’s hard for me to imagine, as I type this on my gateway to the world wide web with its immediate and instant access to any sexual information I might desire, how phenomenally revolutionary it was to be told such things. But the fact that that information gets published at all is because of one man, Dr. Alfred Kinsey, about whom Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy published the rivetingly titled, “Kinsey: A Biography”.
Alfred “Al” Kinsey was born in New Jersey with poor health and a poor family. He spent a lot of time in nature as a result and subsequently took up biology as a field of study. For twenty years he happily taught in his teaching post at Indiana University and studied the gall wasp, until his openness with students about their sexual questions led to him teaching a “marriage course” designed to teach married students how to have sex; when he realised that he didn’t know half the answers to what they were asking, he started to conduct research. And by “conduct research”, I mean, he did interviews that could last up to six hours with 100,000 respondents (with three other helpers), bought tens of thousands of dollars of erotic art, filmed the sexual activity of numerous individuals and couples, both human and animal, and used the resulting statistics to prove everyone wrong about sex. Everyone did it, with themselves, each other, before, during and outside marriage. Social conservatives went nuts.
The amount of work involved sounds crazy, and Gathorne-Hardy doesn’t at any point pretend that despite Kinsey’s achievements, his absolute and total self-belief must have been very annoying to deal with, whether you were a funder, colleague, or his wife, whom he saw for about an hour or so a day for mealtimes by the end of his life. But Gathorne-Hardy makes equally clear that only someone like Kinsey could have withstood the hail of criticism and negativity that rained down on him from 1950s America. They still all bought the book though. There were a few sex researchers prior to Kinsey, such as Magnus Hirschfield, Havelock Ellis, and Robert Dickenson (with whom Kinsey corresponded until the former’s death in 1950), but no-one before or since has managed to survey tens of thousands of people with the same kind of accuracy and publish the results for public consumption. And that’s pretty damn amazing really.
What I find particularly interesting about this book is that it revealed a lot of remarkable things that Kinsey achieved during his life besides totally revolutionising everything we ever thought we knew about sex as a species. Like, for example, Kinsey almost absent-mindedly co-wrote a book as a doctoral student called Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, which remains the authoritative guide in its field seventy years on. Or the fact that he was the first biologist to write a textbook uniting zoology and botany that became a set text in schools across America. Or that he spent the first twenty years of his life not just studying gall wasps, but collecting five MILLION different gall wasps and used his findings to significantly contribute to our understanding of evolution. Stuff like that. And that was before all the sex…
Kinsey comes across in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s work as a man totally and completely obsessed with whatever he got involved with. To be honest, Kinsey’s behaviour does suggest undiagnosed Asperger’s: the obliviousness to other people except for how they might be useful, the refusal to admit he was wrong to critics and trying to refute them personally, inability to delegate, socialise, or take a back seat, the total, complete and utter obsessiveness that led to the eighteen hour days for years on end that eventually killed him. It’s all there, as is the fact that autism is genetic and his father also appears to have been the same way inclined. But I guess we will never know.
A lot of this book is devoted to refuting an earlier biography by a man called James Jones. Jones apparently did his best to damn the legacy of Kinsey, calling him a homosexual sadomasochist who engaged in his work to justify his own sexual inclinations. Gathorne-Hardy goes to pains to prove that Kinsey was neither homosexual (he was bisexual), nor sadomasochistic (he actually didn’t like watching either practice), but to be honest with you, even if that were true, who gives a crap? True, Kinsey had sex with nearly all his project colleagues, many of the people he interviewed, male and female, and encouraged them all to have sex with each other, their wives and his own, promoted nudity, and apparently took his own self-exploration so far he circumcised himself in the bath in his early 60s (doesn’t sound weird for my friendship group…). But is Kinsey’s work in any way invalidated because of this? He said that such experiences were necessary to understand the information that their interviewees were giving them, and I have little doubt that this turned out to be true, even if it wasn’t the reason it started.
There is a considerable movement these days to try to trash Kinsey’s work, mostly from the religious right. All I can say is that the sex lives of his religious cynics is probably vastly more pleasurable as a result of Kinsey’s work, and that the abstinence movement requires by its very existence that parents and teachers have to talk to their charges about sex; more than Kinsey, the son of a lay Methodist preacher who dragged his entire family to church three times a day on Sunday, received himself. Kinsey has changed the world, and we are all so much more liberated for it. Go read about it for yourself.
Check out the book and its reviews on Amazon here: