The Balboan View

Kenneth Silverman

  • Alfred Kinsey: A Public/Private Life by James Jones
    Norton, 937 pp, £28.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 393 04086 0

The history of publishing records no unlikelier-looking candidate for bestsellerdom. Written by a professor of zoology at the University of Indiana, it appeared in 1948 under the imprint of a medical textbook house, the W.B. Saunders Company of Philadelphia. Weighing three pounds, its 804 pages confronted readers with 162 tables and 173 graphs. Yet it flooded out in a first printing of 100,000 copies, excited more than five hundred articles and reviews, and was declared by Time magazine to be the greatest bookselling event since Gone with the Wind.

The killer title was Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, better known as the ‘Kinsey Report’. Its author, as portrayed in James Jones’s exasperating biography, was no less of a paradox than his book. On this side, the public figure – a sober scientist with an original, careful methodology; over there, the man: a switch-hitting exhibitionist, voyeur and sadomasochist.

The scientist’s life story is one of unbroken commitment and self-transcendence. Born in 1894, Kinsey spent the first ten years of his life in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City – a drab working-class satellite of the metropolis, redeemed if at all as the birth-place of its other famous son, Frank Sinatra. Kinsey’s family were devoutly Methodist, his father an organiser of the Inter-Church Civic League, an organisation formed to monitor the closing time of saloons. No swearing, drinking, dancing or masturbation. A loner, young Alfred found some relief in piano lessons and the Boy Scouts. Here, as everywhere, he drove himself hard. He became skilled enough at the keyboard to consider a concert career, and rose to the rarely achieved grade of Eagle Scout.

Kinsey’s father wanted him to become a mechanical engineer, but after two years at a local technological school, Alfred resolved to transfer to Bowdoin College, a small liberal arts school in Maine. His father refused to finance an education of that sort, leaving him to pay for it on his own. Alfred also supported himself during graduate study at the Harvard School of Applied Biology, where he collected his first specimens of gall wasps – the insects whose classification occupied the next twenty years of his life. Taxonomy he viewed as akin to exploration. Discovering an undescribed insect, he said: ‘You might properly become as excited as though you were Columbus finding a new continent, or Balboa discovering the Pacific Ocean.’

Kinsey’s doctor’s degree and superlative field work earned him an assistant professorship at Indiana University, in agricultural Bloomington. He married one of the students, a boyish-looking girl named Clara McMillen. ‘Mac’ and ‘Prok’, as they called each other (‘Prok’ for Prof. K.), shared a love of the outdoors and of classical music. They had musical evenings at their house – cheerless events, it turned out, rather like exams. ‘Prok’ forced his guests to listen, one of them complained, ‘in complete silence and reverently stiff attention’. Not only guests: impatient with teaching Midwestern farm boys and girls, Kinsey impressed students and colleagues, too, as perfectionist and controlling.

No one questioned his knowledge, however, or his dedication to his research. Hoping to refine such basic concepts as ‘species’, and intent on drawing his conclusions from the largest possible sample, he amassed thousands of gall wasps. Using tweezers and clear cement he mounted and labelled each specimen, meticulously recording its location, date of collection, wing length, sex. In his lifetime he probably set down about 700,000 separate measurements. Ambitious to become an American Darwin, he called his first book The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species (1929).

During most of his school years, Kinsey had kept up his church ties, working with the YMCA, organising a Methodist Episcopal boys’ club. But as he matured, his scientific training led him to reject his religious upbringing, even to despise religion, along with the sexual prohibitions that had come with it.

In 1938, Kinsey offered a new course at the university on marriage and the family – the germ of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. Set on liberating his students from ignorance of their own bodies, he lectured forthrightly, and matter-of-factly, on ‘the coital sequence’. When he showed a slide of a penis entering a vagina, he explained: ‘You will see that as the male organ penetrates, the clitoris at this point is stimulated, thus providing the erotic stimulation necessary for the completion of the act on the part of the female.’ The final lecture covered Kinsey’s theme of themes, ‘Individual Variation’ – the universality throughout nature of individual difference. Giving his old religious fervour a new outlet, he preached tolerance for varied kinds of erotic practice, remarking that ‘nearly all of the so-called sexual perversions fall within the range of biologic normality.’

Kinsey’s course proved popular, encouraging him to go a daring step further. He offered to discuss with students in ‘personal conferences’ any sexual matters that perplexed them. He thus began collecting his first case histories, transferring his taxonomic method to sex research, with no less joy in the discovery of the unexpected. Widening his exploration outside Bloomington, he interviewed some young gay males boarding together in Chicago, and a little later, prison inmates. He fed his data into a so-called Hollerith machine, a proto-computer that could calculate frequencies and correlate thousands of cases. Setting his collecting goal at a hundred thousand histories, he managed to get funding from Federal and private agencies, including the Rockefeller Foundation. By 1947, the money and the imprimatur enabled him to incorporate at Bloomington his own fiefdom, the Institute for Sex Research.

Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male appeared the following year. Much of the hullabaloo it inspired concerned its revelation that Americans, by reputation puritanical, routinely performed acts assumed to be rare and taboo, even criminal. Kinsey’s 5300 case histories disclosed that marital intercourse accounted for fewer than half the total number of orgasms most American men enjoyed during their lives. The rest of their sexual satisfaction was accounted for by masturbation (90 per cent of the males interviewed had some experience of this), premarital intercourse (85 per cent), extramarital intercourse (between 30 and 45 per cent), mouth-genital union (59 per cent), prostitutes (70 per cent), homosexual contact (37 per cent) and animals (17 per cent of farm boys). ‘The persons involved in these activities, taken as a whole,’ Kinsey announced, ‘constitute more than 95 per cent of the total male population.’

An instant celebrity, ‘Dr Sex’ became the toast of countless popular songs (‘Ooh, Dr Kinsey’) and one-liners (‘He’s at an awkward age – you know, too old for the Bobbsey Twins and too young for the Kinsey Report’). Prominent intellectuals took notice, too, not always favourably. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr protested that Kinsey made orgasm ‘the summum bonum of his value scheme’; the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer charged that the only reliable figures in his skewed sampling came from ‘college graduates in six of the north-eastern states’; the critic Lionel Trilling claimed that his seemingly objective data masked highly debatable assumptions. Most commentators, however, praised Kinsey for having greatly increased knowledge of human sexuality.

In the are of Kinsey’s life as sketched above, the stir made by Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male seems the outcome of parochial beginnings surmounted, and of dedication to evolutionary biology. But Jones has another, grubbier story to tell. The details often come from informants he identifies only as ‘Anon. A’, ‘Anon. B’ or ‘Mr Y’. By their account, sex research was for Kinsey only the means of transforming into respectable science his kinky urgencies.

This second, private story surfaces through the first, porpoise-like, in lurid flashes. Kinsey the exhibitionist greets visitors to his garden clad in a g-string; pees in front of his graduate students (‘just took a leak right there in front of us’, one recalled); flourishes for his staff his ‘very large’ mojo: ‘Maybe that’s why he whips the goddam thing out all the time. I mean he is not ashamed of what he has got.’ Kinsey the voyeur pays a prostitute for a look at her two-inch long clitoris, hosts private sex shows that he ogles from up front – ‘inches removed from the couple’s genitals,’ Jones reports, ‘close enough to smell body odours and hear the squish of juices’. The bisexual ‘Prok’ procures bedmates for ‘Mac’, including one of his own male lovers: ‘Kinsey and I’d be having sex upstairs,’ the man recalled, ‘and I’d go down and have sex with Mac in the same house.’

Can this be Professor Kinsey, is this old ‘Prok’, having himself filmed in the act of sticking a toothbrush into his penis – brush first? Tightening a cord around his testicles, Kinsey would work the gadget deeper and deeper into his urethra to generate pain as he masturbated. Sometimes he used a knobbed swizzle-stick or hexagonal pencil. A deux, Kinsey the sadomasochist ventured less. A disappointed S/M partner reported that Kinsey asked to be flogged with a cat o’ nine tails ‘but not very hard’, didn’t much fancy props, and took it all dourly, with ‘kind of a long-suffering look’. In fact, Kinsey did not so much revel in self-punishment as reluctantly give in to it. During one collapse he climbed into his bathtub and circumcised himself with a pocket knife. Another time, in despair, he threw a rope over an exposed ceiling pipe, knotted one end to his scrotum, wrapped the other around his hand, then climbed on a chair and jumped off. The resulting orchitis hospitalised him for nearly two weeks.

The moral cost to Kinsey’s science of confusing sex research with getting off appears in his relation with ‘Mr X’. This pansexual demon had fucked his grandmother, his father, countless adults and animals of many species. He had also masturbated infants and molested hundreds of pre-adolescent children. But Kinsey – who looked benignly on paedophilia and incest – took the Balboan view of Mr X, seeing him as a find. Much that he learned from him went into Chapter 5 of the Report, ‘Early Sexual Growth and Activity’. ‘Betraying a huge moral blind spot,’ Jones remarks, ‘Kinsey took the records of Mr X’s criminal acts and transformed them into scientific data.’

From the pinnacle of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male Kinsey was headed down. The opening of the Cold War brought an outcry that he was assisting Communism by undermining American morality; he came under scrutiny from the FBI. He spent thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to settle with government agencies over the erotica he imported for his Institute, in alleged violation of Federal obscenity laws. He lost his funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. His wildly awaited companion volume, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953), had a relatively mild reception. Bleary-eyed from acute insomnia, he began taking sleeping pills at night, and uppers by morning to keep going. After several heart attacks he died of an embolism on 25 August 1956, aged 62.

Jones’s unfolding of this florid history, sorry to say, is rarely good to read. He lectures too much, making Kinsey the discursive subject of an exposition rather than the dramatic centre of a narrative. For instance, his research on Kinsey over thirty years has left no more stones unturned than Kinsey’s on gall wasps. But biographers never know or understand as much about their subjects as they would like. Not even Jones’s archival bulldozing uncovered much information about Kinsey’s first fifteen or so years. But having little to tell about what Kinsey did, he dwells for some seventy-five pages on what Kinsey did it to or with or in, filling the gaps with discussion of the temperance movement, the Progressive Era, voluntary associations, the ‘political agenda’ of South Orange, New Jersey. One part narrative is followed by four parts essay, the rhythm of biographicus interruptus.

Jones also keeps stepping in to ‘explain’ Kinsey’s behaviour, getting it to line up with some historical or sociological type. Was young Alfred obedient? ‘Kinsey was following a cultural script. The whole purpose of Victorian childrearing was to place children inside “a prison of expectations”.’ His father wanted him to go to school? ‘In the bureaucratic, technological society emerging in the United States ... economic and social status did not rest solely on property or money; rather, it increasingly depended on education.’ He preferred Beethoven to Tin Pan Alley? No problem: ‘Kinsey’s repertoire was limited to classical music, as might be expected of a pious boy from an upwardly mobile family.’ There’s much more of this, especially in the first two hundred pages. The result is that Kinsey, a man not in the least given to typing others, often seems a humanoid replica of Social Forces, a man without qualities.

Among the book’s other technical problems the most irritating is Jones’s non-stop speculation, all of it empty, on what Kinsey ‘probably’ felt or ‘no doubt’ believed. On his first seeing Bloomington: ‘Kinsey must have been struck by the regional differences he encountered ... Kinsey must have admired the town’s physical beauty ... As a nature lover, Kinsey must have admired the campus.’ This may be right. Or it may be wrong. Kinsey may have been blind to the regional differences, indifferent to the town’s look, disgusted by the campus, too busy to notice – may have been anything. Where nothing is known everything is possible. And Jones seems to take on faith some of the steamier evidence about Kinsey’s private life, although his notes indicate that it comes from a few sources interviewed thirty or forty years after the event.

Jones’s exhaustive research leaves no doubt that Kinsey was a figure in the American grain, and influential. Though a man of more disabling inner conflict and vastly lesser gift than, say, Emerson, Kinsey, too, spoke powerfully for the infinitude of the private person and, like Whitman, dragged guilty things into the sunlight for unashamed discussion. In doing so he broke ground for the swinging Sixties and the Gay Liberation movement. Jones’s book is a rich resource for studying this career, a Kinsey omnium-gatherum. But the singular life it documents wants a more adroit biography.