Kinsey, Sex Research, and the Body of Knowledge: Let's Talk about Sex
Winkler, Karen, Women's Studies Quarterly
In October 2004,1 left my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter with her grandmother in New Jersey and flew to Indiana to talk about sex at the Kinsey Institute. Sex research, actually, which is not typically as sexy as sex. I had been invited as a postdoctoral fellow of the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP) of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction (KI) to participate in a five-day cross-disciplinary conversation with a dozen other fellows about the work we were doing in our fields-American studies, sociology, psychology, anthropology, education, and history.1 A highlight of the conference was to be a screening of the not-yet-released film Kinsey by director Bill Condon (Coppola). The subject of sex is taboo between my mother and me, and I confess that I was deliberately vague to her about the nature of my trip-I said I was meeting with other fellows at Indiana University, covering over the sex part as I've covered my body in front of her since I was eleven or so.
Many women of my generation, who came of age in the 1970s, tended to think of our mothers as prudish and sexually reserved, domestic relics of that conventional decade into which we were born-the fifties. On a certain level, we bought into the popular constructions of the era as all Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best and flattened out the complicating social and cultural forces represented by beatniks, Communists, and early civil rights struggles (not to mention Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry), as well as the sexual revelations of the "Kinsey reports." We were more comfortable viewing our mothers at a safe maternal distance from our own sexually awakening bodies and assuming their ignorance of what passions we were experiencing. My mother was just twenty-three, and her brief marriage to her first husband was already annulled, when the "Kinsey report" on women was published in 1953. I wonder now if she bought Kinsey back then, like so many women, hoping to learn the secrets of sex and marriage. Was it left behind, dog-eared and abandoned, in some small Brooklyn apartment, detritus of her sexual history? I don't recall its title in my preadolescent searches for my parents' secrets among their shelves of paperback novels, lett-wing political essays, and my grandfather's books of Yiddish stories.
Growing up in the sixties, I became familiar with the naked bodies of women other than my mother through photos in the Playboy magazines that a third-grade classmate named Charlie sneaked into school and hid in the small compartment beneath his desk; boys and girls vied for peeks of the centerfolds to learn what sexy was. (Playboy began publication in 1953, the same year Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was released.) In the fourth grade, I'd discovered Masters and Johnson's (1960s heirs to Kinsey's pioneering sexology) Human Sexual Response (1966) covered with brown paper and hidden in my parents' bedroom bookcase on the second floor of their suburban house. I'd just learned the rudiments of sex from a dirty joke told in the cloakroom by a girl in my class, and I remember the joke and the book as mainly exciting but also unsettling. (Punch line: "Fa(r)ther! Fa(r)ther!" the girl called out for her dad [spoken with a thick, southern drawl]. "What do you think, I got a six-foot dick?!" said the man in her bed.) My image of my mother could not admit then, and can hardly more now, of a sexual life for her.
In preparation for our first separation of more than a day, my daughter and I made a calendar decorated with photos of us together, drawings of airplanes for Mommy's going and coming, and many farm animal stickers stuck in the center of a cut-out map of the United States: Indiana. Born at the tail end of the baby boom, I came to parenting late and single, influenced by the movements for sexual liberation and women's rights that were fed by Kinsey's research. At the baby shower for my daughter, I was given a book called Bellybuttons are Navels by Mark Shoen, by a friend who teaches sex education to children.
It's about a pair of rosy-cheeked, white, and wholesome-looking young siblings called Mary and Robert, who use the occasion of a bath together to name and discuss all their body parts. They make their way from eyes to nose, arms, fingers, and bellybuttons. Then Mary says, "' I have a vulva; only girls have vulvas." "Well, I have a penis; and only boys have penises,'" declares Robert. "Oh! Well I have a clitoris just inside my vulva right above the opening of my vagina. That's what I have!'" Mary explains proudly. Their conversation moves easily from one part to another, without privileging anything-an enlightened and modern effort "to help children integrate healthy acceptance of the genitals into normal, confident acceptance of the total body, as the book cover advertises. I find little Mary and Robert oddly precocious (and the didacticism more strained) when they point out "anus," "scrotum," "urethra" (though Mary Calderone, a leading figure in sexuality education, argues persuasively in the book's foreword that it's empowering for children to have language for all these body parts [Calderone 7]). I read through the entire book with my daughter, but I've stuck to vagina, penis, and clitoris in our own conversations. For a time, she insisted on reading "Robert and Mary" over and over, fascinated. I wondered how my mother would react if my toddler asked her to read this favorite out loud during my absence.
SEX, SCIENCE, AND TRUTH
Alfred C. Kinsey ardently believed that science could help us learn and speak the truth about sex. (No ironic quotes around truth-he was a whole-hearted positivist.) Scientific knowledge about sexuality would set us free from oppressive moralizing, ignorance, shame, and inhibition, and it would liberate sexual pleasure. For Kinsey, it was a natural, ordinary, inalienable human birthright to know your body and to enjoy it sexually in whatever ways you like; he regarded all the variation in sexual desires and practices as a normal part of our species-life. The publication of his two remarkable volumes, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (in 1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (in 1953), which were based on in-depth, face-to-face interviews resulting in what he called "case studies" or "sexual histories" of more than 18,000 individuals (Ericksen), were immediate bestsellers in the United States (and soon internationally) and shook the country "like an atom bomb," as headlines in the popular press proclaimed.2 After an initially exuberant response, the Female volume quickly came under fierce attack for undermining America's moral fiber; critics were outraged by its findings that nearly 50 percent of all women had premarital affairs, and 26 percent had extramarital affairs, for example.
Kinsey set out to ask what people did, felt, and thought about sexually, and he described a remarkable variation in sexual experience that exploded then-current assumptions of premarital chastity, women's lack of sexual interest and experience, fidelity, heterosexuality, and vaginal orgasm. Kinsey reported that the majority of his subjects masturbated, that premarital sexual relations were common and tended to improve "marital adjustment" and satisfaction, that women took pleasure m sex, and that homosexual encounters were neither rare nor abnormal. He devised a homosexuality-heterosexuality scale to rate an individual's shifting desires and behaviors, and he argued that sexuality was more accurately represented by a continuum (ranging from 1, completely heterosexual in behavior and fantasy, to 6, completely homosexual in behavior and fantasy) than by a categorical, dichotomous designation of identity. Kinsey concluded that many problems in marriage would be avoided if women and men were equally free of constraints against sexual experimentation before marriage, and that the male's lack of skill in sexual relations contributed significantly to poor "marital adjustment." In the course of almost twenty years (1938-56), Kinsey personally collected more than 8,000 histories (approximately 40 percent of the more than 20,000 collected in all),3 traveling across the country with his team of three interviewers. His work was not the first, but it was the most public and extensive research into human sexuality undertaken up to that time.
Kinsey spent the first part of his academic career (more than twenty years) as an entymologist and professor of zoology, specializing in taxonomy and writing the definitive monograph on the gall wasp in 1930. To research gall wasps and his 1943 field guide, Edible Plants of Eastern North America, he literally walked across the United States (as sex researcher John Gagnon remarked to the audience at a screening of Kinsey in October 2004 in New York City). His biographers (cf. Gathorne-Hardy; Jones) tell us that Kinsey was the son of a harsh and punitive Methodist minister and a loving but submissive mother; tended to be a loner who was rather socially awkward; found solace in nature and cherished his solitude there. He struggled with sexual feelings in his homosocial relationships as a boy (and later came to recognize and act on his homosexual desires), and he was an obsessive collector. When he married Clara McMillen (nicknamed "Mac" by her husband), a gifted and energetic graduate student in chemistry at Indiana University, they were both virgins, and they suffered mechanical (and, for Clara, painful) difficulties with penetration during sexual intercourse due to her thicker-than-usual hymen. The condition was finally corrected-much to their relief and pleasure-in a minor office procedure after consultation with a physician.4 Kinsey attributed his own sexual suffering in childhood and his early marriage to the twinned social and religious scourges of ignorance and shame about sexuality that permeated even his beloved science, and his anger and sadness fed what became his brilliant enlightenment crusade to accumulate and spread sexual knowledge. In 1938 he began teaching what was for the time a revolutionary (in content) and hugely popular "marriage course" at Indiana University, in which he lectured explicitly about sexuality to his shocked but eager students. Kinsey became a self-styled sex counselor to the students, who increasingly approached him tor advice and factual information, spilling out their urgent concerns about their bodies, desperate to learn whether their fantasies and desires were normal. Because so much was simply unknown about sexual response and behavior, Kinsey resolved to investigate the subject scientifically, and he began collecting the first of his sexual histories; by 1940 he was devoting himself entirely to the study of human sexuality (Gathorne-Hardy, 150).
On a Kinsey 2004 film poster, fragments of typed questions, seemingly cut off at the paper's edge, give a glimpse into the intense and explicit encounter between sex researcher and subject:
How frequently do you fantasize . . .
How old were you the first time t . . .
Did you ever feel guilty about ma . . .
How much does your size change wh . . .
Are you ever aroused thinking abo . . .
At the bottom of the poster: It always starts with a question. Kinsey's sex interview was a "talking cure" for the subject, a two-person encounter that gave voice and narrative form to a lifetime of private sexual acts and desires. Multiplied by the thousands (then tabulated and published), the interview was an intervention into a culture mired in sexual secrecy and hypocrisy. James H. Jones, one of Kinsey's biographers, states that Kinsey broke "the conspiracy of silence" around sexuality enveloping 1940s and 1950s America (Allan). Kinsey's studies of sex made the private public and brought the previously taboo subject into the national conversation. Publication of his books made front-page news in all the major newspapers and magazines, and his work was celebrated in popular culture by the likes of Cole Porter ("It's Too Darn hot": "According to the Kinsey report / Every average man you know / Much prefers his lovely dovey to court / When the temperature is low") and Martha Raye ("Oh! Dr. Kinsey!"). Claiming sexual diversity as the norm, his revelations opened the closet of American sexuality (and demonstrated that there was a closet) and fed what became the liberation movements for gay and women's rights and health.
In discussing my upcoming trip and the soon-to-be-released film with some younger friends who are academics and educators in their early thirties, I was surprised to discover that they had never heard of this monumental cultural and scientific figure of the twentieth century, or of his pioneering investigation of sex. That chapter of American sexual history was eclipsed by the sexier sixties and the "sexual revolution" (with our apparently expanding knowledge of sex enhanced by Masters and Johnson, Shere Hite, and MTV). I cannot remember how I first learned of him, but I know that Kinsey's name was somehow mixed up in the culture of my growing up. Later, working in various capacities as a sex researcher and sex educator, I became aware of Kinsey's long shadow in the field; as I prepared tor the conference, however, I realized I didn't really know much about Kinsey at all. The Kinsey Institute was only a code, a sexual cipher, in my imagination-fixed in the 1950s, but with no real geographic location. I dusted off the original 1953 edition of Kinsey's Sexual Beliavior in the Human Female I'd purchased as a curiosity some years ago at a used bookstore, but never looked at, and packed it to read on the plane to Indiana. The pages are yellowing and crumble easily, and I began to sneeze as I pulled it out to prepare for takeoff.
NAKED PICTURES, SEXUAL SCIENCE, AND POLITICS
Several of us from different parts of the country meet at the Indianapolis airport taxi office to share a cab to Indiana University in Bloomington. To our surprise, we are shown to a gleaming stretch limousine that has just been added to the taxi fleet and apparently needs a trial run. Three of us sit in the cavernous back. I've never been in a limousine before, and it feels weirdly incongruous-more suited to high-school seniors getting drunk and having sex on prom night, or businessmen downing martinis and cavorting with escorts, than to middle-aged academic types, tired and parched from traveling, sipping from water bottles and trying to intelligently discuss sex research. The drive to the campus takes us past dry mowed fields of straw-colored corn stalks and miles of strip malls. When we finally arrive at the campus center, I unpack, shower, dress respectably, and follow? a winding path through red brick buildings and past parking lots, in search of the Kinsey Institute.
I am surprised to discover it is just a modest two floors within a traditional limestone classroom building. Lost and a little late for the early evening preliminary meeting, I ask several students heading into Morrisson Hall, the biology building, if they can direct me to a stairwell for the Kinsey Institute. None of them have heard of it, though it occupies the building's third and fourth floors. Another SRFP Fellow approaches, and I follow her into the elevator; we emerge chatting, our identification tags prominently displayed, and proceed down the corridor to our meeting room. On first glance, the institute seems very institute-like: quiet, modest, plain. Dull carpeting and fluorescent lights. Mild-mannered researchers walking about in bland, casual clothing. The usual. Until your eyes begin to focus on the art.
Vulvas everywhere. And penises. Cunnilingus, fellatio, anal sex, men with men, women with women, men and women in all positions of sexual intercourse. Photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, watercolors, etchings. Sex in China, in Italy, in Iran. A self-portrait of Rembrandt doing "it" in France with his lover, Hendrickje Stoffels, c. 1650. Delicate ink drawings and woodblock prints of Japanese couples copulating, their genitals visible under the mounds and folds of elaborate robes. Bawdy engravings from England by Hogarth. Photos of famous dancers, like Nijinsky, and a gorgeously naked and young YuI Brynner taken in 1942. A pen-and-crayon drawing from Germany (by Walter Kirchoff) called "The Bridegroom" (1940), depicting a nude woman in a bridal veil, being handed a penis on a tray by a nude maid with a serving towel neatly arranged over her bent arm. Postcards of Jack La Lane, in the nude (his perfect body like I'd never seen him on my childhood television screen when I watched my mother do her daily calisthenics on the living room carpet). A contemporary black-and-white photo of a woman's torso, breasts compressed within an elaborate iron device. Cartoons, film posters, fine art, and amateur sketches. Twentieth century, eighteenth century, and sixteenth century. The frames hang close together, with cards detailing date, medium, artist (many unknown), donation date, and informative historical and cultural explanations of the practices depicted or the sources of the art. There is no discernible order to the presentation of images; geography, century, medium, behavior, are all a-jumble (which seems to be the point). The visual collection is at first almost overwhelming: erotic, fascinating, unruly, beautiful, familiar and unworldly, creepy, funny, poignant. Walking down the hall, you pass by representations of pleasure, pain, arousal, humor, love, sensuality, mischief-the quotidian and the rare. It's all there. This is not your ordinary scientific institute, with a couple of modestly chosen and framed prints on the walls. Who knew? I feel like I've tumbled down Alice's rabbit hole.
It is difficult to settle down to discussions of research projects in the ordinary beige conference room we've been assigned, with all that fabulous (and valuable) art just outside the door. Later, the institute's art curator, Catherine Johnson-Roehr, takes us on a tour of a small internal gallery and explains that there are hundreds of crates and boxes of this stuff-more than 80,000 items of art, photography, and artifacts-that Kinsey collected in the 1940s and 1950s, and that interview subjects and collectors continue to contribute all these years later. The boxes of photographs are sorted and labeled according to an elaborate taxonomy worked out by Paul Gebhard, one of Kinsey's team (for example: C [female] PRONE DV means coitus, female prone, dorsal-ventral, an SDM [female] on [female] WRSTL means sadomasochism, female on female wrestling), but most of them remain uncatalogued and unaccessed. (The KI does not have a full-time archivist.) Kinsey was an obsessive collector, and his collection of erotic visual culture conveys something sexy (and obsessive) about sex that escapes Kinsey's exhaustive tabulations and statistics.9
Although the Kinsey Institute itself, in collaboration with the Indiana University School of Fine Arts Gallery, has mounted a number of small shows of the collection, it has not been shown in a major exhibition elsewhere."' As a recent Ph.D. accustomed to comparing dissertation topics and counting pages like a graduate student, I think: There are hundreds of potential doctoral dissertations in art history in that space! This is a hidden gold mine! I vow to come back to New York City to convince some art curator somewhere important to make a show from this massive historic collection of erotic art. It is perhaps not only lack of resources keeping the KI art collection from being exhibited much, however. Historically, the KI has been the focus of aggressive political attacks on its research, archives, and art collection, and the attacks have bred a deep protectiveness, along with some deiensiveness, about its holdings. In a landmark case in 1950, the U.S. Customs office in Indiana seized a shipment of erotic materials headed to the Kinsey Institute from overseas, on the grounds that it constituted an illegal importation of pornography. Kinsey himself battled the Treasury Department over this landmark obscenity case for years, arguing that it was unconstitutional governmental infringement on academic and scientific rights. The case was finally decided in 1957, after Kinsey's death, in a victory for Kinsey and Indiana University-the ban on pornography did not apply to material collected for legitimate scientific and scholarly research (Gathorne-Hardy, 442). Today, however, although researchers providing proper credentials have tremendous access to the Kinsey Institute holdings, via the wonderful library and collections (and wonderful librarians and curator), Kinsey Institute staff members remain circumspect, if not downright secretive, about discussing the treasures of the institute's closed "vault." Kinsey and his team filmed hundreds of hours of people (including Kinsey himself, his researchers and their wives, and many volunteers) engaged in sexual activity, including masturbation, oral sex, and intercourse, in order to directly observe and document the physiological aspects of sexual arousal; the KI carefully guards the privacy and confidentiality of participants who are still living, along with families of subjects. These films are under lock and key, and what else is in the vault remains an intriguing and seductive mystery, known only to a privileged few.
The Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP) of the SSRC has completed nine years of its Ford Foundation-funded ten. According to Diane DiMauro, Director of the SRFP, "From its inception, the focus of the program has been strengthening and legitimizing sexuality research across disciplines within the traditional social sciences, but also encompassing work in the humanities, public policy, legal studies, and public health. We've fostered a cross- and interdisciplinary spirit that respects and appreciates serious scholarship involving a range of methodological approaches and theoretical frameworks, even extending the mantle of sexuality research to economics and language studies." Kinsey's own tiny research team was interdisciplinary from the start, including an anthropologist and a psychologist (as well as a nonprofessional former student), in addition to Kinsey himself-a zoologist. The research of the current crop ot sexuality fellows comprises work that would have fascinated Kinsey, I imagine, and delighted him with its scope." There is a study of sexuality education in American public schools and an ethnographic study ot vulvar pain syndrome. A psychology fellow is studying the effects of sex steroids on arousal and cognitive processing, and an ethnic studies scholar is writing about Cuban American gay Miami. I meet a demographer investigating whether cultural factors and healthcare access are key to cross-national differences in sexually transmitted disease rates in the developed world, and historians exploring sexuality and American citizenship (1900-65) and the impact of McCarthyism on American sexual identity (1945-65). In American studies, a fellow is writing a history of sexual minority activism against violence in New York City and San Francisco.
There are fifteen new fellows this year, and though space does not permit the mention of all their work, their research projects all sound fascinating and important. It isn't always easy to talk to each other across disciplines, however, and we bump up against the limits and challenges of interdisciplinarity: cultural critics and social historians (who have not tended to see themselves as part of a unified "field" of sex research) sometimes find themselves at odds with more traditional empirical sex researchers, who define sexuality through surveys and measurement. It should be noted as well that despite the energetic "targeted outreach" efforts of the SRFP, this year the researchers are mainly white, and the only African American at the conference is an invited guest-a previous predoctoral fellow in social welfare, Jeffry Thigpen, whose dissertation study of sexual behaviors in African American children in Chicago is the sole work presented that directly addresses sexuality among black people.' According to Diane DiMauro, the problem of representation of African American researchers in the SRFP is reflective of the field of sexuality research in general, though she points out that "it has been encouraging to see a growing diversity among junior-level researchers, and especially an increase in Latino and Asian sexuality scholars." This raises the question of whose work counts as "sex research" and what self-other definitions, academic allegiances, and disciplinary histories may work to exclude African American researchers and scholars from identifying themselves, or being identified, as part of the "field" of sexuality research.
When it is my turn to introduce my own postdoctoral research in clinical psychology and women's studies to the group, I try for a compelling sound bite: I'm developing feminist, psychoanalytic theory about the transformations of puberty for girls, locating the girl's pubertal body as key to the psychic (re)production of compulsory, normative heterosexuality and femininity. My work theorizes pre- and beginning puberty as "queer" developmental moments when gender and sexual flexibility hold sway, before the claims of culture foreclose girls' bodies, desires, and self-representations.
Currently, I am writing an article about Beauvoir's brilliantly embodied analysis of "the crisis of puberty" and the alienation and losses of girls growing up. In the course of the conference, I realize with surprised satisfaction that there is an interesting historical connection between Beauvoir's The second Sex (1948) and Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953)-both were published in the United States in 1953 as radical explorations of women's sexual situation. As Deirdre Bair notes in an introduction to The second Sex, Blanche Knopf, wife of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, actually argued that the book should be translated and published in the United States because it was "a modernday sex manual, something between Kinsey and Havelock Ellis" (Bair, xiv). Further, Mr. Knopf asked H. M. Parshley, who, like Kinsey, was a professor (emeritus) of zoology, to evaluate (and later translate) Beauvoir's book.
After the introductory impressions have been made over snacks and seltzer (Indiana University is a "dry" campus), most of us return to our rooms to watch the first presidential debate between Bush and Kerry. If the exhilaration of being hosted at the Kinsey Institute has threatened to go to some of our heads, the presidential debate brings us down to earth. The debate focuses our attention on the dire political and ideological context in which we work: these are dangerous times for science and scholarship, chillingly similar to conditions Kinsey faced in the 1950s.
The advance notice for the film Kinsey, which we are scheduled to see tomorrow night, has brought forth aggressive attacks from the Christian Right. Kinsey has become as much of a symbol of sexual radicalism now as he was in the 1950s. The Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative religious lobbying group, has called for a year-long boycott of all movies released by Kinsey's distributor, Fox Searchlight.13 Judith Reisman, leader of the contemporary anti-Kinsey movement, has for years crudely attempted to smear the field of sexology by discrediting Kinsey's scientific research, throwing around inflammatory and entirely unsubstantiated accusations of pedophilia and child pornography. Her incendiary anti-Kinsey campaign has helped to mobilize the right-wing troops amassing at the doors of the National Institutes of Health, determined to block government funding of sex research.
In a scary assault on academic freedom and scientific integrity, the Traditional Values Coalition was discovered in 2003 to be circulating a "hit list" to Congressional Republicans of nearly 200 NIH-funded researchers and their studies involving sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, homosexuality, and substance abuse." In July 2003, Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-PA) proposed an amendment to the annual appropriations bill that would have prohibited completion of five peer-reviewed research grants approved by the NIH and already underway. Among these grants was the Kinsey Institute's Dr. Eric Janssen's research on mood, sexual arousal, and sexual risk-taking. The amendment lost by only two votes, 212-210. Only two votes. In October 2003, conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives continued the assault on government funding of scientific sexuality research by initiating a hearing on ten research grants funded by the NIH, demanding proof of their public benefit. The evidence of the sex research "hit list" prompted a new unofficial policy at NIH, according to Johns Hopkins Adagazine (Hopkins public health researchers were among those targeted): research proposals using the words "sex worker, injection drug use, harm reduction, needle exchange, men who have sex with men, homosexual, bisexual, gay, and prostitute" in their titles or abstracts were to be sent back to the researcher to remove them, so they could not be flagged by conservatives in their witch-hunts-cum-database-searches (Keiger).
In response to news of the hit list, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) protested what he termed "scientific McCarthyisni" in a letter he wrote to Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson (Keiger). In December 2004, Waxman "s office also issued a report on "The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs"- another priority of right-wing religious activist organizations like the Family Research Council. The report found that more than 80 percent of the abstinence-only curricula, used by grantees of the largest federal abstinence initiative (funded by the Department of Health and Human Services at $170 million in fiscal year 2005-more than twice the amount spent in fiscal year 2001), and reaching millions of adolescents and children each year, "contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health"; "blur religion and science"; "treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact"; and "contain scientific errors" (i-ii). The right-wing crusaders are determined to deny teens the same truthful and accurate sexual information that Kinsey made available to their grandparents.
In the face of this contemporary political interference in science and the bad science informing abstinence-only programs, it is important to remember that one of Kinsey's great contributions to the study of sexuality, and to academic freedom in general, was his insistence on the scientist's right to investigate. Kinsey passionately and vigorously protested the intrusions of religion, politics, and morality into research:
There is no ocean of greater magnitude than the sexual function, and there are those who believe that we would do better if we ignored its existence, that we should not try to understand its material origins, and that if we sufficiently ignore it and mop the floor of sexual activity with new laws, heavier penalties, more pronouncements, and greater intolerances, we may ultimately eliminate the reality. The scientist who observes and describes the reality is attacked as an enemy of faith, and his acceptance of human limitations in modifying that reality is condemned as scientific materialism. (Kinsey, Human Female, 10)
Kinsey's major institutional funding source-the Rockefeller Foundation-withdrew its support in the wake of the controversy stirred by the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female and the perceived threat posed by the House Committee to Investigate Tax-Free Foundations. This Congressional committee was convened in 1954 at the instigation of Kinsey's conservative critics; according to sociologist Julia Ericksen, the only issue addressed by the committee was the Rockefeller Foundation's funding of Kinsey, and the only witnesses called to testify were those hostile to Kinsey (59). Joseph McCarthy and his followers turned Kinsey's findings on their head to support the idea of a "moral decline" in America that left the country open to Communism. Kinsey himself was under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover for many years, according to historian (and SRFP Fellow) Craig Loftin.
Today, according to Johns Hopkins Magazine, senior established sex researchers express their concern that newer researchers won't remain or even enter the field of sexuality studies, given aggressive right-wing tactics that threaten careers and necessary funding. "Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex" was the title of a November 9, 2004, article in the New York Times science section in advance of the film's opening. When I approach the new Kinsey Institute director, Dr. Julia Heimann (yes, really), during the SRFP conference to ask her thoughts about the attacks on our field, she replies, "The best thing to do is just keep doing the work." I wonder if this represents the bunker mentality of a group trying to survive while steadily under siege or a stubbornly optimistic loyalty to Kinsey's belief in scientific reason over the forces of irrationality. (As the film Kinsey shows, Kinsey himself did not seem to believe in keeping his head down to avoid controversy-for better and for worse.) Meeting in small groups, many of the sexuality fellows talk about political activism as a basic career requirement as well as a moral imperative. Even as I write this essay, I am aware of feeling like I am looking over my shoulder, tempted to self-police. Will my work and potential funding as a researcher be limited by some key word search a right-wing zealot does on me someday? I want to title this article, "My Daughter's Clitoris," but I choose something less provocative, to stay under the repressive radar with my publications list.
A highlight of this trip to Bloomington is a private screening of the film Kinsey, by Bill Condon, scheduled to open in theaters in November 2004. The tellows pile into a comfortable bus for the half-hour ride past the strips of highway shopping and service stations to an empty multiplex. We have the theater to ourselves, with a few Kinsey Institute staff and board members along for the show. At the movies, passing around popcorn and red licorice, the fellows and staff seem looser, even sexier. When the lights go down and the film begins, we are drawn into a grand romance ot science: Kinsey is the hero in a just struggle to bring light where there's darkness, knowledge to ignorance, all that. Watching the film, I am surprised to feel a growing debt of gratitude: we see ourselves differently after Kinsey; his journey across America really changed the world.
Much has been written of the film, which Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times (12 December 2003) called "a bellwether cultural event of this year." As a psychotherapist, one of the things that interests me most about Kinsey is its portrayal of Kinsey's interview and the ways that producing a "sexual history" between a researcher and subject became a clinical and social intervention around shame. As a feminist currently writing about Kinsey's contemporary, Simone de Beauvoir, and her view of female embodiment and the "Other-ing" of girls, I was curious about Kinsey's relation to The Woman Question, and how women figured in the film's story.
The film begins with a black screen and Kinsey's voiceover (the actor Liam Neeson, in a brilliant and touching performance): "Don't sit so far away, anything that creates a distance should be avoided." When the image appears, we see Kinsey's research assistant, Clyde Martin (played by Peter Saarsgard), seated at a lab table, listening to Kinsey's stern, impatient voice, instructing how to ask about sex. Martin learns to take a sex history by taking Kinsey's (as do the rest of Kinsey's team); questions about religion and family cut away to Kinsey as a boy, listening to his puritanical and mean-spirited Methodist father preach to a congregation in a small church about the dangers of sex. "Lust has a thousand avenues. The dance hall, the ice cream parlor, the tenement saloon, the Turkish bath . . . Because of the telephone, a young woman can now hear the voice of her suitor on the pillow next to her." The device of cutting away from scenes of Kinsey's research assistants practicing the sex interview on Kinsey himself to flashbacks of Kinsey's life is used to elegant and smart effect by the director, Bill Condon. But this is more than a narrative device; the sexual history-Kinsey's amazing interview-becomes the compelling through-line of the film, as it was the brilliant intervention of his work.
Kinsey designed his sex interview to override the subject's shame and guilt, carefully structuring its sequence, pacing, and wording to elicit a person's sexual narrative. Kinsey seduced his subjects into deep personal disclosure through plain-speaking and sympathetic, nonjudgmental listening-asking them to tell a story about themselves many longed to tell but had never done. For many, if not most, of the respondents, the interview was the first and only place they'd spoken of intimate details of their sexual selves, recited the whole sweeping narrative of their sexual history, from memories of early childhood to the present. The presence of a recognizing "other"15-a sexually knowledgeable scientist-authorized the teller to tell and recognized her as a "subject" with a narrative. The interview thus helped to confirm the subject's sexual subjectivity.
Most previous sex research had been conducted with written questionnaires, and no previous researcher had simply sat down face to face with so many people to talk with them about their sexual experiences and feelings. As the film shows, Kinsey and his team (all men-he thought people would refuse to talk about sex to women interviewers) took histories from waitresses, accountants, doctors, professors, truck drivers, housewives, actors, artists, prisoners, lawyers-attempting to capture all differences by sampling the entire spectrum of American society." They met with people in bars, homes, offices. The researchers memorized more than four hundred questions, asking some and omitting others in semistructured interviews that typically took from one to four hours; they recorded their informants' responses on a single 8 1/2 × 11 sheet ot paper, using an elaborate coding system that was also memorized, in an effort to ensure the strictest confidentiality.17 Questions ranged from the sexually indirect: "How young were you when you no longer thought of your parent's home as your own?" to the sexually explicit: "How young were you the first time you had an orgasm while dreaming?" As the film shows, the interview method involved assuming that "everyone does everything," in order to give people "permission to report behaviors and experiences that are not generally revealed," even to a psychotherapist (Pomeroy et al., 10). (Instead of asking "Did you have intercourse before marriage?", for example, the interviewer would ask, "How many times did you have intercourse before marriage?") At a screening in New York City in October 2004, Dr. Anke Ehrardt, Director of Columbia University's HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, commented that "Kinsey's chapter on taking a sex history is still one of the best there is. We assign it to our medical students today." The richness, flow, and emotion of the interviewee's story cannot be captured, of course, by Kinsey's coding method, and complex and intimate stories were reduced to discrete and detailed pieces of data for the purposes of statistical analysis. In their effort to collect vast quantities of data, the researchers also tried to keep the subjects "on track" by encouraging direct and brief answers wherever possible; they were also alert to the dangers of drawing their subjects too deeply into painful emotional waters. Yet "not infrequently," interviewees told long, detailed stories (Pomeroy et al. 20). As a clinical researcher it is painful to think of how much incredible qualitative data was lost because (in order to ensure confidentiality) Kinsey did not audiotape his interviews.
In a series of fictionalized interview scenes (with a script informed by the memories of research team members as well as study participants), the film helps us to imagine the thousands of face-to-face encounters Kinsey undertook. To capture the vastness of his interview project, there is also an (overly) long montage of talking heads superimposed in quick succession over a map of the United States-a nostalgic representation (in the style of a period travelogue film) of Kinsey "s traveling team of researchers driving around the country in the Kinsey family Oldsmobile. In one deeply affecting scene, we see Kinsey and Martin sitting in a gay bar (in the Chicago area) late into the night, talking with a young man who tells the story of being branded and beaten at age thirteen by his brothers after his father caught him "messing around" with another boy in a haystack. "It's not that I mind being queer," he says, "'cause I don't. I just wish other folks weren't so put out by it." Later, in a moving (but evidently entirely invented) scene, Kinsey sits with his still belligerent but now elderly father, who has agreed to have his son take his sex history. After some impatient back and forth, his father responds to Kinsey's question about masturbation: "There was a problem. A chronic condition, the doctors called it... I was outfitted with a tight strap that I wore at all times. It kept me from coming into contact with my genitals ... It was a highly embarrassing remedy, but, after, it proved effective. The condition was cured ... I was ten." In Kinsey's sad and compassionate response, we read the intergenerational transmission of shame and sexual ignorance that drove his own work.
One of Kinsey's signal achievements in his two volumes is the documentation not only of tremendous variation, but of vast numbers of people with similar feelings, similar practices, and similar desires. Above all, many people wanted to know if they were like others, as they confided their deepest, darkest sexual secrets in a private encounter with a tolerant and accepting interviewer. Kinsey made it clear that no practice or behavior was "abnormal," only perhaps rare or unusual-statistically speaking. Telling one's sexual history functioned as a kind of confessional before a neutral but compassionate scientist-cum-priest, who could absolve a person's guilt and shame by conveying that there was nothing wrong with them, that their body and their sexuality were normal. Biographer Gathorne-Hardy makes a similar point, citing Foucault on the power of the confession, and agrees that the sexual interview could be "therapeutic," with subjects often experiencing something akin to "the transference" (178-79). Alongside the intimate power of the confessional or therapeutic bond, the interview provided the opportunity for a sort ot social reparation for those who sought it: in telling all, the subject was helping science and doing a public good.
Toward the end of the film, Kinsey sits with a woman of around sixty (played by Lynn Redgrave), in a deeply affecting scene. By this time in his life, Kinsey was despairing of completing his work, exhausted from health problems and the unrelenting attacks from sexual and political conservatives and the withdrawal of financial support for his research. The woman tells him some of her own sexual history: that she was married but had a secret desire for a woman at her workplace, which led her to drink and lose her husband, become estranged from her children, and contemplate suicide. Kinsey responds sympathetically: "It's just another reminder of how little things have changed in our society." To Kinsey's surprise, the woman insists that things have gotten much better, "because of you." Reading the Female volume made her realize how many other women felt as she did and gave her the courage to confess her feelings to the woman she'd worked with: "She told me, to my great surprise, that the feelings were mutual. We've been together for three happy years now." "You saved my life, sir," she tells him.
The Female volume presented a dramatic challenge to conventional ideas of American womanhood, and through it Kinsey became a de facto spokesman for women's right to sexual expression and satisfaction. He found that women who had had premarital sex were more satisfied in marriage, and that women's orgasm (what he termed "sexual outlet") also added to "marital adjustment." Insofar as he believed that marital adjustment aided not only personal happiness but societal stability, Kinsey mobilized support for his research via the rationale that sexual freedom was good for marriage and therefore good for society. This fascinating tension between the unconventional and the conventional can be seen in Kinsey's own marriage to Clara McMillen, who is portrayed in Kinsey with great warmth and grace by the actress Laura Linney.
Clara is a compelling and contradictory figure in the story, and I wanted to know more about her than the movie ottered. She is portrayed as centered, good-humored, and direct-a woman who was full of life, adoring and accepting of her husband, and unwavering in her support of his work. Early in the film, when Kinsey asks her to marry him, she tells him, "I've always considered myself a free-thinker. Frankly, I find you a little churchy." When they marry, however, she becomes in many ways a wife of the times-with a twist. Mac curtails her own career (as a scientist), and seems to take on the role of homemaker and mother with pleasure. She actively supports Kinsey's research even when it takes him away from the family for long stretches of time and brings personal attacks and intrusions into their lives. But she also becomes an apparently willing participant in the sexual partnerswapping Kinsey encouraged among his team.
After Kinsey begins a sexual affair with Clyde Martin (who, according to Gathorne-Hardy, was one of the great loves of his life), Clara and Clyde are seen in the Kinsey kitchen in a scene that perfectly captures Clara's contradictions:
Clara: Would you like some pie?
Martin: Rhubarb? (Clara smiles, opens the refrigerator. Martin sits.)
Clara: You know, Clyde,... I didn't like you very much at first.
Martin: I don't blame you. Most women would have had me murdered.
Clara: Oh I considered it. But I hate to think of myself as conventional. (Clara pours a glass of milk.)
Clara: But if this had to happen ... I'm glad it was you. (Clara serves the pie and milk, sits.)
Clara: And I'll admit there have been benefits. It's certainly sparked things up sexually. I suppose we'd both grown bored, without even realizing it.
Martin: I think you've handled it remarkably well.
Clara: I learned something a long time ago. Once Prok [Kinsey's nickname] has his mind set, it's no use trying to stop him.
Soon after, Clara and Martin begin their own sexual atfair, with Kinsey's knowledge.
When Clara is seen in the film straightening up the bed for the filming of sex between one of Kinsey's researchers and a sixtyish female volunteer, there is something more sexy in her calm and economical gestures than in the wild thrashing that comes next. According to Gathorne-Hardy, Clara typed up the sex diaries of Kinsey's most sexually prodigious and controversial subject-a pedophile who claimed to have had sex with thousands of people and who recorded these encounters in great detail-which took her until 1956 (Gathorne-Hardy, 20). One pictures her deliberate and calm progress through the sensational and disturbing material. During this same period, Clara Kinsey became a leading figure in the Girl Scouts of Bloomington.
The wives of Kinsey's team-Agnes Gebhardt, Martha Pomeroy, and Alice Martin-remain on the margins in the film, seen only at the Martins' garden wedding and a group picnic, talking ironically about Kinsey's influence over their families:
Martha: [to newlywed Alice] At least you passed the test.
Alice: What do you mean?
Martha: He took your sex history, didn't he? Well, he wouldn't have let Clyde marry you unless he thought you'd fit in.
Who were these women whose husbands spent their days talking about sex and who themselves defied all convention to participate in Kinsey's rarefied experiment in free sex during the forties and fifties? According to Gathorne-Hardy, the wives were involved in sexual activity with the different men of the team (including Kinsey) and in Kinsey's films (Gathorne-Hardy does not report whether they participated in homosexual encounters with each other, as the men of the team did), although Alice Martin-who fell in love with Gebhard after they'd begun an affair-remained resentful of what she perceived as Kinsey's pressure to participate.
In some fundamental way, despite his years of study, women remained "other" to Kinsey. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey was at pains to establish that women were like men at the level of anatomy and physiology, that the female's sexual organs and pathways of stimulation were homologous to those of the male, her physical capacities equal, in order to dispel the myth that women were innately less sexual than men. Yet when he documents how different women appeared from men psychologically-in terms of sources of arousal, levels of premarital sexual relations, sexual needs, patterns of masturbation, and role of orgasm in sexual satisfaction, for example-Kinsey seems perplexed by differences he cannot explain, except by recourse to hormones. It is as if he asks himself: Why can't a woman be more like a man? Reading the Female volume, I found it at first quite confusing to understand Kinsey's odd formulation that women are less often affected by psychological factors as "[her] previous sexual experience . . . [her] vicarious sharing of another person's sexual experience, or by [her] sympathetic reactions to the sexual responses of other individuals" (650). Kinsey seems to mean that whereas men develop generalized expectations and physiological responses as a result of prior sexual experience (according to a traditional model of psychological conditioning), women tend to experience each encounter, each actual relationship, on its own terms. Interestingly, Kinsey's statistical analysis leads him to conclude that although women exhibit much more variety in sexual behavior than do males, they are more similar to each other across educational background; in other words, educational differences (an indicator of class) do not account for differences in sexual experience among women. Kinsey takes this to mean that "females are not conditioned to the extent that males are conditioned by the attitudes of the social groups in which they live" (686). Beauvoir, Kinsey's contemporary, of course argued instead that women across class and educational backgrounds experience themselves as "Other"-that it is women's oppression that conditions female sexuality most profoundly.
Whatever Kinsey's weaknesses as a social or psychological analyst of the data he gathered, his Female volume offered a profoundly new and convention-shattering view of women as sexual beings, with sexual bodies that were knowable.13 For this, he was vigorously attacked in the press, by psychologists like Karl Menninger and by religious fundamentalists like Billy Graham (Gathorne-Hardy). Some challenged the book on the grounds that it must be biased toward prostitutes, because no respectable, "normal" woman would have agreed to talk to Kinsey about sex! Clara Kinsey is shown in the film bluntly confronting her husband's bewilderment over the controversy stirred by the publication of his Female volume:
Kinsey: I 'm trying to understand why people hate this book so.
Clara: You told them their grandmothers and daughters are masturbating, having sex with each other. What did you expect?
TOYS, TOTS, AND THE PRODUCTION OF SEXUAL KNOWLEDGE
The last evening of the conference, a large dinner reception for the fellows and the Kinsey Institute staff is held in the private back room of one of Bloomington's more upscale restaurants. Clusters of researchers form as everyone loosens up over some wine. After the meal, several women talk about a sex toy house party (an old-fashioned Tupperware-like gathering), one of the fellows (an anthropologist) recently attended in a suburb of Austin, Texas. She reenacts the sales pitch, complete with hand motions, to great gales of laughter from her audience of serious researchers. The performance relies on pantomiming progressively sized anal beads being deftly slipped into the unsuspecting anus of a woman's male lover as she strokes his hairy chest with her other hand and murmurs, "Ooh baby, you're so fine." Like backup singers in a 1950s girl band, we all mimic the motions, murmuring, "You're so fine, baby, you're so fine." Enjoying the irony of our "pleasing your man" act and the ludicrousness of the scenario being sold-anal seduction by stealth attack-we for the moment hold at bay the painful and complicated sexual and gender dynamics embedded in the performance. Like the fourth grader learning of sex from my more knowledgeable classmate's dirty joke, I am surprised to find myself embarrassed by my own sexual ignorance. Am I the only one here who's never heard of anal beads? I wonder (but don't ask). "Tell it again! Tell it again!!" we beg our storyteller as another woman joins us, drawn by our hysterical laughter. She does, and it's just as funny the second time. (And the third.) For a moment, we are just a bunch of women laughing about sex, as women sometimes do. (In a profound irony, I find myself somewhat uneasy writing that we were actually talking about "real" sex at a sexuality conference: sex researchers tend to be naturally defensive about "telling stories out of school," for fear of providing ammunition to the Right.)
Under the surface of the story, ot course, are the kinds of questions an interdisciplinary group of contemporary sexuality researchers tend to think about. Who were the women at the sex party-professionals? working class? whites? African Americans? single or married, heterosexual or lesbian? mothers? monogamous? Did the products turn them on or please their partners or turn them on by pleasing their partners? What fantasy was being produced, or stoked, by these sexual scripts? How were gender roles and sexual identities played into/with? Does the use of toys and lubricants, and the like, affect sexual arousal? Does it affect sexual risk or the practice of safer sex? What sort of homoerotic frisson circulated among the partygoers as they handled the products and imagined and showed each other how they'd use them? Is going to a sex toy party empowering for women? What was the legal context of the party? (On February 11, 2004, Reuters reported that a Texas woman, Joanne Webb, a mother of three, a Baptist, and a former schoolteacher who worked for a company that sells sex toys at house parties, had been arrested in November 2003, under a Texas obscenity law, for selling sex devices to two undercover police officers and explaining how to use them for sexual stimulation.)
Kinsey understood that there was something important to be learned about sexuality (and the human condition) by asking people about their sexual histories, fantasies, and everyday sexual practices, and observing them in their social contexts. He maintained an unshakable optimism in the idea that scientific knowledge would free us to experience and express our sexual desires without guilt or shame, and that we would be healthier and happier for it. He showed us not only the significance of simply describing the amazing variation in what people do sexually, but the power of telling sexual stories and having the words to talk about sex.
In the film, Kinsey, Mac and their teenage daughters sit in their yard at the picnic table, talking freely about sex. "Would you like to take my sex history, Daddy?" asks seventeen-year-old Joan. Kinsey replies with gentle interest: "Do you have a sex history, sweetie?" To her question about whether breaking the hymen hurts, he answers, "It helps if you spread the vulva to facilitate penetration." Their son, Brace, complains bitterly that it isn't normal for a family to talk about such things over dinner and storms away from the table. The dinner table conversation still surprises, not because it was "advanced" for the fifties (it certainly was), but because it is still advanced today, more than half a century later.
A student I taught in a course on adolescence during the mid-nineties wrote anonymously that she was shocked and terrified when she began to menstruate (even in the 1990s, this was not uncommon among women at an urban public college); no one had ever taught her about her body. "I would never do that to my daughter," she promised. That our endless wonderment and curiosity about sex and our bodies is often punished, or foreclosed, and perhaps can never be fully satisfied, given all the limits imposed by culture, religion, family, science, politics, and psyche, is one of the lessons of Kinsey. Yet the film is wistful about the possibilities ot knowing, and subversive in its insistence on our right to discover ourselves. What will I teach my own daughter that will help her love her body and teel confident in her sexuality as she grows? Last night before her bath, she sat on the cold white tile of the bathroom floor, separating her labia to examine her body. She tells me: "Mommy, my clitoris is pink. Why it's pink (sic)?" It always starts with a question.
1. Information on the Sexuality Research Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council can be found at http://www.ssrc.org/programs/sexuality.
2. For discussion of press reaction to Kinsey's books, see Gathorne-Hardy and Condon.
3. According to Ericksen, only approximately 18,000 of the total were used for the two books.
4. As represented in the film Kinsey, this scene makes much of Kinsey's supposedly extra-large penis and uncharacteristically mystifies the doctor's intervention. After their visit to the doctor, Kinsey and Mac are shown having wild, abandoned, and apparently gratifying sex.
5. The Kinsey Institute collection includes a large number of male physique photo cards and catalogue pages. Supposedly produced for artists and bodybuilders, these images of handsome, muscular males were popular with gay men, and found an enthusiastic market in the post-World War II era. It was not uncommon for the studies of physique photographers to be raided by the police in the 1950s.Photographers sometimes painted g-strings on nude figures to avoid violating the obscenity laws-