Skip to content

The Private Lives of Dr Sex: Kinsey Stripped Bare

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in The Independent on Sunday, 1997, and collected in Sex Terror)

Growing up in the 1970s, frustrated and bored with waiting for someone to invent the Internet, I got my teenage kicks at York Central Library.

Dropping in on my way home from school, I would furtively rummage through the dusty sociology section looking up dirty words, especially ‘homosexuality’ and ‘penis’. (Blissfully unaware that in the gents both these abstract ideas were freely and really available). One of the most fertile resources for my highly subjective researches was Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male by a Dr Kinsey (1948).

According to the sensational biography by James H Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey-A Public/Private Life, published last year to scandalised uproar, the Good Doctor’s interest in these words was less academic than mine. Apparently, he was ‘a homosexual’, driven by personal demons, who cruised parks, bars, cinemas, and public lavatories and frequently had sex with the men he interviewed. In other words, the Good Doctor was a pervert, and his research was to be handled with rubber gloves.

Gathorne-Hardy’s Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred Kinsey aims to liberate Kinsey from the nonce-wing of sexology by refuting Jones’ reductive approach to his sexuality, arguing that he was as complex as his subject-matter, that the sex-pioneer from Indiana was a living testament to the value of his own refusal to countenance that there was such a thing as ‘a homosexual’; there were only homosexual or heterosexual acts. On Kinsey’s famous 0-6 scale, where 0=exclusively heterosexual behaviour, 3=equally homosexual and heterosexual behaviour, and 6=exclusively homosexual (and 7=Harvey Fierstein), Kinsey moved in his own lifetime from a Kinsey 0 to a Kinsey 4.

Gathorne-Hardy argues persuasively that Kinsey’s bisexuality and pro-active approach was actually a help rather than a hindrance in his research, contrasting it with that of the ‘blue rinse’ brigade who conducted the research for a recent American sex survey. (As one respondent put it succinctly: “I’m not gonna tell someone who reminds me of my mom that I suck cock.”)

Gathorne-Hardy also demonstrates why Kinsey’s data, despite all the statistical brickbats hurled at it, is probably still more accurate than any gathered since. Recent sex surveys both here and in the US have sneered at Kinsey’s failure to ‘random sample’. But the trouble with random sampling in regard to these sex surveys is that it isn’t random. Around 30% of people randomly selected in the recent mammoth British sex survey refused to take part. In contrast, over a quarter of Kinsey’s data was garnered from 100% responses from the Universities, factories, and associations he visited. Even when you remove the so-called ‘dirty data’ of prisons and homosexual groups, this has little or no effect on the findings that most people who attack Kinsey today are concerned with — that more than a third of all adult American males admitted experiencing sexual contact with another male ‘to orgasm’.

And yet one can’t help feeling that Gathorne-Hardy should have spent less time refuting Jones and more time reading Foucault, whom along with Freud he has no time for. Gathorne-Hardy, like his behaviourist subject, is allergic to theory. But this fetishism of facts, refreshing as it was in a 1940s sexologist, is simply frustrating in a 1990s biographer. What is most interesting about Kinsey is what is omitted here.

Gathorne-Hardy dismisses as ‘irrelevant’ and a ‘swamp of words’ Foucault fan Thomas Waugh’s intriguing observations on Kinsey and the scientific study of sex: ‘How can the pleasure of looking be separated from the pleasure of erotic looking… the drive for visual pleasure, in which knowledge and desire are interlocking terms of power?’ And yet, on the very next page, Gathorne-Hardy, introducing Kinsey’s study of the female orgasm, cites a story which graphically presents precisely this question.

Beck, a pioneering sex researcher was examining a woman for a collapsed uterus. Her cervix was clearly visible through her labia, and he was about to probe here when she told him to be careful: if he touched her, she would almost certainly have an orgasm. ‘Beck suddenly realised he might have a chance to see the female orgasm in action. He ignored her and… “swept my finger three or four times across the space between the cervix and the pubic arch, when almost immediate orgasm occurred…”.’

Foucault may have been too ready to play the French phoney, but I can hardly think of a single historical figure more deserving of a Foucauldian hermeneutic than Kinsey. Everything is there: the confessional, the integration of power, knowledge and sex, observation as a form of control. Kinsey even insisted that his male assistants have sex with him, arguing that it would help them with their homosexual interviews. If they objected this was taken as proof of how much they needed to have sex with Kinsey to overcome their inhibitions (judging by the plates of some of his young, beefy assistants, I can’t help feeling it’s an argument that I would have used too).

In effect the Institute for Sex Research was one gigantic sexual panopticon with Kinsey at its centre, surveying the most private, most intimate behaviour of literally tens of thousands of people. Kinsey personally observed hundreds of acts of coitus and masturbation, and his institute filmed and photographed thousands more. As an example of the whimsical power of this voyeuristic potentate, on one occasion, Kinsey ordered the ISR to film a thousand different men masturbating to determine whether men actually ejaculated, i.e. threw out their semen, or whether it just fell out (most men are dribblers was the disappointing conclusion).

Of course, it doesn’t take a Foucault to see that the thousands of in-depth sex interviews that Kinsey conducted could themselves be interpreted as a form of sex, even if you didn’t know about his habit of measuring his male interviewees erections. One indignant NY hotelier famously made the connection. Fed up with the constant stream of disreputable types of men lining up in his foyer to be interviewed by Kinsey who was lodged in one of his rooms at the time, he turfed the Doctor out shouting, “I WILL NOT HAVE YOU UNDRESSING PEOPLE’S MINDS IN MY HOTEL!”

Kinsey started a trend that has become unstoppable. Nowadays any sex surveyor has to begin their interviewer with the question, ‘When was the first time you were interviewed about your sex life?’ Kinsey’s sexual liberationist approach has become mainstream. Turn on the television, open a newspaper and be confronted with another ‘sex survey’ or new series claiming to ‘uncover the secret of sex’. Even Republicans are at it. Kenneth Starr, the right-wing Kinsey, conducts an investigation into sexual behaviour even more ambitious and more famous than Doctor Sex’s. Relentlessly making the private public in the name of the public good, he aggressively pursues evidence of extra-marital, extra-vaginal sexual activity.

And you can be sure than when Mr Starr extracted a confession of oro-genital contact from the President of the United States himself he had no doubts about the relationship of knowledge to power. (Interestingly, like Clinton, 40% of Kinsey’s respondents didn’t consider oro-genital contact as ‘sex’).

Explicitness is now as compulsory for our age as hypocrisy was for Kinsey’s strict Methodist father. Given this, Kinsey’s increasing fascination with homosexuality was entirely appropriate, since homosexuality is the most ‘naked’, most ‘explicit’ kind of sex – i.e. non-reproductive, non-institutionalised sex-for-it’s-own-sake. The number representing exclusive homosexuality on the Kinsey scale – six -is ‘sex’ in Latin. Little wonder then, that as our age has become more obsessed with sex it has become more obsessed with homosexuality.

However, there is a huge irony here. Kinsey’s ambition to demolish the category of ‘the homosexual’ by revealing the common-ness of homosexual acts has not been realised. Instead, homosexuality is in some senses even more ghettoised than in the 1940s. Male-male activity, precisely because it is more visible, is probably less common these days. Knowledge about ‘sexuality’ of itself changes the meaning and practise of what people do with their bodies. In Kinsey’s day it wasn’t queer unless you were taking it or weren’t ‘tied to the pier’ (as sailors used to say); nowadays any sexual contact between males is ‘gay’.

But, despite some admirably thorough legwork and some astute observations, you won’t find these points discussed by Gathorne-Hardy. He’s too busy using Kinsey as a behaviourist battering ram against theory, psychoanalysis, and religion. The result is that Kinsey himself is lost in the noise of liberal partisan warfare.

Gathorne-Hardy repeatedly cites Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong like some kind of charm warding off evil spirits and refuses to seriously discuss Kinsey’s unconscious life because he doesn’t want to give credence to Jones’ idea that Kinsey was ‘pursued by demons.’ But Kinsey himself confided to a friend that he was afraid of psychoanalysts: he had a feeling that they could divine his ‘innermost and most secret thoughts’.

Whether or not Kinsey might have benefited from some psychoanalysis is difficult to say, but this biography probably would. Kinsey was himself the best example of the limits of sexual liberationism. He died an unhappy, broken, impotent man in 1957, aged 63. According to Gahorne-Hardy, this was due to overwork and the result of the triumph of the reactionary forces that ‘cut off’ Kinsey’s funding.

But perhaps it may also have had something to do with Kinsey’s own driven, controlling nature and his masochistic tendencies – later in life he liked to suspend himself from the ceiling by his scrotum, and he announced to a surprised friend that he had recently circumcised himself in the bath.

Kinsey and Gathorne-Hardy may not have had much time for theories about the super-ego, but it looks as if an especially punitive one had plenty of time for Kinsey.

Become a patron at Patreon!

4 thoughts on “The Private Lives of Dr Sex: Kinsey Stripped Bare”

  1. No need to apologise at all. Fascinating stuff. I agree with everything – especially the last comment about how heterosodomy, i.e. male-female no-fee, no apron-strings recreational sex, has almost replaced the homo variety.

  2. Yet another (apologies, Mark!)

    “Given this, Kinsey’s increasing fascination with homosexuality was entirely appropriate, since homosexuality is the most ‘naked’, most ‘explicit’ kind of sex-i.e. non reproductive, non-institutionalised sex-for-it’s-own-sake.”

    The concurrent advent of The Pill in the late 1950s may have served to level the hetero-homo playing field in this regard, further depleting the ranks of covert ‘Friends of Freddie’; and of course HIV, not to mention fear of being associated with members of the cast of ‘Cats’ has tipped the balance decidedly in favour of heteros. Perhaps the bitchy gay term ‘breeders’ is a backhanded acknowledgement of the fact that heteros do a lot more than breed these days!

  3. random comments:

    “Thomas Waugh’s intriguing observations on Kinsey and the scientific study of sex: ‘How can the pleasure of looking be separated from the pleasure of erotic looking… the drive for visual pleasure, in which knowledge and desire are interlocking terms of power?”

    Strangely resonant with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal; and certainly many men will testify that ‘little man in the canoe’ can be as difficult to nail down as an electron!


    It is interesting that it was the Female study that caused Dr. Sex to loose his funding. The public had eaten up the male study in a voyeuristic feeding frenzy. However I would suggest that it was the Hamlet in our collective super-ego that quickly swooped down to prevent mommy’s libido from being subjected to the same degree of scrutiny. In fact, in a contemporaneous event (1948, about 350 years after it was written), the following line was still considered too harsh for the silver screen: “Nay, but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty,–” Following Bowdler, Sir Larry substituted ‘enseamed’ with the less graphic ‘lascivious’.

    All of which only serves to remind us that Siggy was the original ‘Dr. Sex’. Without him, Kinsey would have been impossible. One can only wonder at the extent to which Freud’s thought was influenced by the fact that he was named after a famously incestuous brother. Nice Jewish boys certainly don’t do that!

  4. It strikes me that in the era prior to the ‘sexual revolution’ Dr. Sex’s work was so helpful in instigating — when ‘good’ girls routinely vouchsafed their hymens for the conjugal chamber (or worms, as Marvell suggested three hundred years prior) — the incidence of either part or full time ‘Friends of Freddie’ may have been somewhat higher than it is today. In this setting, it is not unreasonable to expect that boys — who are nearly never ‘good’ — would lend each other a hand, a mouth, or even on occasion an anus. Also, today if a man has a yen for a ‘bit ‘o the other’, he quickly dismisses it as being ‘gay’.

    Gore Vidal admits to being tremendously nostalgic for the pre-‘gay’ world, where “la chase” might begin with an equivocal glance, continue for a feverish twenty blocks, and only occasionally end in a public loo, or a hotel room with the door left slightly ajar . . .

Comments are closed.