Everybody's Sin is Nobody's Sin: Alfred Kinsey and the Breaking of Sexual Silence

In the late 1930s, Alfred Kinsey had what he thought was a rather simple idea: Given that no one had the slightest idea what people really did and did not do sexually, and given -- as he discovered from a questionnaire he distributed to his students -- that a lack of simple information about sex was causing massive confusion and heartache, why not do a survey that would provide some hard information about people's sexual practices? Why not talk about the unmentionable (sex) and replace sexual ignorance and myth with sexual information and education?

A simple idea, perhaps, but hardly a simple task. How could a group of researchers hope to get people to talk truthfully about their sexuality -- about what they did sexually, what they fantasized about, how they felt about it all -- when hardly anyone felt free to talk to anyone about sex in the first place?

Kinsey, a dedicated rationalist with precious little understanding of social graces but a disarmingly straightforward way of talking openly about sexual matters, believed that with sincerity and obvious scientific objectivity people could be put sufficiently at ease that they would disclose their sexual histories, their sexual feelings, their innermost sexual secrets. Kinsey's basic method -- a contribution to sexual science as profound and long-lasting as the data he produced -- was to transcend socially enforced sexual silence so directly and unapologetically that the very act created a bubble of sexual sanity inside a sexually crazy world, a bubble in which speaking honestly and openly about sex was not only permitted, but even highly valued and encouraged.

If one wanted to hear people's sexual truths, Kinsey understood, the most important thing was to leave both moral and psychological judgment behind, since it is the fear of being morally or psychologically judged that causes people to keep sexual secrets in the first place.

Engage subjects personally and directly, Kinsey explained to his staff. Make clear that their information is to be used entirely for science, not for prurience, and that anything they confide will be held in strictest confidence. Most of all, demonstrate to subjects -- by the nature of the questions asked, by your own demeanor, tone of voice, body posture, facial expressions -- that whatever they reveal about their sexuality will be received sympathetically and respectfully, without judgment, without scorn, in the spirit of objectivity and scientific neutrality.

Even if interviewers could make their subjects comfortable and trusting, there was a second problem Kinsey's needed to address. What about representative sampling? How could Kinsey get anything like a representative sample of all Americans when he would be lucky to get a significant numbers of people to talk to him at all? Obviously, whoever chose to give Kinsey's researchers their sexual histories would be a self-selected, statistically skewed group. Kinsey's response -- a response acknowledged today to be only partly helpful -- was to make his sample as large as possible, since the larger the sample, the less relevant sample skews become. His goal was to take sexual histories from as many as 100,000 people, from hundreds of cultural subgroups he identified, throughout the United States. What he managed was to interview just under 12,000 before the Rockefeller Foundation pulled the plug on his funding and brought his research to a skidding halt in 1954.

When the first report of Kinsey's findings, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" -- an 800-page compendium heavy with statistical tables and graphs -- was published in 1948, it unexpectedly shot to the top of best seller charts across the nation, instantly changing the American sex informational landscape forever. His parallel report on women, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," published in 1953, was also a huge hit with the public. Not surprisingly, the two studies were immediately as controversial as they were popular.

What Kinsey found was that American men and -- worse, much worse -- American women, were more sexually active, more sexually adventurous, more diverse in their sexual desires and activities, more sexually exploratory, more likely to step outside the box of socially approved sexual behavior, than anyone would ever have imagined. Much more.

Even adjusting for Kinsey's potentially skewed samples, his studies made painfully (or excitedly, depending on our point of view) clear that what Americans actually did sexually was completely unrelated to what people previously thought Americans did. The national wall of sexual silence had been breached; the cat was out of the bag. Homosexuality, bisexuality, premarital sex, extramarital sex, postmarital sex, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, sadomasochism, sex with animals, sex with and among preadolescents and children, sex among older people, sex with prostitutes -- all of these were common practices among the grand American populace.

The core assumption of post-war, proscriptive American sexual "normalcy" -- that the overwhelming majority of people confined sex to heterosexual intercourse within marriage, generally in the "male-superior" position, and that only rare and occasional deviants would ever so much as think excitedly about transgressing those sexual boundaries -- was revealed to be utterly, categorically, devastatingly false. While the precision of Kinsey's statistics on how many people engaged in various forms of "deviant" sex might be challenged, there were -- without question -- millions, tens of millions, of Americans whose sexuality ranged all over the sexually forbidden map, and they weren't all going crazy, committing suicide, having their lives turn to ruin, getting pregnant, and dying of grossly disfiguring sexually transmitted diseases, as the popular sex mythology of the day would have predicted.

"Everybody's sin is nobody's sin," Kinsey proclaimed, triumphantly throwing open the doors to what has become a 50-year-long era of sexual expansion and creativity that half of this strange country welcomes with joy and celebration, and the other half blames for just about everything wrong with the world today.

The publication of Kinsey's study in 1948 was the opening salvo of a monumental battle that has been raging ever since -- between science (factual information) and religion (moral judgment) on the subject of sex. This ongoing conflict between secular and theological forces for control of sexual desire and behavior in America -- a cultural collision as cataclysmic in 2004 as it was in 1948 -- forms the core of "Kinsey," Bill Condon's brilliant, complex, and thoughtful new film about Alfred Kinsey, his family, his colleagues, and his work. The film -- enthusiastically received by just about everyone in the sexology community (sex educators, researchers, therapists, and counselors) and condemned with equal fervor by a broad spectrum of stalwarts of the Religious Right, is the latest artistic endeavor to bring into stark relief the core differences in sexual values that continue to split this country right down the middle. It all comes down to whether you believe that Kinsey's phenomenological, fact-based, morally neutral approach to sex, and the information that approach revealed about sexual practices of American men and women, was a great leap forward or a great leap backward into an abyss of fire, brimstone, and social dissolution.

A quick survey of mainstream film reviews shows that there is little question that, politics aside, "Kinsey" is a beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted, subtle, nuanced work of art. Aside from publications of the religious right, reviewers have been close to unanimous in their praise of "Kinsey," of its director, Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters"), and of its lead actors, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. Many reviewers have been quick to whisper "Oscar" for Liam Neeson's moving portrayal of Kinsey as a dedicated, somewhat dictatorial, socially awkward researcher, committed to discovering and publicizing the truth about American sexual behavior and desire, regardless of political and social consequences. Laura Linney is stunning as Clara McMillen, Kinsey's freethinking, outspoken, appreciative (though in many ways long-suffering) wife. And John Lithgow brings real depth to the character of Kinsey's Bible-thumping, antisexual father ("Lust has a thousand avenues -- the dance hall, the ice cream parlor, the tenement salon, the Turkish bath.... Some speculate that rampant adultery is the cause of earthquakes") who might easily have been reduced to caricature by a less talented performer.

One of the greatest achievements of "Kinsey" is the subtlety with which it examines the emerging sexual subculture of Kinsey's associates and researchers -- what develops, sexually and socially, among a group of people whose personal and professional lives fall decidedly outside of society's sexual norms. The film shows Kinsey, McMillen, and most of their inner circle, enthusiastically acting out their belief in sexual openness between consenting partners, but then having to deal with the complicated emotional consequences of their multiple involvements -- a task that takes them well outside the comfortable realm of scientific objectivity. To its credit, "Kinsey" depicts their non-monogamous pathfinding as neither a lighthearted romp through fields of unlimited sexual pleasure nor a foolhardy error of sexual excess, offering instead a sympathetic look at a group of people committed to bringing the radicalism of their sexual politics into their personal lives, and struggling -- successfully, for the most part -- with the sometimes painful, potentially destructive emotional and relational issues that their actions call into play.

"Kinsey" paints an amusing (and horrifying) picture of the predominant sexual culture of the 1930s, offering a collage of the sorts sexual misunderstandings that spurred one young zoology professor to undertake a huge sexual survey that would change the belief system of the nation. Cunnilingus, it was commonly believed, would result in a woman becoming infertile. Sexual intercourse was the only form of sex worth pursuing, once available (in marriage). A boy who masturbates is likely to be "sexually dead" as an adult. As for manually stimulating women for arousal, "Kinsey" offers this quote from "The Ideal Marriage," the leading sexual guide of the day: "There is but one finger of love to approach the female genitalia and that is the male penis."

The film shows that it was Kinsey's desire to debunk these sorts of sexually destructive myths that inspired him to undertake his monumental work. "The lack of information on what people do sexually leaves most of us feeling anxious or guilty," he instructs students in his popular course on human sexuality (available only to those who were married, engaged, or could pretend as much). "The gap between what we assume people do and what they actually do is enormous."

As Kinsey states in his introduction to "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," his purpose was to obtain "an accumulation of scientific fact [about sexual behavior] completely divorced from questions of moral value and social custom." This is Kinsey's Great Heresy -- daring to separate scientific information about sex from the mediating influences of morality and social convention. But to Kinsey, issues of morality and convention only muddy the waters, only act to prevent people from telling the truth about sex -- to themselves as well as to others. "The only way to study sex with scientific accuracy is to strip away everything but physiology," Kinsey says. As for love: "It's impossible to measure love, and without measurement there can be no science. When it comes to love, we're all in the dark."

Condon's main purpose with this film is clearly to tell the Kinsey story as history, but he is clearly aware of the allegorical parallels between what Kinsey faced in 1948 and what advocates of sexual truth, information, openness, and diversity face in the US today, and he uses the film effectively as a forum for the importance of all of the above.

The film is a virtual paean to diversity in all its forms, sexual and otherwise, a diversity Kinsey discovered while studying the gall wasp long before he ever became interested in human sexual behavior. Kinsey collected and catalogued over one million (!) gall wasps, intrigued that no two of them were ever alike. "If every single living thing is different from every other living thing," Kinsey exults, "then diversity becomes life's one irreducible fact." As for humans, "everyone is different," he proclaims. "The problem is that everyone wants to be the same. They're so eager to be part of the group that they're willing to betray their inner nature to get there."

"Kinsey" is full of references and scenes that, on one hand, are about the misunderstandings and political backlash that Kinsey faced in the 1950s, but at a second level speak equally strongly to the sexual political struggles we face today. "In a Puritan culture, sex remains a dirty secret, Kinsey says, for then and for now, adding, "Sexual morality needs to be reformed and science will show the way."

Challenged by a political movement that seeks to discredit and undermine his work, Kinsey angrily responds, "The forces of chastity are mobilizing once again to challenge the scientist, intimidate him, convince him to cease his research." Again, words that are as timely today as it they were when Kinsey uttered them fifty years ago.

As conservative outrage mounted over his studies, Kinsey was accused in Congress of being part of the Communist conspiracy to undermine American morals, and pressure was brought on his financial benefactor, the Rockefeller Foundation, to disassociate itself from Kinsey's work. Fearing political backlash, the Foundation agreed to back out of "the business of sex research," offering the sorry excuse that Kinsey was now in a position to get funding from other sources. That proved not to be the case. Attempts to find other sources of funds -- Indiana University, the Huntington-Hartford Foundation -- all failed. In 1954, no one wanted to jump into the sexual fires that Kinsey's books had ignited.

"[A grant] might be misunderstood as an endorsement of sex," Huntington Hartford explains to Kinsey, apologetically, at the end of a dinner party awash in chic sexual conversation and innuendo. "I can't afford that kind of exposure."

Nine additional books that Kinsey hoped to publish never came into existence. His hope of expanding his 12,000 sex histories to a larger sample of 100,000 also never came to pass. Lost in a sea of defeat, Kinsey grew increasingly depressed. He died of a heart ailment and pneumonia in 1956, just two years after losing his Rockefeller funding.

Is sex most fundamentally a moral issue or a psychological one? Does one arrive at a sense of sexual ethics from a pre-ordained list of proper and improper acts and partners, or by paying respectful attention to the dynamics of intimate interconnectedness, pursuit of pleasure, and possibilities of mutual personal discovery? Is sex, most basically, something to be studied, observed, and explored, or something to be controlled, limited, and feared?

Do we seek to understand sex from the standpoint of rational, scientific study, or from the perspective of undocumented myths and rigid moral beliefs? Do we address sex from a fact-based or from a belief-based point of view?

These issues, the ones that made Kinsey's work so controversial in 1948, are very much the subject of intense national debate today. So it's not surprising that the release of "Kinsey" has stirred up yet another storm of antisexual protest. The idea of a film -- especially a strong, well-produced, well-received film -- that honors Kinsey for his contribution to moving the U.S. out of the sexual dark ages, infuriates sexual conservatives. Having failed to pressure Liam Neeson to back away from starring in the film, conservative Christian groups are mounting a national campaign to discredit both the film and the man nationwide.

Generation Life, a collegiate anti-abortion group, plans to picket theaters showing the film nationwide, objecting to Kinsey's "pseudo-scientific defense of sexual perversions," and his responsibility "for my generation being forced to deal face-to-face with the devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, pornography and abortion," according to Generation Life spokesperson Brandi Swindell. Morality in Media president Robert Peters dismisses "Kinsey" as "an effort to rehabilitate a father of the hellish sexual revolution."

In the words of Arlen Williams, a conservative Illinois columnist, "a movie is now being shown that promotes one of the most evil and destructive figures in the 20th Century" -- Alfred Kinsey, "Darwinist zoologist, sex researcher, sex research defrauder, sexual anti-moralist, sexual abuse enabler, personally sexual pervert (sic), and pseudo-scientific high priest of the Sexual Revolution." The issue, to Williams, is straightforward enough, the divide between those who remember "the harmful practices of sin" and "those who uphold [the idea that] life may be enjoyed from beginning through end."

Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, and spokesperson for Concerned Women for America, similarly bemoans Kinsey's contribution to the changing sex culture of the last sixty years. "Kinsey's conclusions paved the way for condom-based sex education in... schools," he notes, "and furthered the agenda of pro-abortion groups.... From abortion to homosexuality to pornography, Kinsey's research has been cited as proof [that] "science has done away with societal [sexual] restraints based on religious beliefs."

Knight, who says that "Kinsey's proper place is with Nazi doctor Josef Mengele," calls Kinsey "a sexual revolutionary masquerading as an objective scientist."

What Knight fails to realize is the sad fact that, in a culture as irrationally antisexual as ours, just being an objective scientist who dares to study sex itself makes a person a sexual revolutionary of the highest order. In a social system based on sexual ignorance and misinformation, the very idea of sexual science, sexual knowledge, and sexual understanding is subversive.

© 2008 David Steinberg  

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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": .

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