Dr. Sex: Alfred Kinsey, His Life and Times
It can be said to have all begun with bugs.
Following a childhood fascination with insects, Alfred Kinsey chose a study of the gall wasp for his Doctor of Science dissertation after completing his degree in biology from Bowden College in Brunswick, Maine.
Upon arriving at Harvard’s graduate school of biology in the fall of 1916, Kinsey set his sights on the social and reproductive habits of these tiny oak tree dwellers, eventually collecting several hundred thousand specimens. But more than just amassing a world-class collection of bugs, by the time of its completion, Kinsey had succeeded in establishing a remarkably meticulous methodology for assembling and analyzing data, a propensity for digging into a subject some characterized as “bordering on obsession,” and a personal conviction to prove that science is the ultimate link between humanity and truth.
A year after receiving his Doctorate of Science in 1919, Kinsey moved to Bloomington, Indiana where he became assistant professor of entomology at Indiana University--where he was recognized as the world’s foremost authority on gall wasps.
That fall, Alfred, an introverted and socially awkward young man at this time, met chemistry major Clara Bracken McMillan with whom he shared a love of the natural world. Though both were exceedingly inexperienced in dating--and matters of sex--they managed to cultivate a relationship that led to marriage in June of 1921. And it was this single event that became the catalyst for Kinsey’s exploration of human sexuality that was to make his a household name synonymous with sex.
The limits of the newlyweds’ sexual experiences became an obstacle--presenting insurmountable problems the very first night. Though they repeatedly attempted to consummate their marriage, their simple lack of fundamental knowledge prevented it. Not their inexperience with sexual mechanics (something most couples come to figure out), but rather their inexperience with sexual anatomy.
So, doing what scholars do, Alfred and Clara consulted what books they could find on the subject. “Marriage manuals.” But sex manuals of that era talked very little about intercourse; they promoted abstinence except for the purpose of procreation and typically offered little more than vague instructions concerning wedding night expectations, personal hygiene, and sometimes, kissing. So, for Alfred and Clara (like millions of other frustrated couples around the country), the answers they sought were not to be found between written pages. If they had, they would have discovered that Clara suffered a relatively common abnormality of her sex organs that was easily repaired with minor surgery.
The result of the yearlong quest for sexual satisfaction resulted in several life-altering revelations for the Kinseys. For one, Alfred’s deep-seated childhood uncertainties about sex all bubbled to the surface--along with a growing preoccupation with the lack of available information on sex. And for another, Clara, having acquired a considerable amount of theoretical sexual information through her numerous doctor consultations, found herself acting as sex therapist to many of her female friends on and off campus. And before long, Alfred and Clara became the sources for sexual advise. By Kinsey’s own account, this constant attention to sex resulted in the two becoming quite sexually adventurous, developing what many recognized as an “open” marriage.
Over the next few years, Kinsey’s academic and personal interests took a fundamental turn away from bug life. Though he managed to publish two major works during this time, one, The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A study in the Origins of the Species (in which he identified 48 never-before-identified species), and one in 1935 titled, The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips, it was obvious to all around him that his primary interest had shifted to sex. Human sex. In fact, many credit Clara (despite having four children between 1922 and 1928) with urging Alfred to formalize his years of entomological findings or his work would not have been documented.
Prompted by a sudden rise in venereal disease cases, Indiana University decided to offer a sex education course to seniors and married students in 1938, which Kinsey was assigned to teach, with 98 students signing up the very first term. Shocked to find that the scientific literature of the time that discussed sex was filled with superstition and archaic information based on Judeo-Christian ethics rather than biology or physiology--which he considered repressive--he eventually presented his own ideas to his students (including openly advocating contraception and atheism, and presenting sexually-graphic illustrations) which got him replaced after only a few semesters. But through his interaction with students during these few semesters, he became convinced that the only true way to gain insight into human sexual behavior was to conduct scientifically-administered interviews, which he began independently--in his home.
Kinsey Lecture: Image credit
In 1940, Kinsey managed to secure a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to further develop his sex research, founding The Institution for Sex Research at the University in 1942. Forming a fact-finding team that included University undergraduate and one-time interviewee Clyde Martin, prison psychologist Wardell Pomeroy, anthropologist Paul Gebhard, zoologist Ralph Voris, and, of course, his ever-devoted Clara, Kinsey trained them in proper “persuasive” scientific interviewing methods, data interpretation and analysis, and how to graph and chart statistical data. Hitting the road, Kinsey and his team then crisscrossed the country conducting tens of thousands of interviews, asking questions never before asked. And though he never imagined it, by 1945, he was well on his way to changing the face of sex--and sexual behavior--in America forever.
Staff: Image Credit
By all accounts, Kinsey’s research was hardly limited to the clinical setting alone. In fact, he often encouraged sexual relationships between staff and their wives--in the name of science--and then hired a photographer to film them masturbating and engaging in intercourse. And in addition to having homosexual affairs with Voris, Martin, and Pomeroy, Kinsey often took his team to sleezy Chicago nightclubs where he participated in homosexual activities with various subjects.
Not only did he permit an affair between Martin and Clara, encourage a sexual liaison between Gebhard and Martin’s wife Alice, he frequently hosted dinner parties where alcohol and drugs were on hand--and where Alfred was the sexual aggressor, having sex with untold men and women. Furthermore, he mail-ordered so much sexually-explicit pornographic material that the US Customs launched a formal investigation into his practices.
By 1947, Kinsey had amassed enough data to support a book about male sexuality, publishing Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948. Despite the shocking conclusions it presented: that “homosexual acts were far more common than had been supposed,” that the “average man attains the peak of virility at about the age of 16 or 17--and then quickly declines," and that “men who began sexual activity early held their power longer,” it became a virtual best-seller overnight due to Kinsey’s academic reputation.
Encouraged by his book’s unprecedented success (and the sexuo-celebrity it afforded him), Kinsey and his staff immediately began work on a sequel: Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Covering the same topics as his Male book: premarital and extramarital relations, masturbation, sex dreams, and sexual preferences, his second book was ready for publication by 1953. And in September of that same year, surrounded by great fanfare and media coverage, the new book hit the shelves--but didn’t have the reaction expected. Despite having made the covers of Time, Post, and Collier’s magazines, the response was frigid. While American society was perfectly willing to accept the dark side it had always assumed men possessed, it wasn’t ready to accept that women--mothers, daughters, sweethearts and wives--participated in sexual activities most mainstream-Americans considered perverted and only desired by prostitutes.
Kinsey’s book informed the nation that women were no less sexual than men; did not consider lesbianism (especially) perverted; believed they had as much right to seek sexual satisfaction as men; believed that a satisfying sex life is essential to a happy marriage; and that women who had sex before marriage were more likely to have sexually-fulfilled lives than those who didn’t. Kinsey quickly realized that in the 5 years it had taken to compile the Female book, American sensibilities had taken an unexpected turn. He was personally and professionally shaken.
While Kinsey may have been able to recover from the negative reception his Female book received, he wasn’t prepared for the hailstorm of problems that lay on the near horizon. Shortly after the second book’s release, the US House of Representatives launched a formal investigation of Kinsey and his Institute, attempting to connect the dots between him and the American Communist Party. Government sources opening implied that Kinsey’s true agenda was not to educate the American public but to subvert it as an agent of the Communists by demeaning women.
This overt, frontal attack resulted in Kinsey’s supporters running for academic cover--taking all his funding and scholastic support with them. And though Kinsey attempted to solicit other funding over the next few years, his reputation had already been tainted--after all, if the American government thought he was guilty, he surely must be. Now, his true-blue, All-American veneer had been cracked and what many saw as his dark and dastardly innards were exposed.
Two years later after a series of ailment, Alfred Kinsey died of complications of congestive heart failure at the age of 62.
After his death, Kinsey’s closest friend, Paul Gebhard became director and chief administrator of the Kinsey Institute, remaining at that post until 1982 when he retired. His wife Clara lived in quietude until she died in 1982 at the age of 84.
Despite all the negative publicity, The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction is now regarded as one of the premier sex research institutes in the world, and continues to explore ground-breaking, sexually-related work--just as Kinsey intended. (No connection to Communism was ever made and now believed by many to have been a ruse to discredit his work and findings.)
“Alfred Charles Kinsey,” the Biography Channel
Alfred Kinsey’s Work Fifty Years Later, J. Bancroft, 1998
The Kinsey Institute: http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/
All images via Wikiapedia.org unless credited otherwise.
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