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William Murchison on Alfred Kinsey’s Good News
Oh, the temptation is there all right. I’ll venture anyway that maybe we shouldn’t strive unduly long and hard to hang the sexual revolution albatross around the neck of Alfred Charles Kinsey, Ph.D.—who, to tell the truth, would have beamed and strutted on being offered such a device.
What are we to suppose—that a single Indiana University zoologist, dead for half a century, conveyed us to where we are today, sexually speaking? Many might doubt it, based on the commonplace observation that for revolutionary tinder to ignite, tinder must first exist in plenty, heaped by many hands over much time.
The lineaments of sexual revolution—AIDS, abortion, pornography, homosexual “marriage,” Howard Stern, etc.—may be glimpsed in warnings, c. 1911, when Kinsey was a mere lad of 17, about the eroticism and abandon of that new dance sensation, the Turkey Trot. (“Everybody’s doing it!” the lyrics cheerfully advised—an appropriate slogan, come to think of it, for the Kinsey Cult that was to come.) If indeed Americans have bought much of the sexual liberation package, is it because a slick salesman conned them—or because they were ready, with wallets out, when he launched into his pitch?
Still, it makes nothing but sense to seize what might be called a “a teachable moment” to ponder the legacy of the scientist whose hugely publicized studies of male and female sexuality helped persuade Americans to regard sex as just the common currency of life, in whatever form it might come: wherever; whenever; with whomever; with whatever.
Professor Alfred Kinsey is before us again, in all his dubious glory. The timing seems ironic, given how zealously, and effectively, Red America overpowered Blue America on November 2. Nevertheless, the Liam Neeson-Laura Linney biographical film entitled Kinsey opened in theaters just nine days after John Kerry’s concession speech. Neeson, in the eponymous role, is being touted for an Oscar. Rex Reed, speaking for many, judges that the film “entertains, informs, and electrifies us with the highest values of traditional cinema while opening hearts and minds with the liberating potential of human diversity.” Sounds exactly like what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is usually looking for.
Meanwhile, in The Inner Circle, published shortly before the movie’s release, the prolific novelist-short story craftsman T. C. Boyle views Kinsey’s career through the eyes of a fictional research assistant and his wife. The novel is a brisk, bright read, with unexpected complexity and an absence of hagiographical asides.
Moral traditionalists, correctly sensing an opportunity to be heard, weighed in, rarely with a light touch. The California-based Catholic Outreach maintained that “Alfred Kinsey was instrumental in bringing about the widespread acceptance of perversity and immorality that exists today.” Both Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler likened the professor to the Nazi death doctor Joseph Mengele, because of Kinsey’s use of data gathered from child abusers and pedophiles. Judith Reisman, a longtime Kinsey critic, called the man a “massive criminal” involved up to his eyebrows in dishonest research.
Amid such reproaches one could forget that Kinsey was also a kind of polymath: a concert pianist manqué, as well as a highly regarded zoologist and competent naturalist; a captivating lecturer; a man of huge energy and focus; a visionary even. To be sure, similar things could be said of many unsavory historical figures, including some who have defaced our own times. Talent and virtue frequently fail to keep step with each other.
This latest onrush of Kinseyana follows the publication in the late 1990s of two biographical studies, James H. Jones’s Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s Sex, the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey. In fact, we never seem to finish talking about Alfred Kinsey, on account of our inability to finish talking of all he set out to teach us: specifically, that when it comes to sex, desire rules, and nobody, but nobody, is entitled to object.
From the Kinsey corpus— Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953)—came the news that Americans, whatever image of propriety they might cultivate, were real swingers. It seemed that all kinds of things we didn’t like to talk about—masturbation, premarital and extramarital sex, even bestiality—were more or less commonplace.
Kinsey claimed this on the basis of 7,985 personal interviews he had conducted, along with another 10,000 presided over by staff members. Every sort of sexually intimate question was put to the respondents. (One reason the Kinsey studies remain controversial is their selectivity: What kind of answers do you get from people who volunteer to tell you in detail about their sex lives, particularly when a disproportionate number are prison inmates?)
A particularly startling factoid, much cited as the homosexualist movement emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was that that 10 percent of males were predominantly homosexual. (Kinsey, bisexual by commitment if not necessarily inclination, might have been expected to present such findings, if findings they were, with special interest.) Subsequent studies have shown a much lower figure—somewhere in the area of 2 percent.
What this all meant, supposedly, was—whoooooo!—anything goes. Or, as they sang even earlier, in 1911, “Everybody’s doing it.” If everybody was doing it, it must be all right, right? That was certainly Kinsey’s viewpoint. As he expressed it, “There are only three kinds of abnormalities: abstinence, celibacy, and delayed marriage.”
Nor was Kinsey behindhand in practicing what he preached. He appears to have engaged in most, if not all, of the practices he found so unexceptionable. The movie has him self-circumcising. The novel depicts him (on appropriate evidence) standing naked in the Kinsey attic before his colleagues and their wives and inserting objects into various orifices of his body.
None of this was quite what most Americans had learned about in Sunday school. That included the author-researcher, who had grown up in the bosom of the Methodist Church, only to reject Methodism, and with it the whole of organized Christianity, outright and forever.
Have we been down this road before? Only a few million times in pop culture and modern literature. The narrative line is familiar. Religious prigs and bluenoses (generally wizened and often enough wearing clerical collars) browbeat Eager, Questing Young Persons with a lot of sin and sweet Jesus talk. Eyes narrow and fingers point: We know what the two of you were up to in that barn/auto/front parlor! Don’t think you can fool us! The devil himself awaits fornicators and adulterers! Repent, repent! (words usually delivered in a kind of hoarse shriek).
And so, for our hero and heroine, it’s out the door and away to someplace where the sweet nothings of love drown out curses and the torch of intellectual inquiry lights the dark night of bigotry and . . . oh, well, you get the idea.
Kinsey opens so. The father of Alfred Charles Kinsey—Alfred Seguine Kinsey, played by the estimable John -Lithgow—is a lay Methodist preacher and some nasty dude. He is hot on the trail of sin. His list of modern enticements to evil is a lengthy one. It includes not only the zipper—for ease, you see, in advancing lust—but also electricity, which “made possible the degraded picture show.” It could not have been tons of fun living around the cinematic Kinsey household: the theological equivalent of life in a Mafia family, with six-year-olds sent out on hit jobs with their dads.
Not that Bill Condon, writer and director of Kinsey, knows that Alfred Seguine Kinsey ever spoke so. He just infers it. The Big K was religious, wasn’t he? And Alfred Charles Kinsey rejected religion, didn’t he? That would seem to settle it. Any religion that would fence in sexual pleasure is just plain spiteful, and to be avoided like the plague. No wonder, as young Al later expresses it, “the fields and woods became my new place of worship.” Methodists may not bite, but they can sure scare you to death.
Boyle’s The Inner Circle explores the same territory. Its narrator, the fictional John Milk, based partly on the real-life Clyde Martin, is, how’d you ever guess, a lapsed Methodist. Milk explains that “Prok” (Kinsey’s nickname: “Pro” for Professor plus “K” for Kinsey) had had “a strict Methodist upbringing that caused him all sorts of adolescent torment with regard to his natural urges, and once he discovered science and applied a phylogenetic approach to human behavior, he became rabidly a-religious.” As far as Prok was concerned, “all religions and religious persons were anathema.”
They needed to be anathema, given the kind of sexual ethos Prok was bent on constructing—an ethic almost wholly unfenced, unregulated, unproscribed. It banished prudishness while rewarding self-expression. Whatever you wanted to do, you were just to go ahead and do it.
Well, as Prok put it in the movie, there was one rule: “No one should ever be hurt.” We can’t be surprised at that, so deeply is the rule embedded in modern cultural creeds. Not that the meaning of “hurt” ever becomes clear, any more than does its applicability to situations in which a powerful party claims superior rights to an infinitely less powerful one; in cases, say, of abortion.
Prok’s wife Mac (Clara MacMillan) asks him on one occasion in the movie—I suppose by way of demonstrating the filmmakers’ capacity for broad-mindedness—“Did you ever stop to think that society’s restrictions keep people from hurting each other?” Whether or not Mac ever said such a thing in real life, the movie drops the point like a hot condom, and no wonder, inasmuch as consideration of the point might lead to consideration of the role of religion, dread religion, in defining not just the “rules” but the very purposes of sex.
A place for God in the discussion? Why, that would soon enough have Methodist types assigning him an -interest—perhaps the predominant interest—in the use and abuse of sex. That you just can’t do in a Kinseyan universe, dependent on unfettered choice. Start referring choices to a deity, and you find him defining them, even closing off some. How unfair! How un-modern!
Well, yes: viewed in those specific terms. Which prove, on inspection, not to be the only terms. Not to take God into account, with respect to sex, is to miss the whole point of sex, whose reality as well as appearance is linked directly to the perpetuation and righteous living-out of life. Given modern culture’s quasi-moralistic acceptance of the extinction of human life through abortion, the point is easy to miss. It becomes clearer when we factor in God (assuming, as one can’t always, the desire to factor him in).
The Big Question has to be put: What is life for? If for nothing in particular, well and good for the Kinseyan, because that suggests ample scope for self-expression. If, on the other hand, as Christians have always asserted, the purpose of life is to love and serve God, a wholly new set of obligations emerges. The Self shrinks back out of the spotlight, unable to have it the Self’s own way. It must be someone else’s way—a Someone with powerful claims on us.
The religious view of life—specifically the Christian view—excludes and overrules the Kinseyan view. No wonder Prok fled in horror from the Methodist Church, and from his cinematic father’s tirades.
This sex business, this Kinsey business: It all may come down in the end to the question, how much stock do you put in the creeds? Specifically, how much stock do you put in those introductory words we so often recite by rote, minds wandering to the next stage of the proceedings, if not to prospects for lunch: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible . . . ”?
All things— us included? Looking at the matter that way, you find you can’t get from Nicea to the doors of the sex research institute that still bears Kinsey’s name; not without extensive cultural and theological detours, you can’t.
Unhaunted by any such affirmation as the bishops of the East and the West promulgated at Nicea, Alfred Charles Kinsey devoted himself to a different creed—one of self-expression, lived without the slightest hint of shame. Under that creed, he focused on what people do (or say they do) as opposed to what they should do. Indeed, as Prok saw it, “should” was a word that should mostly be kept out of sight.
That Prok seems presently to enjoy the upper hand in modern culture—over, say, the pope or the ecumenical patriarch—is a point that need not discourage those whose understanding of sex is grounded in realism. Plain, stark, open, high-noon, sunlit realism, rather than the fantasy that Kinseyans impute to such an understanding.
One might feel called upon to acknowledge—even lounging in the lobby of the modern-day Kinsey institute—that the old understanding, the Christian understanding, founded on a love that lust knows nothing about, has brought us far on the human journey.
And that’s far enough? Not as the Nicean fathers would see it, given their expectation that the Lord who had made all things would have his way in the end. What astounding confidence for them to express amid the on-going collapse of their culture and society. We’ll see in due course whether even the charismatic Prok can argue them down.
William Murchison a syndicated columnist, is author of Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (Encounter Books).