Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey [Book Review]

The role of Alfred Kinsey, America's most influential sexologist, in the cultural revolution of sex and gender during the past fifty years remains as unquestionable as it has been controversial. This admiring biography argues that Kinsey also qualifies as an authentic great man of science in the tradition of Darwin. Kinsey's expert authority was recently challenged by James Jones, who claimed in his 1997 biography that Kinsey's terrible personal secrets—homosexuality and masochism—plagued his life and ruined his science. Jonathan Gathorne‐Hardy sets out to repair Kinsey's reputation by defending him against this “Kenneth Starr school of biography” . The author seeks to rescue Kinsey's achievement from the stigmatizing charge that it was flawed because it subordinated science to subjectivity.Gathorne‐Hardy emphasizes Kinsey's methodological creativity and his interviewing genius. During his early career, when he worked on gall wasps, Kinsey's science developed as a practice of scrupulous collection, observation, and documentation. Even in graduate school, he was dubbed “get a million Kinsey,” and his belief in sheer quantity—as well as quantification—was just as apparent when he turned his attention to human sexuality. In 1938 Kinsey taught a course on marriage at Indiana University, where he spent his entire working life. Limited to married or engaged students and faculty, the course covered reproductive physiology, contraception, and a host of other sexual topics in explicit detail. Kinsey also used the course to gather data about his students' sex lives. The thousands of sexual histories collected at the Institute for Sex Research in later years—7,985 by Kinsey alone—attest to his scientific commitment to behavior as the only legitimate basis for a science of sex.The behavioral unit of analysis chosen by Kinsey was the orgasm—or “outlet,” as Kinsey called it. Because it was countable, the theory went, it was objective. Kinsey's ethic of measurement resulted in interviews involving at least 350 standard questions, whose answers were recorded in a custom code designed to fit on a single sheet of paper divided into 287 squares. Among the ironies of Kinsey's method was the fact that his sex histories measured linguistic rather than sexual behavior. What Kinsey actually compiled was a huge cache of stories, not direct observations of sexual behavior. Kinsey, who gathered more sexual stories than any other person alive, systematically aimed to eradicate all quirks and complexities in order to produce a statistical portrait of population‐wide behavior. Meanings might be historically important, but numbers, not narratives, would yield truth. The easy use of “human males” and “human females” in the titles of Kinsey's famous reports suggests how universal his scientific claims were—and also how devoid of temporal and cultural particularity.The resulting conception of human sexual nature is probably best represented in Kinsey's six‐point scale, where behavioral possibilities ranged from exclusively homosexual at one pole to exclusively heterosexual at the other. Diversity emerged as the premier fact about sexual behavior. While this placed men and women uncomfortably close to their primate cousins on an evolutionary map, making human sexual exceptionalism objectively unsustainable, it also produced a reformist sensibility that rooted its demand for toleration in the powerful evidence of natural facts. It is difficult to overstate how shocking Kinsey's picture of polymorphous sexuality was in a culture devoted to either/or binaries and prone to harsh judgments about deviation from norms. Kinsey's contribution was to point out the gap between ideology and behavior . That lots of people did lots of things at odds with professed sexual morality was, for some, a welcome relief and call to revolution. For others, it was a reason to hate Kinsey and blame him for changes in the realm of gender and sexuality already well under way by midcentury.No biographies can save scientific heroes from the fatal charge that their methods and findings were bound up in their lives, or they would not be biographies worth reading. This attests to the stubborn endurance of the psychoanalytic paradigm. Kinsey despised Freud for passing off philosophy as science. Yet because of the conventions of post‐Freudian biography, Gathorne‐Hardy must explore exactly those dimensions of Kinsey's life and character that Freud embraced but that Kinsey himself would never have admitted into the precincts of science. His childhood illnesses and struggles with an overbearing father, his rage against religion, fondness for music, charismatic yet autocratic style, and his own anguished sexuality are keys to puzzling out not only a life in science, but a life.Gathorne‐Hardy can hardly ignore evidence that Kinsey's own sexual appetites were diverse—“bisexual” is this author's preferred designation—or that his enterprise in sex research involved experimentation: the mostly married male members of Kinsey's team were expected to engage in sexual activities with one another and one another's wives. Kinsey's wife Clara was a confidant and supporter from the start. Their loving marriage was also an open marriage. Mac was a participant‐observer in the world of sex research. She had a series of affairs with Kinsey's colleagues and even changed the bedsheets during energetic sessions of sexual cinematography that took place in the attic of their home. Yet the Kinseys also shielded their children from their own unorthodox sexual practices.This biography concludes by suggesting that Kinsey died tragically in 1957, convinced that his enemies had the upper hand. Kinsey was wrong. The diversity he championed has become a theoretical staple in the human and life sciences as well as a practical goal in social policies related to gender, race, and sexuality. However unfinished it may be, it is difficult to imagine Kinsey's revolution being reversed in either science or society
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DOI 10.1086/343308
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