Among the many snake-oil salesmen who have become heroes through bogus science, Alfred Kinsey was the all-time world champion. Bill Condon's expertly made biographical film Kinsey tells us that as he lay dying in 1956, he considered himself a failure, undone by hypocritical politicians who had choked off the financial support he was getting from the Rockefeller Foundation. But in a larger way he was a colossal success. An obscure scientist, he imposed his personal vision of sexuality on the North American imagination by guile and the force of an unrelenting will.
His books turned previously unmentionable subjects into the themes of everyday conversation and subverted inflexible ideas about morals. In the process he became a celebrity, his fame eclipsed only by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Kinsey presented himself as a man of such impressive rectitude that even his critics admitted he was honest and well-intentioned. That reputation survives today, as Condon's film shows. He depicts Kinsey (through Liam Neeson's brilliantly sympathetic performance) as a somewhat befuddled and occasionally crazed but mostly lovable professor, a prophet searching for the truth that would set us free. Traditional moralists may object to that benign portrayal, but their anger only helps sell tickets.
Remarkably, Kinsey's career in the sex business lasted less than two decades. In 1938 he was a little-known zoologist at Indiana University and an authority on the gall wasp. When he saw the need for wider knowledge of human sexual activity, he launched a new career as a sexologist. Once started, he threw himself into his work, swiftly hiring staff, designing research projects, raising money, and personally conducting thousands of interviews. (His wife was supposed to have said, "I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex.") In 1948 he published his first thick and apparently authoritative volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and in 1953 brought out Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. They were both best-sellers.
He insisted his work was purely scientific, a matter of cold facts. But like many who claim to be objective, he was working out a weighty private agenda, in his case, profound guilt over his own sexual tastes. After growing up in a rigid Methodist home, Kinsey discovered he was a homosexual, a masochist, an exhibitionist and a voyeur -- as well as a sexually adventurous husband. He seems to have imagined that if he could uncover the infinite varieties of sexual urges among his fellow citizens, he might relieve his own self-hatred and prevent others from having to endure lonely feelings of guilt.
His image as pure scientist was never more than a self-serving myth. As James H. Jones wrote in Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (1997): "He was a social reformer, a man who waged with fanatical consistency his own private war against sexual repression and hypocrisy."
While Kinsey's books projected a scientific aura through clever deployment of graphs, charts and dense prose, they lacked a fundamental element of science, a proper distance from the material. The statistics he printed weren't based on scientific principles; they were merely accumulated anecdotes, gathered with primitive sampling methods. His research included far too many college students and prisoners, far too few Roman Catholics and blacks. His claim to be describing "the Human Male" or female was clearly ridiculous; his subjects were all Americans. And, of course, everything he learned came from a small self-selecting group, those willing to talk about their sex lives.
Kinsey's approach to studying lovemaking was mechanistic and quantitative. He wanted people to have better sex, but "better" just meant more. The first volume proposed that a daily orgasm was within the average male's capacity; "the more than daily rates which have been observed for some primate species could be matched by a large portion of the human population if sexual activity were unrestrained." The book also suggested there was nothing wrong with premature ejaculation, since it was common among mammals. In fact, a man's "quick and intense" response of this kind could be considered superior, "however inconvenient and unfortunate his qualities may be from the standpoint of the wife." Kinsey's tolerance was unbounded. He decided (perhaps through contact with pedophiles he met in his visits to penitentiaries) that sexual abuse of children was not the grave and unforgivable crime that most people considered it.
Kinsey concluded that 10% of men were mainly homosexual, a figure no one has replicated since and no one now considers credible; the last ambitious survey, in 1994, estimated 2.8%.
That exaggeration was probably the result of a sampling error. But all his work depended on the belief that people speak honestly about their sex lives with strangers. When anyone questioned his approach, Kinsey had a glib answer. The movie captures him saying he had inserted various traps in his questionnaire to catch liars, as if lying were a mere technical glitch in fact-gathering and not a plague that afflicts research in everything from politics to the marketing of automobiles. Kinsey's work, and much sexology that followed him, operates on the unspoken principle that transforming masses of self-serving claims into statistics can magically turn lies into truths. In keeping with his emphasis on quantity, Kinsey boasted that he and his colleagues had conducted 18,000 interviews, as if the sheer amassing of data somehow overcame the inherent flaws in his methods.
In the 1990s, R.C. Lewontin, a Harvard zoologist, reviewing one of the many books that followed in the wake of Kinsey, remarked on the apparent gullibility of the sociologists involved. Lewontin said, "It is frightening to think that social science is in the hands of professionals who are so deaf to human nuance that they believe that people do not lie to themselves about the most freighted aspects of their own lives, and that they have no interest in manipulating the impression that strangers have of them."
That applies not just to social science. Kinsey fooled millions, and even now gets quoted by people who should know better but occasionally find his numbers useful to make a point. There's an element of tragedy, combined with an unsettling level of comedy, in the fact that public discussion of sex has existed for half a century in the shadow cast by this talented, driven charlatan.