Saturday, January 15, 2005

Depraved hero?

The film Kinsey has just been released in Australia. From reading the reviews in the press, a certain picture of the life of Alfred Kinsey emerges. He was a dedicated scientist, meticulously researching the lives of wasps until he discovered how ignorant Americans were about sex (he learnt this from his own virginal experiences on his wedding night, and from reluctantly being given a marriage class to teach as a young professor at Indiana University.)

Determined to gather scientific information about sex, he set about his pioneering work to study the sex lives of Americans. In 1948 he published his work Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male which revolutionised attitudes to sex by showing how common a wide range of sexual practices were, such as homosexuality, pre-marital sex and adultery. Kinsey is therefore to be regarded as a courageous scientist, who overcame ignorance so that people could enjoy sexual liberation.

What a great view of the man! Trouble is, it's bunkum. The real Kinsey was something very different, as the following facts demonstrate.

1) Kinsey was not some innocent, sexually naive wasp scientist who was "accidentally" made aware of the sexuality issue when given a university class to teach. According to a biographer, James H. Jones, Kinsey as a teenager was already a nudist, a masochist and had same-sex attractions. According to Jones, Kinsey wanted early on to have his sexual preferences regarded as normal, and realised that to achieve this it was best if he cast himself in the role of a "detached scientist".

Kinsey was not, in fact, the first to follow this path. In Germany, the homosexual Magnus Hirschfeld had campaigned to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1890s. In 1919 Hirschfeld established an Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, along much the same lines as Kinsey's own later institute at Indiana University. As one supporter of Hirschfeld has admitted,

Although he preferred to project himself as an objective researcher and scientist, Hirschfeld himself was gay and a transvestite, and participated in the gay subculture of Germany. For these activities he gained the epithet "Tante Magnesia" - "Auntie Magnesia".

2) In 1948 American culture was not exactly sexually innocent. An older, more conservative sexual morality seems to have broken down in the early 1920s. Miles Franklin, an Australian novelist, wrote in her biography that,

When I returned to New York in 1923 Freud had swept the field. The Puritan dams were broken ... Margery Currey said all the numerous office girls with whom she was in contact had 'been through it'. The lid was right off virtue, men told me.

When American soldiers arrived in Australia in the early 1940s, the strength of the "playboy" ethos amongst them was strongly noted and criticised. (It was still considered unmasculine in Australia at the time to be a "ladies man".)

So Kinsey was not really courageously swimming against the stream, but rather pushing on an existing current. That's one reason why his work Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male was so well received in America, despite its tremendous flaws.

3) Important aspects of Kinsey's work are unscientific and inaccurate. For instance, Kinsey claimed that 10% of people are homosexual and up to 35% of people are bisexual, thereby demonstrating how "normal" homosexuality is. These figures, though, were not obtained by random sampling. Instead, Kinsey interviewed volunteers, whom he sought from various groups, including sex offenders in prison and male prostitutes.

There have been many large-scale scientific studies since Kinsey, none of which come even close to claiming that 10% of the population is homosexual. There were two major surveys in the 1990s, one from Britain and one from France, which both arrived at a figure of 1.1% for men. If you include men who have ever in their lives had homosexual sex, the figure (in the French study) rises to 4.1%.

4) Kinsey was not a mild-mannered scientific type, engaged in a detached observation of people's sex lives. He was an extremely depraved man, even by today's standards, determined to prove that all sexual behaviour was normal (he once said that there were only three sexual abnormalities: abstinence, celibacy and delayed marriage).

As examples of Kinsey's unwell condition, consider the following: Kinsey crudely attempted to circumcise himself with a pen-knife, he was once hospitalised after another particularly severe masochistic incident, he once tried to force a tooth-brush into his own urethra, he encouraged his own wife to commit adultery with a co-worker, and most disturbing of all, he believed that children were sexual from birth and he trained pedophiles to record information about the responses of children they were raping.

So the image presented by the media of Kinsey doesn't fit the facts. Why then do so many journalists persist in looking up to Kinsey as an admirable figure? Herald Sun film reviewer, Leigh Paatsch, for instance, claims that the film Kinsey examines his life "even-handedly" and that,

The man's only mistake was to speak loudly about sex when the moral majority preferred it to be whispered as a dirty little secret.

In other words, Leigh Paatsch not only fails to condemn Kinsey, he effectively says that Kinsey made no mistakes except to upset the prudish majority.

The reason why Kinsey still commands respect, I think, is that his work fits in well with the basic liberal principle, so influential today, that there should be no impediments to individual will. Most intellectuals have accepted this idea, and this makes them sympathetic to the direction of Kinsey's work. Kinsey, after all, tried to prove that restrictions on human sexuality were simply "repressions" established by nothing more than irrational social convention.

If Kinsey is right, then there are no justifiable limits to individual will in the field of sexuality. It becomes a case of "anything goes", in which we are free to choose, according to our own will, in any direction.

It is a shared commitment to this ideological principle which leads reviewers like Nicki Gostin to praise Kinsey for his "respect for individuals" or Phillipa Hawker to note Kinsey's discovery that sexuality is "not as fixed" as might have been supposed or Phillip McCarthy to claim that Kinsey "helped end the tyranny of one-size-fits-all-sex".

Such reviewers are more interested in the liberal morality of an unimpeded individual will, rather than the more conservative belief that there exists an objective morality for the individual to live up to, and that some forms of sexual behaviour are less healthy, less elevated and more destructive than others.

1 comment:

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