John Leo

The unending 50-year war over Alfred Kinsey and his sex research is about to flare up once again, thanks to the new movie Kinsey. The film manages to be fairly faithful to the biographies of Kinsey while sliding by or simply omitting a lot of negative material that might interfere with a heroic view of the man.

Kinsey was a highly intelligent, fearless man and an unusually skilled interviewer whose question-and-answer techniques heavily influenced the way polls and surveys are done today. Conservatives seem quaint when they argue that Kinsey?s two reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), should never have been done. Someone was going to do a big sexual survey pointing out the gap between what sex really was in America and what the culture thought it should be. Kinsey got there first, and he deserves credit for it. But he was a very odd, creepy fellow whose findings and methods (often slapdash and chaotic, if not intentionally deceptive) are not really separable from the enormous moral impact he had on the culture.

A biographical note here: Years ago, I covered the world of sex research as part of my social-science beat at Time magazine. I quickly figured out that a lot of people in this world seemed to have entered it because of their unusual sexual tastes, opinions, or problems. I think this was certainly true earlier of Kinsey as well. He was an exhibitionist, a voyeur, and a masochist. (This is handled in the movie by Kinsey?s wife?s discovering he has sliced his foreskin. But Kinsey did more grotesque things to his genitals than you want to read about here.) One biographer, James H. Jones, argues that Kinsey was gay from the beginning and riven with guilt about it, but he married and thought of himself as bisexual. The obvious question here is this: What are the odds that a researcher with this set of orientations and attitudes would be drawn to the conclusion that all sexual behavior is equal and that orgasms (and nothing else) count, certainly not how you achieve them or with whom? I would say the odds are very, very good.

The movie stresses how relentlessly nonjudgmental Kinsey was. But as the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, Kinsey?s absence of judgment was itself a form of judgment. Kinsey wrote: ?What is right for one individual may be wrong for the next; and what is sin and abomination to one may be a worthwhile part of the next individual?s life.? That certainly defined Kinsey?s own sexual demons out of existence, but it left the field of sexology with a taboo-breaking, anything-goes legacy. It also left one huge open area that has stained sexology ever since: adult-child sex.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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