Monday, July 21, 2008

Remembering Alfred Kinsey's Legacy of Liberation

There’s a scene toward the end of the 2004 film Kinsey - Bill Condon’s biopic on renowned sexologist Alfred Kinsey - that, for me, is quite simply unforgettable.

Steven Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle describes this particular scene as follows:

Lynn Redgrave plays a woman who tells Kinsey his work freed her from guilt to love another woman. “You saved my life,” she says, her radiantly grateful face and brimming eyes filling the screen. She gets up and lays her hand on Kinsey’s in quiet communion.

And here is critic Christopher Kelly’s appraisal of this penultimate scene:

There’s a brief, beautiful sequence near the end, featuring Lynn Redgrave as another sort of late bloomer - an elderly woman who, after reading [Kinsey’s] “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” finally comes to terms with the lesbian feelings she has tried to suppress for decades. The peerless Redgrave sends us out of the theater in tears of triumph, and she connects Kinsey’s science to a very human face. She shows us that, in preaching tolerance, open-mindedness and progressiveness, Alfred Kinsey was really saying this: You’re never too old to learn to love yourself.

I was reminded of Redgrave’s character’s gentle yet profound recollection of liberation when, in the July-August issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, I read Ben Edward Akerley’s insightful and, at times, humorous “memo” marking the 60th anniversary of the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

Of this groundbreaking study, John Gagnon, Ph.D. has written:

It was with Kinsey’s first book, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” . . . that knowledge about sexuality garnered from a scientific survey burst into the consciousness of the American public. This book and its companion, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” published in 1953, introduced a new way of thinking and talking about sexuality to American (and world) culture.

The practice of sexuality was quite varied in the United States before the publication of these books, but it was largely unrecorded, at least by scientists. Before the late 1940s, the sexual lives of most people were shaped by personal experiments, isolated sexual encounters, uninformed gossip, media sensation, and moral condemnation (not necessarily in that order). The national myth was that most people were obedient to a traditional set of sexual rules and those who were not were relatively rare and defective in morals or willpower.

It was against this background of repression and prurience that Kinsey asserted the right of science to speak about sexual behavior. As a scientist, Kinsey spoke and wrote plainly, using language about sexuality that was rarely heard or read at the time. The facts reported in the book on men’s sexual behavior were at fundamental variance with the myths. Kinsey reported that the practice of masturbation was nearly universal among men (90 percent did it), that homosexual relations were widely experienced (37 percent had done it once), that premarital sexual relations were common (most college men did it), that half of married men had had extramarital sexual relations, and that oral sex was routine in deed if not in public discourse (70 percent of educated husbands said they and their wives had done it).

But it was not only these facts that evoked a powerful negative response from traditional figures in churches, legislatures, and the press. The book also had a strong reformist tone, with Kinsey arguing, completely in the American grain, that progress in dealing with sexual problems could only be made by objectively uncovering the facts of sexual life. That the reported sexual practices of American men differed from moral expectations was (in Kinsey’s interpretation) evidence of the power of sexuality and not a mark of moral decay. The problems associated with sexuality were a consequence of social repression, not inherent to sexuality itself.

As an American teenager growing into awareness of his attraction to other males, Ben Edward Akerley was deeply impacted by Kinsey’s 1948 study.

“I cannot begin to describe the overwhelming sense of relief my conscience experienced,” writes Akerley in his commentary in the Gay and Lesbian Review, “as I began to devour the new sex study, which I hoped would assuage my profound sense of shame and remorse.”

Following are more excerpts from Akerley’s piece, entitled “Coming Out Kinsey: Sexual Behavior at Sixty.”


. . . Most intriguing of all in my all-absorbing search was Kinsey’s argument that nature loves a continuum and it is only the human mind that imposes categories and pigeonholes people into discrete groups. Sexual orientation, he proposed, could be observed to occupy a spectrum with a scale from zero to six, with zero being fully heterosexual and six being fully homosexual. This seven-point scale he offered as an alternative to the existing two-point, either-or dichotomy, though he emphasized that it was still a very imprecise and imperfect measure of the tremendously wide range of human sexual behavior and did not capture its fluidity over time.

The hardest thing my still immature brain had to wrestle with was the concept that it was a sliding scale, not a fixed one. I had immediately positioned myself as a six, never anticipating in my wildest dreams that just two years into the future, at age eighteen, I would fairly easily move away from that designation. A young woman who was determined to challenge my self-identity as a hundred percent homosexual managed to seduce me into a strictly one-time, experimental sexual tryst. Much to my dismay, it worked to the point of orgasm (or to use Kinsey’s preferred term, “release”), and I reluctantly acknowledged my transition to a Kinsey 5 (predominately homo and only incidentally heterosexual). Even though my sister insistently argues that a one-and only opposite sex encounter doesn’t qualify, I have unabashedly worn that badge of being certifiably bisexual ever since.

Thanks to Alfred Kinsey, I survived that period of adolescent angst and turmoil relatively unscathed and emerged fully from the stifling confines of that now-faraway closet. Only much later in life did I fully realize how far ahead of his time the indefatigable Kinsey was when he posed the question, Why are some gay people so completely comfortable with and adjusted to their orientation while others are desperately unhappy with it, seeking to keep it a secret or to pretend it’s not a fact of life, or even to change this orientation by any means possible?

. . . Like most readers who made Kinsey’s book an overnight best-seller, I anticipated a narrative with at least some salacious details, but encountered instead a myriad of tables, charts, and graphs that only a CPA might find exciting. But buried among all of that tabulated data were some major nuggets about human sexuality. Forty years after the publication of the first volume of his magnum opus, Kinsey is credited with having established the intellectual groundwork for what would become the gay and lesbian rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s: the idea that homosexuality is a normal and recurring feature of the human condition.

– Excerpted from “Coming Out Kinsey: Sexual Behavior at Sixty” by Ben Edward Akerley (The Gay and Lesbian Review, July-August 2008).

NOTE: The following video shows the scene from Kinsey featuring Lynn Redgrave.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Report: Historical Overview and Lasting Contributions - Vern L. Bullough (Journal of Sex Research, May 1998).
According to the Kinsey Reports - Jim Burroway (Box Turtle Bulletin, January 3, 2008).
The New Kinsey Report is Here! - Science Blog, April 18, 2008.
“Sexual Pioneer” – A review of the film Kinsey by Joanne Laurier (World Socialist Web Site, December 15, 2004).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
What Scientists in the UK are Saying About Homosexuality

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The thing I most appreciate about Kinsey's work is the difficult task of observering (or, rather, attempting to observe) actual human behavior without immediately stooping to judgement. It is actual behavior, accurately observed, that tells us what people are actually doing (as Margaret Mead discovered to her later dismay).

What's more, actual behavior can't be divorced from its social context. However, actual behavior is not solely determined by social context either.

And by "social" I am referring to the strict definition of society, which is what happens when a human community encounters a physical environment; it is the collective output of that community over time that constitutes a culture.

There is a real danger in using any of these terms - observation, behavior, jugdement, community, social, society, determination, context, culture, environment - without defining them.