Statistical Morality

IN WESTERN EUROPE the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century brought new attitudes toward sex among a vanguard few. By 1900 Sigmund Freud had published his basic works in psychoanalysis. In 1909, when G. Stanley Hall brought Freud, who was then still slightly disreputable in European scientific circles, to a conference at Clark University, he caused a stir, but he helped make Freud more respectable in America than he was in his home country. As part of his child study and his discovery of adolescence, Hall himself had described the development of sexuality, and had urged sex education in the schools.

But Hall’s discussions of sex were enshrouded in a saccharine polysyllabic mist, which even his fellow psychologists called unctuous. “In the most unitary of all acts,” he wrote of sexual intercourse, “which is the epitome and pleroma of life, we have the most intense of all affirmations of the will to live and realize that the only true God is love, and the center of life is worship. Every part of mind and body participates in a true pangenesis. The sacrament is the annunciation hour, with hosannas which the whole world reflects. Communion is fusion and beatitude. It is the supreme hedonic narcosis, a holy intoxication….” At the same time Hall urged that the study of sex must become more objective.

THE LANDMARK ON the way to a more scientific study of sex was the work of the English man of letters Havelock Ellis, who spent much of his life trying to liberate the English-reading world from its Victorian sexual prejudices. Ellis, like Hall after him, combined science and poetry in his effort to open windows to the wonderful variety of human sexual experience. When the first volume of Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex appeared in England in 1897 there was a prosecution for obscenity, and publication was transferred to the United States. By 1910 Ellis had published five more volumes, and a seventh was added in 1928. The work was a wide-ranging collection of examples of human sexual behavior, including numerous phenomena (eonism, undinism, kleptolagnia), the very names of which were a mystery. Ellis treated the taboo subject of autoerotism, and compared the sexual experiences of men and women. His books helped make sexual topics discussable in academic and intellectual circles. But the books themselves remained on the shelves of esoterica, and were readily accessible only to doctors and lawyers. Ellis’ themes were the unsuspected variety of sexual experience, the subtle variations of sexual experience from person to person, and the wide range of sexual activity (including those generally considered erratic or taboo) among “normal” persons.

The moral, if there was a moral, to Ellis’ books was that of all human activities, sex was the least amenable to moral prescriptions or to generalizations about “normality.” The motives of Ellis’ work remain unclear. All four of his sisters died spinsters and it has been suggested that Ellis’ own interest arose from his sexual inadequacy. But the results of his work are less uncertain. He challenged traditional sexual morality by showing how unrealistic were the pious prescriptions and chaste pretensions of teachers, preachers, and doctors, and how naive it was to be glib about what was “normal.”

The contribution of the American pioneer in sexual research turned out to be quite the opposite. The effect, by no means the intention, of the work of Alfred C. Kinsey was to establish new norms of sexual behavior. Kinsey brought quantitative techniques to sexual research and so gave a new, scientifically authenticated prestige to these norms. Only gradually was he recognized as a social scientist of great stature. Like Hall, Kinsey was raised in a strict, moralistic family. Kinsey’s Methodist father was so observant of the Sabbath that he would not permit the family to ride to church on Sunday, even with the minister; Sunday milk deliveries were not permitted at the house, and the whole family was required to attend Sunday School, morning services, and evening prayer meeting. After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, Kinsey received a Ph.D. in entomology from Harvard in 1920. For his two-volume study of the gall wasp, Cynips (1930, 1936), which established him as one of the leading geneticists of the day, Kinsey had gathered some four million specimens, and so had become accustomed to collecting and interpreting statistical data.

During the late 1930’s, American colleges were introducing courses in sex education and marriage. This interest had been stirred by Hall’s studies of adolescence, by the recently translated works of Freud, by the new profession of psychoanalysis, and by the pioneer clinical studies of Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson. While he practiced gynecology in Brooklyn and Manhattan from 1882 to 1924, Dr. Dickinson had kept careful records of more than five thousand patients, from which he published A Thousand Marriages (1932) and The Single Woman (1934). These epochal books provided valuable new information on female physiology, fertility, and sterility.

In 1938, when Indiana University decided to move with the times and to offer a noncredit course on marriage, Kinsey was put in charge. As the happily married father of four children and as an eminent biologist of unquestioned personal morality, Kinsey was the ideal choice. The only earlier evidence of Kinsey’s attitudes was in 1927 when a special convocation of the male faculty considered disciplinary action against two male student editors of the literary magazine for printing the indecent phrase “phallic worship on campus.” The professor of classics had to be called on to explain the meaning of the phrase, and Kinsey had unsuccessfully defended the students.

Kinsey, however, was no reformer but simply a biologist. When meetings were held to plan the course on marriage, Kinsey heard a female faculty member recall what had happened elsewhere in a course on the subject some years before. A woman doctor had given information that was “veiled and garbled, with no real value except to frighten the weak. A regular staff had to be on hand to carry out the ones who fainted each time.” Kinsey’s course was different. And at the end he asked students to fill out questionnaires about their own experience to guide him for the future.

As a biologist experienced with quantitative data, Kinsey had been appalled at the lack of statistical facts about human sexual behavior. He was encouraged by the pioneer work of a few biologists like Dr. Raymond Pearl of Johns Hopkins (who had made studies of the frequency of sexual intercourse and of male sexual potency), who came to lecture at Bloomington on “Man and the Animal.” But the more Kinsey saw of the vast ignorance about the subject the more determined he became to try to collect a body of useful knowledge. As he turned his scientific focus from the reproductive behavior of gall wasps to the sexual behavior of men and women, he showed the same voracity for facts. “The technique we are using in this study,” he insisted, “is definitely the same as the technique in the gall wasp study.”

Kinsey spared no trouble in training his interviewers and teaching them to avoid “loading” their questions. His interviewer was instructed to go down an exhaustive list of all kinds of sexual activities and ask each person about all of them. “It is important to look the subject squarely in the eye,” Kinsey advised, “while giving only a minimum of attention to the record that is being made. People understand each other when they look directly at each other.” Since “evasive terms invite dishonest answers,” Kinsey’s interviewers never used euphemisms. “We always assume that everyone has engaged in every type of activity. Consequently we always begin by asking when they first engaged in such activity. This places a heavier burden on the individual who is inclined to deny his experience; and since it becomes apparent from the form of our question that we would not be surprised if he had had such experience, there seems to be less reason for denying it.” Interviews were recorded in a code known only to Kinsey and the interviewer.

Kinsey’s goal was to secure 100,000 sex histories. At the time of his death there had been a total of 17,500 interviews, of which Kinsey himself had recorded more than 7,000. That amounted, during the period of his interviewing, to an average of two per day every day in the week for ten years. During the years of his sex research, Kinsey worked more than twelve hours a day and never took a vacation. In 1956, when he was sixty-two and had had two heart attacks, his doctors warned him to rest. But they could do no more than persuade him to an eight-hour day, and he died that year of overwork.

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, by Kinsey and his two collaborators, was published in January 1948. A market research firm had given the publishers their “considered scientific opinion,” based on an opinion poll, that the book would not sell well. Within three weeks after publication it was on the best-seller list, where it stayed for twenty-seven weeks. By March the book was in its seventh printing, having sold 100,000 copies. Overnight, Kinsey became a celebrity, his name a popular synonym for “startling revelations” about the secret places of American life.

But critics and defenders agreed that this was a pioneer effort to quantify human sexual behavior. “An accumulation of scientific fact completely divorced from questions of moral value and social custom” was the book’s avowed purpose. “Practicing physicians find thousands of their patients in need of such objective data. Psychiatrists and analysts find that a majority of their patients need help in resolving sexual conflicts that have arisen in their lives.” Earlier scholars, such as Ellis, Freud, Stekel, and Krafft-Ebing, had provided individual sex histories to help the public toward a scientific point of view. At the outset of his book, Kinsey explained:

But none of the authors of the older studies, in spite of their keen insight into the meanings of certain things, ever had any precise or even approximate knowledge of what average people do sexually. They accumulated great bodies of sexual facts about particular people, but they did not know what people in general did sexually. They never knew what things were common and what things were rare, because their data came from the miscellaneous and usually unrepresentative persons who came to their clinics…. The present study is designed as a first step in the accumulation of a body of scientific fact that may provide the bases for sounder generalizations about the sexual behavior of certain groups, and, some day, even of our American population as a whole.

The book showed marked differences in sexual behavior patterns between males of different social, educational, and economic levels, between groups born in different decades and those with different degrees of religious belief. Kinsey established the almost universal incidence of masturbation in young males (which pseudoscientific folklore had made the presumed cause of “masturbatory insanity”), and he found the peak of male sexual activity in the late teens. Taboo forms of sexual activity proved to be much more widespread than had been presumed. Instead of simply classifying people as either heterosexual or homosexual, Kinsey had set up a new heterosexual-homosexual rating scale as a continuum on which interviewers placed each individual.

THE COMMISSION ON Statistical Standards of the American Statistical Association reviewed Kinsey’s statistical methods and reported its “overall favorable” impression. Comparing Kinsey and his collaborators with earlier sex researchers, the commission found them “superior to all others in the systematic coverage of their material, in the number of items which they covered, in the composition of their sample … in the number and variety of methodological checks which they employed, and in their statistical analyses…. their interviewing was of the best.”

The public response was much as might have been expected. “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do,” inveighed a well-known minister, “to the already deteriorating morals of America.” College presidents and some gynecologists joined the attack with high emotion. But once the “guilty” facts were out, there was no way of erasing them from the American consciousness. Never again would American thinking about sexual activity be quite the same.

Five years later, in 1953, Kinsey and his staff published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Within ten days there were 185,000 copies in print, and it, too, was for many weeks on the best-seller list. The techniques in this study were the same, but Kinsey had benefited from some criticisms of his statistical method. The second book offered new facts on the frequency of various kinds of sexual activity, on male-female similarities and on differences in sexual behavior and response, and suggested a surprisingly low rate of frigidity in the female. Again, as might have been expected, Kinsey and the book were attacked, but now with unprecedented vitriol. An Indianapolis minister called Kinsey “a cheap charlatan”; a New York rabbi called the book “a libel on all womankind.” With a widely reprinted article by Lionel Trilling, even the avant-garde Partisan Review joined the attack. The president of the liberal Union Theological Seminary saw “the current vogue” of Kinsey’s work as a symptom of “a prevailing degradation in American morality approximating the worst decadence of the Roman era. The most disturbing thing is the absence of a spontaneous, ethical revulsion from the premises of the study.” The Rockefeller Foundation, which had helped finance the research, was widely criticized, and dropped its support. A New York congressman demanded that the Postmaster General ban Kinsey’s work from the mails because it was “the insult of the century against our mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters.” Catholic publications declared that Kinsey not only was helping the Communists but was helping Americans to “act like Communists.” But the president and trustees and students of Indiana University stood fast with Kinsey.

The popular result of Kinsey’s work was ironic and unpredicted. His life as a biologist had been devoted to proving the importance of “individuals.” According to Kinsey, “The fact of individual variation is one of the fundamentals of biologic reasoning. In its universality it is practically unique among biologic principles. The phenomenon is startling in its magnitude.” But Kinsey’s intentions were twisted by a public demand for simple norms.

Using the science of statistics, Kinsey had done more than anybody before him to break the taboos on the collecting of objective quantified data on human sexual activity. The next landmark, which showed how far the taboos had been dissolved, was the detailed laboratory study of more than one hundred thousand male and female orgasms. Using a variety of new laboratory devices and electronic recording machines, Dr. William H. Masters and Mrs. Virginia E. Johnson of the Reproductive Biology Research Institute in St. Louis collected statistical data on the sex act directly. They published their results in Human Sexual Response (1966). Within a few years, this book had sold a quarter of a million copies at $10 a copy. Masters and Johnson, by producing clinical data on such facts as heartbeat during coitus, removed the mystery from countless details surrounding sexual intercourse. In their preface they declared that their purpose, following Dr. Robert Latou Dickinson, was to help discover “the normal usages and medial standards of mankind.” They hoped to join the pioneer scientists by issuing “succinct statistics and physiologic summaries of what we find to be average and believe to be normal.”

THE AMERICANS’ DISCOVERY of what was “normal” in sexual behavior took forms which an earlier generation would have considered not only immoral but bizarre. “Group sex”—persons having sexual relations as a couple with at least one other individual—became a publicly noted phenomenon in the mid-1960’s. Kinsey’s book on the male (1948) had only a single sentence on adult heterosexual group activity, and in his book on the female (1953), “wife-swapping” was dismissed in a paragraph. By the late 1960’s the vulgarism “wife-swapping” was being displaced by the euphemism “swinging.” By the early 1970’s numerous magazines, at least one with a circulation of 50,000, were serving the interests of swingers. A network of swinging clubs reached around the country. Data on 284 swinging couples were collected by Dr. Gilbert D. Bartell, an Illinois anthropologist, and published in 1971, and a growing number of other studies made facts on group sex available to all Americans.

The new data provided convincing, vivid evidence of the widespread “normality” of many of the tendencies recounted in the antiseptic Kinsey statistics. One consequence of the rise of group sex, Dr. Bartell predicted, was “that in the future, men and women will be generally recognized as ambisexual beings, not only in the accepted psychological sense but also in the still ‘embarrassing’ physiological sense. . . . in swinging this is already beginning to happen, at least to some extent, even among middle-class mid-Americans.”

As the new truths took the form of quantitative, scientifically authenticated norms, morality was replaced by normality. Prescriptions were displaced by descriptions. But the new statistical morality carried its own kind of latent prescription. The new knowledge of norms was as “guilty” and as unforgettable as Adam’s first bite of the apple in Eden. A man who knew the norms had lost his innocence. Never again could he look on the violations of parental authority, on youthful vices, on extramarital peccadilloes, or on “unnatural” sexual satisfactions with the simple disgust of his grandfathers.

As knowledge proved the infinite variety of personal needs, even the prescription “Thou shalt not be abnormal” became meaningless. Fewer Americans were haunted by pseudoscientific fears or by moral imperatives. Instead they were thrown back on their imperfect knowledge of norms, on their lay interpretation of abstruse scientific data. How did their experience fit with that of other men and women? Americans could discover the rewards and the burdens of having to decide for themselves whether their norms were authentic, and when their deviation from the norm was itself only normal.

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