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Book Review by Martin Duberman
The Nation, November 3, 1997

Note: This book review, "Jones: Alfred C. Kinsey," by Martin Duberman, is reprinted with permission from the November 3, 1997 issue of The Nation magazine. It has been reformatted for the WWW.

The Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 40-43

Kinsey's Urethra

ALFRED C. KINSEY: A Public/Private Life. By James H. Jones. Norton. 937 pp. $39.95.

Beware the facts; they can lead you away from the truth. James Jones has unearthed an enormous amount of new information. Let no one underestimate the achievement. But let no one confuse it with an understanding of Kinsey's life and work. Diligence is the beginning of scholarship, not the end point.

Through research, scholars discover what material exists. Then they must decide what it means. Alfred C. Kinsey gets high marks for industry, low ones for insight.

The most myopic moment comes near the beginning and is repeated throughout: Alfred Kinsey was "a homosexual." Oh, really? By what definition? Jones presents evidence -- full, incontrovertible and previously known only to a small circle of insiders -- that Kinsey often had sex and occasionally fell in love with people of his own gender. Yet Jones also tells us that Kinsey was lovingly married for thirty-five years to Clara McMillen, and that their relationship was in no sense perfunctory, certainly not sexually. A decade into their marriage, Alfred and Clara were "eagerly" exploring various coital positions newly recommended by a friend; and they maintained a sexual relationship until Kinsey became ill near the end of his life. With Clara's knowledge, Kinsey also had sex with other women during their marriage -- as did Clara with other men.

Isn't it obvious that if Kinsey must be labeled, then bi- or pansexual is more appropriate than homosexual? Jones has chosen to ignore Kinsey's own famous 0 to 6 scale (0 = exclusive heterosexuality; 6 = exclusive homosexuality). By that scale, the simplistic category "homosexual" would be reserved for individuals whose sexual behavior is exclusively confined to their own gender. Or if not their behavior, then their fantasy life. Perhaps Jones meant to argue that Kinsey self-identified as a homosexual on the basis of his erotic fantasies, discarding as irrelevant his ability to perform bisexually. If that's what Jones means, he's forgotten to provide the evidence or make the argument.

Contemporary insiders at the Kinsey Institute place Kinsey as between a "1" and a "2" -- more "straight" than "gay" -- when younger, then shifting increasingly to the "homosexual" side of the scale as he aged, but never becoming an exclusive "6." In other words, whether the yardstick be behavior, fantasy or self-definition, Kinsey considered his sexuality malleable (and long before Queer Theory reified "fluidity" as the signifier of sexual, indeed personal, authenticity). Astonishingly, Jones doesn't get it. He not only persists in referring to Kinsey as "a homosexual" but tries to force Alfred and Clara's relationship into the canned mold of "homosexual man seeks cover in a heterosexual marriage." Along with vitiating all that was special and brave about the couple, Jones can't even manage a complicated version of the gay man/straight woman arrangement, presenting instead a tired stereotype of lost souls (which he bases on a few outdated articles from twenty to twenty-five years ago that he nervily refers to as "recent studies").

The other main slot Jones drops Kinsey into is "masochist." It is one of many terms -- "voyeurism," "exhibitionism," "prurience," "pathology," "perversion" -- Jones slings around, never pausing for close definition. Judging from his footnotes, Jones's guiding experts on "masochism" have been Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Theodor Reik, now partly or wholly superseded by recent scholarship. None of the vast literature on sadomasochism that has accumulated over the past two decades is cited, let alone argued with or theorized about.

Still, Alfred C. Kinsey does contain a considerable amount of new information. Thanks to Jones's prodigious labors, we are now privy to aspects of Kinsey's sexual life previously known only to his family and a closed circle of associates and co-experimenters. Kinsey, it seems, found that tugging on his testicles provided pleasurable/painful sensations; later in life, the stimulus had to be increased to maintain the desired effect, and he took to tugging on them with a length of rope. Kinsey also discovered that the urethra was, for him, an erogenous zone, and over time he teased and plied it with various instruments, culminating in the use of a toothbrush. Late in life, he was also drawn to watching various S/M performances, but he preferred looking to participating.

These were occasional, not exclusive, intensely focused practices; they were not fetishes. Kinsey utilized many other, more conventional outlets for sexual pleasure. How we evaluate his more "extreme" (unconventional) practices will very much depend on our own sexual histories and our willingness to explore our own fantasies. In the process, we would do well to remain modest about our subjectivity and our limited imaginations.

James Jones is modest about neither. He is very sure what Kinsey's behavior means, and very quick to characterize and denigrate it -- usually with heavy-handed psychologizing. Kinsey's "inner demons" are given vast explanatory powers, with catchall references to his "confusion," "anger" and "guilt" made to substitute for sustained, persuasive analysis of the inner man. A few samples: "By late adolescence, if not before, Kinsey's behavior was clearly pathological, satisfying every criterion of sexual perversion" (the "criteria" are not provided); he was "an exhibitionist extraordinaire," an "aloof loner," "headstrong," "stubborn," "highly opinionated," gruff and arrogant, a man of "iron will" whom few liked, an unpopular teacher (who somehow attracted droves of students), a thin-skinned, manipulative elitist, a self-styled martyr and would-be messiah.

Jones's crude psychologizing (which is really moralizing) is far too formulaic to inspire confidence. Indeed, several of Kinsey's surviving colleagues guffaw at Jones's reductive view of the complicated man Kinsey was. "It's nonsense," says C.A. Tripp (author of The Homosexual Matrix, and in my view the most rigorous and fearless disciple of Kinsey's sexual iconoclasm): "All that guilt and anger Jones keeps talking about -- well, you could say that about anybody. Kinsey can't even get interested in gardening without Jones ascribing it to 'deep tensions' or explaining his scanty clothing while working the soil as a need to 'shock' people. And how naughty of Kinsey to stand nude in his own bathroom as he shaved!"

Where another biographer might have emphasized Kinsey's remarkable capacity for open-minded exploration, Jones persists in negatively labeling unconventional sexual behavior as "skating near the edge," as "compulsive" and "addictive" risk-taking. He can manage to credit the homophobic sexologist Krafft-Ebing as having been "prompted by deeply moral concerns," but pansexual Kinsey is merely sex-obsessed. This is like calling Albert Einstein physics-obsessed. And it leaves us wondering what to think about James Jones, who has devoted twenty-seven years to researching Alfred Kinsey's "perverted" life.

Where all this becomes serious is when Jones uses his defamatory portrait of Kinsey, the man, to discredit his work as a sexologist. He does so through a slippery ploy: He generously quotes from Kinsey's (often mistaken) antagonists, letting them do his talking for him. Now and then, however, Jones's own indignant voice breaks through: "Despite his claim of cool disinterest," Jones hisses, "Kinsey was nothing of the sort.... [His] enthusiasm for sex was a fundamental tenet of Kinsey's thought, and it rang out loud and clear in his writing." For shame!

Elsewhere, Jones refers to Kinsey's "façade of objectivity" -- as if value-free social science has ever existed, or been more than approximated as an ideal. Of course Kinsey's personal needs and motivations influenced his findings; this is primer stuff in social science. Besides, subjectivity cuts both ways; what it often means is that the sensitized investigator is able to see and reveal much that had previously been closed off to less personally engaged scholars.

The important question is whether Kinsey's personality -- and personal engagement with his material -- led to serious distortions in his findings. The two most common accusations against his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) relate to the statistical methodology he employed in arriving at his conclusions, and especially at the finding that 37 percent of the total male population has had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm, and that 4 percent of the white male population is exclusively homosexual. (Kinsey is often misquoted as saying that 10 percent of American males are homosexual -- a percentage he in fact confined to those who score 5 to 6 for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.)

Jones repeats most of the longstanding critique of Kinsey: "For all his posturing and bluster, Kinsey was chronically unsure of himself as a statistician.... his sample was far from random," etc. But we are not told that Paul Gebhard (one of Kinsey's co-authors and his successor as director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research -- he retired in 1982), himself reacting to criticism leveled against the two volumes, spent years "cleaning" the Kinsey data of its purported contaminants -- removing, for example, all material derived from prison populations in the basic sample. In 1979, Gebhard, with Alan Johnson, published The Kinsey Data, and -- to his own surprise -- found that Kinsey's original estimates held: Instead of Kinsey's 37 percent, Gebhard and Johnson came up with 36.4 percent; the 10 percent figure (with prison inmates excluded) came to 9.9 percent for white, college-educated males and 12.7 percent for those with less education. And as for the call for a "random sample," a team of independent statisticians studying Kinsey's procedures had concluded as far back as 1953 that the unique problems inherent in sex research precluded the possibility of obtaining a true random sample, and that Kinsey's interviewing technique had been "extraordinarily skillful." They characterized Kinsey's work overall as "a monumental endeavor."

In his shrewd way, Jones sprinkles his text with periodic praise for Kinsey the master researcher, the brilliant interviewer, the daring pioneer, the debunker of conventional morality. No heavy-handed conservative frontal assault for Jones. We learn that Kinsey was an active, loving parent (perhaps that's why we hear so little about his four children), a concerned mentor who stayed in touch with many of his students for years, a man of childlike wonder, capable of great warmth, gentleness and generosity. How does this Kinsey fit with the near-monstrous one Jones more frequently portrays? It doesn't. Jones never manages a coherent portrait -- and personality contradictions can intelligibly cohere.

Why this insistent pathologizing of Kinsey the man and, by implication, the devaluing of his work? The moral values that have guided Jones come into sharpest focus in the way he treats two of Kinsey's closest associates, Paul Gebhard and Wardell Pomeroy. Gebhard, who gave Jones four interviews and whose testimony is crucially enlisted against Kinsey, appears to have been the only male staff member unwilling or unable to have sex with men; he is pronounced "a free spirit," "a very likable man" with "a terrific sense of humor." Whereas Pomeroy, who distrusted and refused to see Jones (now, with Alzheimer's, he is unable to defend himself), and who loved all kinds of sex with all kinds of people, is dismissed as "a kind of equal opportunity Don Juan," with "a character of little substance."

Get it? The exclusively heterosexual Gebhard wins the kudos. Pomeroy, a man by other accounts of great charm, intelligence and warmth, is dismissed as a vain creature "utterly relentless in his pursuit of sexual partners of both sexes. "He just fucks everybody and it's really disgusting," says one of Jones's informants, who clearly speaks for Jones.

James Jones has added an enormous amount of information to our knowledge of Alfred Kinsey's life and research. But he has not understood, or does not approve, Kinsey's foundational message: Erotic desire is anarchic and will necessarily break free of and engulf all simplistic efforts (like Jones's) to categorize and thus confine it.

Kinsey's work will survive this book.

Copyright © 1997 The Nation. All Rights Reserved.


Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, is the author of Cures and Stonewall (both Dutton), among other books.

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