History of Single Life

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"Sex is one of the things Middletown has long been taught to fear," Robert and Helen Lynd wrote in their famous study of 1920s Muncie, Indiana. The citizens of that conservative burg, they noted, prefer to "keep the subject out of sight and out of mind as much as possible." It is therefore ironic that the most frank and influential thought on sex in the postwar era took place on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, two-and-a-half hours from Muncie. Arguably, the Kinsey Institute’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, did more to challenge American attitudes toward sex than any publication since Margaret Mead’s Growing Up in Samoa exposed Americans to the idea that Anglo-Saxon prudery was not the only way to live.


Alfred C. Kinsey was, by all accounts, a remarkable man. Born in New Jersey in 1894 to a strict Methodist family, he internalized at an early age both a fanatical self-discipline and the nineteenth-century American middle-class’s revulsion to sex. Even his Boy Scout manual (according to Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s meticulously researched biography of Kinsey, Sex the Measure of All Things) told him that "God had given young men at around puberty a vital substance which turns boys into men. The effects of wasting this fluid could be very dangerous indeed."

The young Kinsey did not date in high school, college, or graduate school. As a young man, he was consumed by the study of the tiny gall wasp. It was his professional specialty, and he made rugged solo expeditions all over the United States to track down new specimens. His monomaniacal work ethic and demanding, controlling personality were only matched by his extreme sexual repression. It wasn’t until the age of twenty-seven, as a young biology professor at Indiana University, that Kinsey finally began to come out of his shell. Clara Bracken McMillen initiated his first romantic relationship with a woman, and their acquaintances weren’t surprised that they eventually married. Though there were some physical and physiological obstacles to consummating their union, Kinsey applied the same relentless energy toward overcoming his strict upbringing as he had brought to collecting wasp specimens, and the two settled into what was, to all appearances, a normal marriage.

Yet that early repression had a lasting effect on Kinsey’s sex life. He developed masochistic masturbatory practices, piercing his foreskin, tugging on his testicles with a

Kinsey swung from one extreme of belief to another.

rope, and inserting objects into his urethra. Gathorne-Hardy notes that "as the years passed and the passage grew insensibly larger, and also less sensitive, the size of the objects increased, until by 1949-1950 he was able to insert pencils and even a toothbrush, bristle end first." He was also noted to enjoy these activities with others, and, in fact, the term "S/M," for sado-masochism, is thought to originate with Kinsey’s research code.

Like many who reject the moral code by which they were raised, Kinsey swung from one extreme of belief to the other. By 1938, it was apparent how much his thinking on sex had changed. The middle-aged entomologist began teaching a hygiene course to seniors at Indiana University — a standard offering at American universities in those years, as educators began to realize that widespread sexual ignorance contributed to the unchecked spread of syphilis. A sexual-hygiene lecture given by Alfred Kinsey, however, was quite different from one given anywhere else. Having been raised in a charismatic religion where a rousing sermon was at the center of any good Sunday service, counseled younger boys for many years in Scout camps, and experienced intense sexual frustration as a young man, Kinsey brought his life experience to the lectern. Gathorne-Hardy reveals what happened in these lectures:

Kinsey’s staff could literally complain about getting reamed by the boss at work.

As usual, Kinsey strode in, faced his audience, and spoke for an hour without notes. . . . Delays in sex he illustrated by comparing American adolescence with that of the Trobriand Islanders, who began to have sex as soon as it was possible (aged 9-13) and had stable happy marriages. Next (lecture 2) the reproductive anatomy. . . Close-up and dramatic slide of the penis entering the vagina: ". . . You will see that. . . the clitoris at this point is stimulated, thus providing the erotic stimulation necessary for the completion of the act on the part of the female." . . . details of contraception, condoms, diaphragms, etc. So to individual variation — in human beings as much as 400 per cent. . . techniques of foreplay, techniques of intercourse, how couples adjust to the back position. . . And finally how to adjust to years of delayed intercourse (lecture 4), harmlessness of masturbation (both sexes), the "safety valve" of nocturnal emission, petting. Here Kinsey explained the heights to which female blood pressure would rise — and how high it would remain if it was not allowed to dissipate in the natural climax. If they were to pet, and they would pet, they must continue through arousal to orgasm. [Gathorne-Hardy notes elsewhere that Kinsey apparently gave much the same advice to his own daughters once they had reached an appropriate age.]

Armed with his faith in science and George Gallup’s recently invented polling techniques, at the end of every lecture Kinsey did something remarkable — he invited his students to set up a private conference to give him their detailed sex histories. This was Kinsey’s method, from gall wasps to genitalia — collect, organize, label. And he didn’t stop at his students: Just as Kinsey had once sought wasp specimens in the wilds of North America, he canvassed fraternity houses, addressed community groups, traveled to prisons and, beginning in 1939, infiltrated the secret meeting-places of America’s homosexual subculture — all in search of the elusive, statistically pure "100% sample" that would give a perfect cross-section of society. In 1942, aided by grants, Kinsey abandoned his study of wasps and established the Institute for Sex Research, dedicated to the objective (and obsessive) study of human sexuality.







However, behind the scientific façade — and fueled by Kinsey’s growing awareness of his own homosexual leanings — lay a more personal agenda: To dispel the hurtful fog of ignorance by making a definitive, scientific statement on the range and variety of sexual behavior in the human animal, no matter what its race, gender, social class, or sexual orientation. Almost as if to make up for his wasted youth, Kinsey wanted to experience everything he studied — and he thought his research team should sample the full spectrum of human sexual behavior as well. He encouraged his staff at the Institute to keep journals of their masturbatory habits, accompany him to gay bathhouses, swap wives, and have sex with "research subjects" of both genders — all while being photographed and filmed. Gathorne-Hardy relates the trouble he had finding new research staff for the Institute: "New interviewers had to have an M.D. or Ph.D. . . . They all had to give their [sexual] histories and at the merest flicker of moral judgment or area of unease — out. The same was true of their wives. . . No one religious need apply. . . . He would ideally have liked them all to have had previous homosexual experience and . . . they also had to be prepared to have sex outside of marriage." One night in Columbus, Ohio, Kinsey asked a young psychologist named Vincent Nowlis, who had joined the team in 1944, to meet with him and two other staff members, Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin in a hotel room. Kinsey had noticed that Nowlis was distinctly ill at ease with homosexuality — and his solution was for the four men to have sex. Nowlis quickly hopped a train back to Bloomington and his family.

Even if Kinsey’s staff could literally complain about getting reamed by the boss at work, his methods kept him in good stead. When Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

The public was shocked and relieved to hear that women also masturbated.

was published in 1948, its thoroughness caused a sensation. The statistics were shocking: Forty percent of American men had had gay sex to the point of orgasm. Ten percent had had a gay relationship that lasted over three years. Six percent were exclusively gay. (Later studies, such as the 1993 Janus Report and studies by the National Institutes of Health, revised this number to around four percent — though "confinement homosexuality" practiced by GIs during World War II might account for some of Kinsey’s numbers.) Half of the "farm boys from certain rural areas of the United States" had had sex with animals to orgasm. (According to the porn-industry gossipmonger Luke Ford, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, had his first sexual experience with one of his grandmother’s chickens.) If it’s true that most best-selling books only confirm what people are vaguely aware of anyway, Kinsey’s was no exception. The report told American men that it was normal to have sex outside of marriage, to have a small penis, to have a large penis, to masturbate, to want a lot of sex, to want little sex, to have sex with other men, and even to experiment sexually with animals — and that their neighbors might be doing the exact same thing.

Publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953 met with a similar response: The public was shocked and relieved to hear that women masturbated, had sex before marriage, had sex outside marriage, had sex with each other, enjoyed a variety of different sexual positions, and derived orgasmic pleasure from their clitorises (as opposed to the Freudian insistence that the "mature" woman is solely contented by vaginal sex).

Critics claim his statistics were misrepresented to make various "perversions" seem more common.

By popularizing the idea that sex is a continuum of more-or-less common acts, rather than either "normal" or "pathological" behavior, and by using the authoritative voice of science as a plea for tolerance, Kinsey became an overnight celebrity, and a byword for the ability to discuss sex publicly in a calm, sane, and rational manner.

Kinsey’s influence has long outlasted his death in 1956 at the age of sixty-two. However, as details of Kinsey’s personal life came to light, many have cast doubt on his methodology. At best, his critics claim he was biased; at worst, they charge that his statistics were misrepresented to make various "perversions" seem more common than they actually are. (For a good early critique of Kinsey’s work, see Sexual Behavior in American Society, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1955.) With the aid of postmodern detachment, we can even regard his establishing a scientific institute to examine the sex lives of strangers as one big kink.

Yet, regardless of whether Kinsey’s methodology holds up scientifically, its historical value is undeniable. It is because Kinsey published his work that we can publish material about sex today. Arguably, if he hadn’t been so interested in exploring his own sexuality, he wouldn’t have begun his sex research. In this sense, it’s not so much what Kinsey said as the fact that he said it at all — and that people read it. Even if, for most 1950s Americans, sex meant marriage and a family, people were nonetheless talking publicly about sex. In this, Kinsey was, and remains, one of the fathers of the Sexual Revolution.  

History of Single Life by Ken Mondschein
The Erotic Other.
History of Single Life by Ken Mondschein
History of Single Life by Ken Mondschein
History of Single Life by Ken Mondschein
Abelard and Heloise: teacher-student sex in the Middle Ages.
History of Single Life by Ken Mondschein
The birth of the urban hipster.

©2007 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.