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Edward Feser
Alfred Kinsey: The American Lysenko
A biopic and a PBS documentary whitewash the life and record of this fraudulent pervert.
8 March 2005

Alfred Kinsey is back in vogue. One of the fathers of the sexual revolution, he seemed for a time to have slipped into the margins of public memory, eclipsed by the more colorful avant-gardists of the flesh who succeeded him—Hugh Hefner, say, or even Larry Flynt. Yet those in the business of overthrowing taboos are, in their own way, as capable of honoring the past as any conservative, and it seems Kinsey’s spiritual children have deemed him overdue for the greatest of honors that liberals bestow upon their heroes: the Hollywood biopic. Kinsey’s admirers already regularly compare him to Darwin and Einstein. With Liam Neeson in the film’s starring role, we will doubtless soon be hearing that Kinsey was also a sexual Oskar Schindler, selflessly risking life and reputation to save us from evil Victorian forces.

A new PBS documentary on Kinsey also premiered this month. Both the film and the documentary present the standard liberal “dispassionate man of science versus the forces of prejudice” morality tale—or rather, fairy tale. True, they allow that Kinsey had his faults. But then, the “flawed giant” shtick has now become the customary method of damage control among liberal historians and filmmakers, desperate to restore luster to their tarnished idols. What’s obvious to anyone who examines Kinsey’s life and work dispassionately—indeed, obvious to anyone who watches the documentary itself and sifts the facts it reports from the breathless hagiography—isn’t conceded for a moment: that Kinsey was a fraud whose work did absolutely nothing to provide a genuinely scientific or rational justification for the revolution in morals he nevertheless helped foster.

The worthlessness of Kinsey’s method of carrying out “sex research” ought to have been evident from the start. It involved collecting a vast number of “sexual histories,” detailed accounts of the sex lives of various individuals, revealed to Kinsey and his associates in lengthy interviews. Kinsey would then arrange the data culled from the interviews in tables purporting to show how common various sexual behaviors were within the American population as a whole. The tables went public in Kinsey’s two famous volumes, on male and female sexuality respectively, which alleged that certain behaviors widely regarded as immoral or otherwise deviant—adultery, fornication, homosexual acts of various kinds, pederasty, and so on and on—were far more common than the common man thought (or wanted to think).

That this whole approach is statistically dubious should go without saying. (Some of Kinsey’s nervous financial backers said it anyway, but Kinsey wasn’t of a mind to listen.) People willing to recount the intimate details of their sex lives to perfect strangers are bound to be more likely to engage in other risqué activities. Any account of the sexual behavior of the population at large that rests on such a skewed sample will inevitably overstate the frequency of deviant behavior. But this is far from the end of the story, or of the problems that plague Kinsey’s method. Notoriously, he derived his “sexual histories” largely from persons on the fringes of society—prison inmates and the denizens of gay bars, the latter being in the 1940s and fifties much farther outside the mainstream of American life than they are now.

Then there’s Kinsey’s strange fascination with pedophiles, with the horrific data on the frequency of orgasms in infants and children he derived from interviewing child molesters blandly recorded in his volumes alongside the more ordinary perversions. One particularly monstrous pedophile, a man who had sexual relations with various of his family members and molested hundreds of children, kept regular contact with Kinsey and his associates. They assured him that they wouldn’t turn him in to the authorities, despite the fact that he continued to molest children throughout the time of their correspondence. Kinsey justified such aiding and abetting of criminality in the name of “science,” of course. Never mind that his technique was utterly contemptuous of the science of statistics. Kinsey could not have chosen a less representative sample of American society if he had intentionally set out to do so. (Ahem.)

All of this would be bad enough if Kinsey’s work merely sought to convey some unusual facts and figures. But of course, Kinsey took that work, and his admirers still take it, to have far greater significance. In their view, it amounts to nothing less than a refutation of traditional sexual morality. Kinsey had shown—or so he claimed—that adulterers, homosexuals, and pederasts were as common as rain. How could anyone ever again regard such behavior as abnormal?

This sort of non sequitur might have been forgivable had it come from one of Kinsey’s hapless undergraduates. It is inexcusable coming from the professor himself, or from his more academically inclined followers. Certainly the great sexual moralists of the Western tradition would have found Kinsey’s argument singularly unimpressive. Thomas Aquinas would have patiently explained to Dr. Kinsey and his acolytes that “normal,” as traditional moralists use that term, has nothing to do with frequency of occurrence and everything to do with the natural function of bodily organs and psychological inclinations. Augustine would have explained that if the use of these organs and inclinations in a manner contrary to their natural functions really were as common as Kinsey claimed, this would merely corroborate his thesis that original sin stains human nature, infecting it with concupiscence. Kant would have scratched his head in puzzlement at any suggestion that an appeal to widespread inclinations might justify behaviors that could only amount to the use of other human beings as means to one’s own carnal ends. And even Kinsey’s own mother could have advised him that “everyone does it” proves exactly nothing where morality is concerned.

But seriously to engage the opponents of the sexual revolution at the appropriate moral and philosophical level would be to reveal how contingent, how open to debate, are that revolution’s intellectual foundations. Far better for the revolutionaries, then, to maintain the simple-minded fiction that the revolution took merely another inevitable step in the long March of Science. That way the opponents of the revolution would appear the spiritual heirs of William Jennings Bryan, and everyone could get on with looking for Mr. Goodbar. To complete the picture, however, requires that someone play the role of Clarence Darrow, the cool and collected man of reason whose very sobriety will, by virtue of its contrast with the fevered ravings of the prudish Bryans of the world, bolster the case for sexual “liberation.” Cue Alfred Kinsey. The Neeson movie is, in its way, a remake of Inherit the Wind.

This dispassionate-man-of-reason myth might account for the reluctance of liberals to pay too much attention to just how “liberated” Kinsey was in his own personal life. Even the PBS documentary concedes how controversial Kinsey’s methods were, but it only vaguely alludes to the grislier details of the good doctor’s sexual habits. Some have argued that Kinsey may have been a pedophile himself, though that charge is controversial. He was certainly promiscuously bisexual. He cajoled his male staff members and their wives regularly to sleep with him and with each other, in an ongoing regime of wife-swapping and homosexual experimentation. He arranged for the filming of these antics, and those of any other volunteers he could find, producing a vast collection of pornography to aid him in his “research.”

His masochism knew no bounds. He had a lifelong habit of sticking toothbrushes into his urethra, bristle end first. He circumcised himself with a pocketknife in his bathtub. He liked to suspend himself by a rope tied around his testicles, an activity that once landed him in the hospital. He had pierced his own genitals in so many places that they wound up almost entirely perforated by the end of his life. One can understand why Neeson opted not to recreate all of these tender moments in the life of the “Second Darwin,” but such omissions mean that his performance achieved something less than verisimilitude.

That liberals would dismiss such disturbing details as irrelevant to an evaluation of Kinsey’s work only makes manifest their hypocrisy. If a conservative scholar happens to be religious, liberals reflexively take this to be sufficient reason to doubt the objectivity of his work. If he is white and writes about racial issues, or male and writes about women, they take for granted that he cannot be truly impartial. Such a scholar has an “agenda,” the liberal assures us, and for that reason, whatever he produces is suspect. And should the slightest weakness in his argumentation ever reveal itself, this is taken infallibly to demonstrate that his true concern really was, after all, the rationalization of prejudice rather than the disinterested pursuit of truth.

Yet Kinsey, we’re expected to believe, was never anything less than a scientist. Being personally as far outside the sexual mainstream as one could imagine, Kinsey had every incentive to rig his results in a way that would seem to justify sexual license. Many now acknowledge the serious flaws in his methods; many of his specific results have met with challenges. But none of this matters. He was, we hear again and again and again, right about all the essentials, a pioneer and a liberator, a Jonas Salk of the soul who has made us all healthier and happier.

In fact, Kinsey was nothing more than an American Lysenko, his work as ideologically driven and scientifically insignificant as that of the infamous Soviet hack, who scientifically “proved” that acquired characteristics could be inherited and thus that the commissars really could engineer a “New Man.” The only “beneficiaries” of Kinsey’s revolution, if that’s what they are, are people pretty much like him: oversexed men, now free to use other human beings as sexual playthings and then toss them aside like so much rubbish as they move on to the next conquest, unconstrained by any legal, financial, or moral obligations to the objects of their lust. Every unborn child scraped out of its mother’s womb, every AIDS patient wasting away in suffering, testifies to Kinsey’s true legacy. And among the living, it is those whom liberals claim to champion—the poor, especially fatherless black teenagers; unwed mothers; lonely women abandoned by husbands who’ve decided to trade down for something more Paris Hiltonish—who have perhaps suffered the most from Kinsey’s transvaluation of values.

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More by Edward Feser:
Twilight of the Mad Men
Purely Academic
Should Felons Vote?
More . . .
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