The New York Times a few months ago (June 13), in an editorial about sex crimes by children, remarked that “sick” sex demands a “healthy” response—these adjectives startling with their judgmental, old-fashioned ring. We live in a moral climate where “sickness” has long been associated with sexual repression, and at a moment of considerable social latitude about sexual arrangements, with some communities considering legalizing homosexual marriage, the ACLU filing a brief in defense of polygamy, Oprah Winfrey hosting rapists on TV (“could you just tell us something about your m.o.?”).
If the Times editorial heralds a new mood, it may be just as well that the new Kinsey report, Sex and Morality in the U.S.: An Empirical Enquiry under the Auspices of the Kinsey Institute, was delayed twenty years by a squabble among its authors (about royalties, and whose name would come first, and on some unspecified matters of interpretation of the data). If the book had come out in the Seventies, after the so-called sexual revolution that began in the Sixties, its quaint preoccupation with sexual values rather than behavior, framed in just the language you would have expected from scandalized professors over thirty, might have provoked derision. Today’s mood seems more hospitable to its concerns, however outmoded its data—and there is some reason to think the general picture it gives of sexual attitudes and values1 in America has not changed too much. The authors include a comparison of 1970s findings with 1977 data,2 showing that the percentage of people who thought extramarital sex Always wrong and Not wrong at all stayed about the same during the Seventies; and religion, one of whose preoccupations is the regulation of sex, gained ground after 1970.
In any case, as the editor of the new Kinsey Report, Hubert J. O’Gorman, hired to iron out the authorial controversy, points out in his 1989 introduction, the 1970 report “remains the only national survey centered wholly on the sexual experience and the sexual norms of a representative sample of the adult American population,” except for some magazine surveys (Redbook, Psychology Today) and various studies in the press that concentrate on people or activities that are sensational but marginal. The authors make a point of the representativeness of their sample, unlike those based on the readers of a magazine. They talked to 3,018 adults who conformed as neatly as possible to 1970 census data (though they scrupulously admit to including ten too many widowed females, too many elderly farm males, a few too many young black males, and so on).
These data, now twenty years old, are maybe better than none. The AIDS crisis has dramatized the disadvantage of not knowing more about what people actually do, with whom, and how often. Projections about AIDS have had to use even older data gathered by Alfred Kinsey (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948), in interviews in the late Thirties and Forties of a not-very-representative population of mainly white, college-educated Midwesterners; and a new National Institute of Health questionnaire on sexual practices is being blocked by pressure on Health and Human Services Secretary Lewis Sullivan by Congressional conservatives.
Critics of the first Kinsey report condemned it for relegating to dry statistics a part of life theretofore dealt with by sociology, philosophy, religion, or psychiatry. Kinsey applied scientific methods of sampling and presented his findings without moralizing. The emphasis was behavioristic; sexuality was defined entirely as what people did, not what they thought about it. In its day, needless to say, the report was a huge bestseller. In Boston it was kept in the special collections section of the public library, where people could only read it under the eye of the librarian. One of the most prominent critics of the report, Lionel Trilling, set forth many reasonable objections to the book’s indiscriminate circulation, notably that it might encourage people to do what the report found they were in fact doing (“strengthening the tendency…to invert the process of abstraction and to put the fact back into the general life from which it has been taken,” to quote the Trillingese).
To read the first Kinsey report today is to find it a curious work, matter-of-fact about sex, but very peculiar about social class, with a view of “the lower level” male as a kind of happy primitive, operating on a simple mechanical model of tension and “outlets,” and of the pitiable “upper levels” whose female companions are unhealthily inhibited.
At upper social levels there may be considerable manual petting between partners, particularly on the part of the male who has been persuaded by the general talk among his companions, and by the codification of those opinions in the marriage manuals, that the female needs extended sensory stimulation if she is to be brought to simultaneous orgasm in coitus….but preliminary calculations indicate that the frequency of orgasm is higher among lower level females…even though the lower level coitus involves a minimum of specific physical stimulation.
Kinsey is diverting on a range of subjects—the problems that arise when judges and sex offenders come from different social classes, or about what the different classes wear to bed. The report is written in the condescending tone of much early sociology, but because Kinsey’s approach is now standard, and most of his views accepted, it seems a modern work.
Trilling’s critique is in some ways dated. Where Kinsey presupposed a Victorian legacy of repression and inhibition, bringing to it a Lawrentian optimism for a brave new sexual world he was not alone in imagining, Trilling’s narrow Freudianism lends to his tone the lurking Victorianism one also finds in Freud. He reproaches the report for its failure to moralize about homosexuality, and for its departures from Freudian orthodoxy, for instance in questioning the existence of the vaginal orgasm. He deplores the entrance of science into the bedroom, the proper domain of the subjective and ineffable, where most people today think that if science has added little to the bedroom it has not been unduly intrusive either.
From the first Kinsey report, people were fascinated and some were reassured to learn that nearly 90 percent of men had engaged in premarital sex, and half in extramarital sex, over a third had had some adult homosexual experience, and 4 percent were exclusively homosexual. People learned from a later (1953) book on the human female (by which Kinsey meant, of course, American males and females) that half of women had premarital sex and a fourth of them extramarital sex, and more among them enjoyed sex than among their mothers. Then came the pill, the Sixties, singles bars, and the impression that the sexual life had changed forever. The magazine surveys called it a sexual revolution.
In 1968, nearly twenty years after the first report, partly in response to criticisms of the first report for being too statistical, and in the belief that if a revolution had occurred, people’s feelings and values had drastically changed, the Kinsey Institute began a new study, of people’s attitudes initially about homosexuality, for instance whether homosexuals should be allowed to be doctors or judges. These results are now probably the most open to question, if only because the study presumes (and finds) a degree of homophobia that may have altered in the light of today’s broader preoccupation with the subject, the AIDS epidemic, gay social legislation, and so on.3
The survey was then extended to attitudes about such matters as premarital sex. People were also asked some questions about their own sexual histories, making it possible to look at the relation of attitudes to behavior, and at how such factors as religious background, the region you live in, the marital happiness of your parents, affect your views. But the authors failed to ask the tried and true questions about orgasms and frequency of intercourse that would have allowed some comparison with the earlier studies, or about such vexed topics as incest or child abuse which might have countered or confirmed our current concern that families and nursery schools are hotbeds of guilty secrets.
And what does the Kinsey 1970 data find? That in 1970, around 80 percent of men (against 85 percent in the first Kinsey report) and 40.7 percent of women (but 74 percent of those under thirty-five) had premarital sex (fewer than in 1950!). Only 17 percent of men said they had had at least one homosexual experience, as compared with 37 percent in the first Kinsey report—the authors do not attempt to explain this change—80 percent of women found sex “enjoyable” “most of the time” or “just about every time,” more black than white women found first intercourse painful, a huge majority (83 percent of men and nearly 90 percent of women) thought homosexuality Almost always wrong or Always wrong—a trifle fewer disapproved if the couple “loved each other”—and around 60 percent believed it should be illegal. People’s judgments were not absolute but depended on their own experience and the situation of the people they were judging—a “teenaged girl not in love” was judged more severely than an unmarried adult man. Around half thought there should be a law against adultery.
In fact, the new group of Kinsey reporters found that
if, as conventional wisdom has it, there was a sexual revolution of the 1960s, it apparently was not experienced by the great majority of women and men interviewed in the 1970 survey.
They say we have been living in a state of “pluralistic ignorance,” which means that many people wrongly think that other people have more liberal attitudes and more daring adventures than they themselves do. The Kinsey editor believes that “legal norms that allowed for increasing explicitness in the handling of sexual matters in the arts and mass media” and the proliferation of studies of “individuals that could by no stretch of the imagination be considered representative of the population” have fostered the impression that prevailing norms are more liberal than they are, or that the norms of one’s own group are different from those for other groups.4
All in all it is a picture of attitudes even more conservative than one remembers from the Fifties (and not so different from the Talmud, as Dr. Kinsey pointed out in his day) except for more sexual experience countenanced for women before and outside marriage, changes to be expected from advances in contraception and from people having more information about female sexuality—perhaps because of Kinsey. In short it appears that the recent Kinsey researchers, like many sociologists, spend a lot of time and effort to conclude what the rest of mankind has long known—that for most people, “sexual experience itself is a strong positive conditioner,” as with the young woman who said she found sexual intercourse an aphrodisiac.
In a way, this second group of researchers set itself a harder task. Finding out what people think seems much more difficult than finding out what they do. Sexual researchers and sexual journalists depend for their information on one technique, the interview, sometimes with associated “self-administered” questionnaires because they believe that people will answer questions on paper that they won’t tell a live, embarrassed-looking person. Most of us like to be asked our opinions and to be made to feel that they count, but we all know how this can lead to extremes of statement, imprecise remarks that we revise later in our heads, evasions. And we all know that the choices in the dry language of a questionnaire (Not at all, Very little, Somewhat, Pretty much, Very much, Don’t know) do not any of them capture the precise nature of our experience, which is more Sort of, or Pretty much some of the time but sometimes never.
The Kinsey interviewers, professionals employed by the National Opinion Research Council (a body that collects data for all kinds of scientific inquiries), because they had to ask delicate questions, were especially trained to be nonjudgmental and friendly, and because they were mainly white middle-class women, had to learn “the language lower-class respondents used for such behaviors as masturbation and homosexuality.” In training, as a way of getting over their anxiety or discomfort, they had to pretend to be interviewing their husbands, mothers, and ministers. Is it any wonder that the people being interviewed tended to admit to more sexual experiences on paper than face-to-face?
No doubt there is difficulty in finding a tone suitable for a highly charged topic like sex. “One legacy of so-called Puritanism,” admits the editor, “is expressed in the inability to deal candidly with sex so evident in our society.” It is quickly evident that this legacy afflicts the researchers perhaps more than the subjects, who had to insist on their positive view of sex in the teeth of questions so covertly puritanical, so charged with the language of pain and dismay as to make one doubt the results.5 For example, in the section of the interview that concerns attitudes toward heterosexual relationships, the interviewer begins by saying,
Now, thinking about sexual relationships in general, there are some beliefs that such relationships have unpleasant, unfortunate, or even tragic results. As I read the following statements, tell me whether you feel it is almost always true, often true, sometimes true, or rarely or never true.
Then, the first statement read to men is “Men can expect to get hurt sooner or later when they get sexually involved with women.” (Rarely or never true 15.9 percent, Sometimes true 37.8 percent, Often true 21.0 percent, Almost always true 25.3 percent.) Women were asked to respond to the statement, “Men rob women of their dignity and self-respect.”
There were no questions about the uplifting or rewarding aspects of sex. The first questions about homosexuality, hissing with scornful sibilants, were:
What is your opinion about physical acts between two persons of the same sex for the purpose of sexual stimulation, when they have no special affection for each other? Do you think it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all? And if they love each other?
But not ever “Right.”
Elsewhere the researchers ask their subjects, of their first premarital heterosexual experience where either of the partners has some kind of climax, and you now feel strong regret, only some regret, or no regret at all about having this sexual experience with someone of the opposite sex before being married?” (No regret at all, defiantly say 69.1 percent of males, and 44.8 percent of females.) Others, more literal-minded, thinking perhaps of how sex had made them miss the football game, said, Only some regret (22.5 percent of men, 33.9 percent of women).
These are but three examples of the tone of highly respectable, government-and university-funded researchers who presumably scrutinized themselves for bias.6 Can we be surprised that there is often a gap between public policy and private experience? For the rest of us, the Kinsey researchers have provided yet another convenient typology by which to define ourselves within the chaos of our world: Are you a moral type, 1, 2, 3, 4? The authors estimate that between 20 and 25 percent of people are “old conservatives,” publicly supporting traditional morality “with great fervor,” because of religious or personal moral beliefs. Living in the Midwest or Deep South, being in an older generation or being a fundamentalist, coming from a small town, or being female incline you to this category. Type 2, half the population, publicly support traditional morality for reasons of social expedience but “privately do not subscribe to the traditional values underlying these beliefs.” Those in Type 3, “conventional liberals,” do not publicly subscribe to traditional moralities, but privately behave in accordance with them (20 percent of people), and Type 4, “moral radicals” (6 percent or more), have publicly and privately kicked over the traces, for example, homosexuals out of the closet. The authors believe that Types 1 and 4 are more comfortable with their sexual values and behavior than the others, that is, than the majority, who may show confusion or “sexual anomie.”
In the face of the epidemic of teen-age pregnancy, AIDS, the increase in rape and child abuse, and other signs of disorder in American social and sexual behavior, it seems warranted at least to note that no one really knows how much, or just how, all our frank speaking and our less restrictive modern mores have contributed to these problems. And one cannot but wonder whether “sexual anomie” and “pluralistic ignorance” will make Americans susceptible to the blandishments of moral certitude in the form of a purity revival, the way that our declining world influence makes people cling to the flag. There is a palpable weight to conservative forces (anti-abortion, anti-sex education, pro-censorship), and one senses the return among people at neither moral extreme of concepts of “taste” and “respectability,” to say nothing of safety, that would tend to moderate sexual behavior.
Still, it is hard to imagine that the direction of change, toward the more permissive view of sex that Dr. Kinsey (who was in the tradition of free-thinking post-Victorian sexologists like Havelock Ellis, or Edward Carpenter, or like D.H. Lawrence) thought so desirable is really reversible, if only for the reasons noted by historians of sex. John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman write in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America:
The commercialization of sex and the sexualization of commerce [have] placed the weight of capitalist institutions on the side of a visible public presence for the erotic.
In the long run, as Lionel Trilling suspected, it may never be possible to find out what people really think about sex if only because people themselves may not really know. Views change, with age, with time, and from case to case. And it may be that the 70 percent of people whom the Kinsey authors say are in confusion and a state of sexual anomie easily tolerate or really prefer a discrepancy between what is said and what is done. Life otherwise affords so little occasion for adventure, and all too little of mystery.
October 12, 1989
Steven Carter and Julia Sokol, in What Really Happens in Bed (Evans, 1989), suggest that not much new is happening, either. ↩
“Attitudes Towards Premarital, Extramarital, and Homosexual Relations in the US in the 1970s,” published by Norval D. Glenn and Charles N. Weaver in The Journal of Sex Research in 1979. ↩
A comparison of the 1970 with the 1977 data showed that the number of people thinking homosexuality without affection not wrong at all increased from 5.8 percent in 1970 to 14.9 percent in 1977. ↩
For instance, sexaholics, guests at the World’s First Jack-and-Jill-Off Party, New Men meetings (where sensitive 1970s-style men go to learn how to be macho), feminist porn filmmakers, telephone sex surrogates, and other depressed, desperate-sounding people reported on by Steve Chapple and David Talbot in Burning Desires: Sex in America, A Report From the Field (which was excerpted in Playboy magazine) do not seem like the people next door. These writers hope to convince, in “pulsating prose,” that the sexual revolution happened. They contend that though there may have been a moment in the Eighties when it seemed over, now everything is back on the sexual fast track. “The AIDS terror was as much a cultural creation as a public health crisis, a punishment inflicted by the nation on itself to atone for its years of sexual celebration.” This seems an example of what the Kinsey editors think contributes to “pluralistic ignorance.” ↩
A cursory review of other recent books about sex, just this week’s batch, confirms that a vocabulary of pain, anxiety, and dismay is normal in books about sex. Even the “celebrations” of sex, like Chapple and Talbot’s, sound grim: “Sam was never at peace with himself. He felt driven to peep shows and porn theaters, to dark and heated embraces with strangers.” ↩
The discussion, generally sensible and clear, sometimes allows us to glimpse the real oddness of the researcher’s assumptions: “[Our] data, with their air of stern moralism (three-quarters of our sample described themselves as ‘Pretty much’ or ‘Very much’ serious and moral about sex), might predispose us to expect an avoidance or lack of enjoyment in sexual life. However, this does not seem to be the case .” ↩