In Bed with Social Science

Sex and Morality in the U.S.: An Empirical Enquiry under the Auspices of the Kinsey Institute

by Albert D. Klassen and Colin J. Williams and Eugene E. Levitt, edited by Hubert J. O'Gorman
Wesleyan University Press, 462 pp., $35.00

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…

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