Monday, January 31, 2005

Thoughts on Kinsey

I'll confess, first of all, to not having known much about the man Alfred Kinsey until recently. Perhaps this is a tribute to the importance of ideas over authorship, since what Kinsey revealed about America and human beings has been a part of my culture all my life, even in those years when I felt deep guilt over my own sexuality. But with the release of Bill Condon's recent movie about the man, Kinsey has been reintroduced to the American social scene, and the response has shown both how much we have changed and how much we haven't.

Reactions to the film have varied widely, from condemnation by social conservatives who regard Kinsey's findings are morally objectionable and who often seem to blame the man for the existence of the practices he documented, to those who hail his work as setting us free from sexual repression by making sex just one more thing to talk about, by demystifying it.

It is a compliment to the quality of the movie that most of the debate is over Kinsey and not the film itself; since I regard one of the purposes of literature in any medium to be the encouragement of conversations. And clearly this is a conversation that we in America need to have. I have argued in the Preface to The Usahar that I consider modern Western society as perhaps the most sexually dysfunctional in history, and it seems to me that the debate over Kinsey, both the movie and the man, supports this contention.

But is it sex we're really talking about? To some degree I suppose it is, since sexuality is effectively universal in human beings and since it unquestionably manifests itself in myriad ways. And sex does make us all uncomfortable insofar as it makes us vulnerable; it's something we can't fully control no matter how much we may want to. But I think the debate over Kinsey is actually less about sex itself than we have been led to believe, because in the history of Western society, sex has been inexorably linked with power.

In other words, if you can control sex by defining it, you can control the person who is sexual. If you can define what is "normal" and what is "abnormal" and most of all make your definitions the standard ones for society, you can exert considerable pressure on people to behave and think as you want them to behave and think. It is no surprise, therefore, that extremely hierarchical groups such as the Catholic Church are far more prone to defining sexual "normalcy" than are groups like the Quakers, who lack such a hierarchy.

But there are problems with Kinsey's work, too, and it is a credit to the film that these are shown. As a biologist and a scientist, Kinsey was trained to set himself apart from that which he researched, to try and be objective. He was trained to observe, to record, and to analyze. As a result his human subjects became like his wasps: things. Of course, they weren't just things; they were people, and those who criticize Kinsey have a point here. People are much more complicated than wasps, and human sexuality has emotional, psychological and social dimensions that make its study much more than mere biology. His failing to see this, even in his own life, was arguably Kinsey's greatest weakness, both as a man and as a researcher.

This is unfortunate, and has led even some who have written positively about sexuality, like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, to argue that "the net effect of Kinsey's work was much more destructive than constructive." Like many of Kinsey's other critics, Boteach argues that sexuality is only positive when it matches the definitions set down by religious authority, and that he (presumably because he is a religious authority) gets to define what those definitions are; namely "Judeo-Christian morals and ethics." Just as with Boteach's Christian peers, one cannot help but sense a power play here.

But sex resists definition. It resists power, and therefore it can empower. Pornography, a favored target of social conservatives, is opposed precisely because it is subversive, because it excels at making us uncomfortable and because it challenges social norms. If there is one thing that Kinsey's research found, it's that humans are widely variable in how they feel about and express their sexuality, and that even in the sexually repressed world of mid-20th century America, people were simply not doing what they were told. Boteach and his clergical colleagues argue persuasively that sex in a loving relationship is a good thing, and they note correctly that sex can be hollow and unsatisfying, even addictive, but they also presume to speak for everyone when in fact they cannot. The fact is that through sexual expression human beings sometimes thumb their noses at religious, social and political authorities, and we should not be surprised that this makes those authorities so angry.

In a way, then, this is Kinsey's real legacy, intentional or not. Not that he invented sexual variation, but that he made it, and the defiance of authority inherent in it, very public. He revealed that the revolt against the old authorities was more widespread than we had ever imagined, and that one of their greatest weapons, the concept of sexual "normalcy," is in fact a sham. What Kinsey did not do and his critics have not done is what we now must: accept our humanity as complex and difficult, and structure our morality accordingly, founded on the principles of compassion, tolerance and love rather than thinly-disguised efforts to gain and hold onto power.


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