It is obvious that the failure to learn more about human sexual activity is the outcome of the influence which the custom and the law have had upon scientists as individuals, and of the not immaterial restrictions which have been imposed upon scientific investigations in this field.
— Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948
When it comes to sex, Americans have long had a morality complex for which censorship has been its elixir. It is one of the most natural behaviors of humankind, yet historically one of the most chastened. In 1916, Margaret Sanger and her husband were jailed for distributing her monograph Family Limitations that discussed how women could actively plan and prevent pregnancy. Under the guise of the 1873 Comstock Act, written information regarding contraception was restricted from distribution in the United States until 1971, 11 years after the development of the oral contraceptive pill. Today bitter debates regarding the content of sexual education in schools, access to abortion, and homosexual marriages prevail. Fifty years after Alfred Kinsey broke the locks off what we do behind closed doors, there remains a segment of the population that is frightened by any discussion of sex outside of their morality-safe closets. Thus, in celebration of the First Amendment and Banned Books Week, the continued fervor over Kinsey’s work begs us to revisit the book that launched the modern-day crusade of censorship in the name of “family values” and why the suppression of information about sex is so dangerous.
In 1948, a little-known entomologist from Indiana named Alfred Kinsey shocked the world. With the release of his colossal scientific treatise Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey revolutionized popular sexual thought by systematically detailing thousands of case studies of male sexual practices. Kinsey was the first researcher to report data on sexual proclivity, pre-marital and extra-martial sex, masturbation, and homosexuality among men — and in so doing he injected sex into the cultural dialogue and shattered numerous conservative ideals, namely that sexuality remains dormant until marriage. In the three years that followed its release the so-called Kinsey Report spawned 58 magazine articles, 19 newspaper articles, 4 books, and 4 conferences dealing with its implications, with one reviewer commenting that “the Kinsey Report has done for sex what Columbus did for geography” (Ernst ML, Loth D. American Sexual Behavior and the Kinsey Report, New York: Greystone Press, 1948). Together with its companion Sexual Behavior in the Human Female released in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male provided the intellectual kindling for sexual discovery in America.
The Kinsey Report stands as the first scientific analysis of typical male sexual behavior. It is the documentation of a massive investigation of the incidence and frequencies or orgasms through six sexual outlets: masturbation; nocturnal emissions; heterosexual petting; intercourse (pre-marital, marital, extra-marital, post-marital, and with prostitutes); homosexual outlets; and animal contacts. The analysis was conducted along myriad variables including race, sex, marital status, age, educational level, and religious groups. And although there are valid critiques of some of his methodology, by merely reporting back the answers to the questions no one else was asking, Kinsey succeeded in exploding traditional 1940s middle-American views of sexuality beyond a shadow of any selection bias. He annihilated the notion that sexual activity or interest begins and ends with marriage; he revealed that masturbation is ubiquitous and not harmful; and he denuded the myth that homosexual acts are rare or deviant. One table indicated the strong relationship between educational attainment and fellatio: if you had entered college, you probably received it; if not, you probably didn’t. (And proving the power of reciprocation, the same relationship applied for giving cunnilingus.) Over its 800 pages littered with charts and graphs, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male raised the social consciousness about male sexuality more than any other publication ever had. Without this seminal report, we would not have the better-funded studies found in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the subsequent research of Masters and Johnson, or the acceptance of sex research into academic discourse. Without a doubt, Kinsey was one of the great scientific explorers of our time.
Yet just like Columbus, despite his irrefutable contributions to science, Kinsey quickly became the subject of great controversy. While sociologists, physicians, educators, and the general public largely supported the Kinsey Report, the immediate reactions of religious leaders and conservative groups were unflinchingly harsh. Several articles proclaimed it such a severe assault on family values and negation of morality that some groups called for “a law against doing research dealing exclusively with sex” (American Social Hygiene Association Conference. “Kinsey Report Criticized from Religious and Moral Point of View,” New York Times, April 1, 1948;50:1). Two dogmatic physicians published a book preaching the dangers of Kinsey’s methods as providing “homosexuals a new pretext for avoiding medical treatment” and causing “more harm than good” (Bergler E, Kroger W. Kinsey’s Myth of Female Sexuality: The Medical Facts. New York: Grune & Stratton, 1954). Critics blasted the Kinsey Report on account of its content and called Kinsey a sadomasochist and pedophile. By documenting that the vast majority of Americans engaged in sexual activity including masturbation and premarital sex, the Kinsey Report represented a shocking first analysis of male sexual norms. What has since become medical gospel, 50 years ago was heresy to many Americans.
Shortly after being issued, both Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female were challenged on the grounds of obscenity. Several countries across the world, including the Soviet Union, Ireland and South Africa banned their sale. Although the male Report was never banned outright in the United States, the more publicized female version was restricted from United States Army libraries in Europe and Catholic dioceses publicly warned their parishioners against reading the book or its reviews. Of course, that was 50 years ago; reissues of the original Kinsey Reports are now available online across the globe and Kinsey’s story was recently immortalized as a major motion picture. But once an icon, always an iconoclast. Before its release in 2004, protests mounted against the film, titled Kinsey, and its public advertisements with opposition groups citing its “provocative” nature. The Traditional Values Coalition called for a boycott of all motion pictures released by Fox that year. Evangelists Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham labeled the books (and their film treatment) as irreversibly damaging to the morals of America. Furthermore, earlier this year, the conservative weekly Human Events released its Top Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Century and Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was number four.
While it could be argued that there is no such thing as a harmful book (Books don’t kill people; people kill people!) there is no doubt that the censorship of scientific information about sex is destructive — and one needs to look no further than American classrooms to see its effects. It is by no contraceptive accident that the United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate among industrialized countries. The vast majority of American teenagers admit to having sexual intercourse; more than 30% of teenagers do not use contraceptive methods when having sex; and nearly one million teenage women become pregnant each year. Despite statistics that show a high level of sexual activity and risk-taking behavior among American teenagers, abstinence-only education programs have recently achieved a new prominence in American schools. Based on a pre-Kinsey, pro-Bush falsehood of sexual dormancy until marriage, in 2003 the United States federal government allocated over $168 million for sexual educational programs that exclusively promote “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage.” Meanwhile, there is no federal program dedicated to supporting comprehensive sexuality education that also includes information on contraception, prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), masturbation, or homosexuality.
Instead of creating a discussion about what we know to be true about sex, abstinence-only programs stifle information and expression. Their incorporation into the pedagogy of American youth represents a clear censorship of valuable information that can help young people make decisions about their sexuality, sexual activity, and reproduction. Just as conservative groups blackballed Kinsey, advocates of comprehensive sexual education programs have been the targets of censorship. In 1994 Dr. Jocelyn Elders — the first woman appointed to the position of United States Surgeon General – was removed from office for advocating for the inclusion of education regarding masturbation in schools. Recently several conservative organizations brought a federal lawsuit against a public school system in Maryland for approving a revised sexuality education curriculum that included instructions about how to put on a condom and a pilot program to discuss homosexuality in high schools (which parents could opt their child out of, with written permission).
Still there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that abstinence-only education programs are effective in reducing teen pregnancy or STI rates — and there is some evidence to support that they deter sexually active teens from using condoms or other contraceptives. The foundation of these programs is grounded in the illogic of 1940s America: there shall be no sex without marriage; marriage is between a man and a woman; and women are not sexual beings. Left without a forum to receive accurate information about sex and healthy sexuality, such overt censorship endangers the sexual health of young people and creates a hostile environment for lesbian and gay youth. After all, if we don’t believe Kinsey and cannot ask our own questions, how else are we to know more about our bodies and, thus, ourselves?
Like Dr. Elders and myself, Alfred Kinsey was a scientist, not a moralist. His impetus to conduct the thousands of oral histories comprising his studies was akin to that of all researchers – to gather information. Human sexual behavior had hitherto been one of the least explored areas of biology, psychology, and sociology and he wanted to “accumulate an objectively determined body of fact about sex” that was divorced from social or moral interpretations. The information he gathered was designed expressly for medical and sociological professionals and he included no instructions about how to prescribe the data. Kinsey was very clear about his desire to inform the scientific conversation about sex; nothing more, nothing less. And as anthropologist Ashley Montagu stated plainly in her 1954 analysis, “the Kinsey Reports are important books because they have been and will continue to be responsible for a great deal of discussion concerning subjects which are not too frequently freely and openly discussed.”
In a country where it seems the less the public knows about sex, the better, there is much to be learned from a vanguard like Kinsey. We must continue to ask the questions no one is asking and fight the censorship of information. What is left uncovered is ultimately much more harmful that what is exposed.