Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Getting Kinsey With It.

This is a story that I wrote for Remix. It was truncated a wee bit. Probably for good reason.

Sorry I've been quiet Sage, but I really do think that you are the only person reading! I'll be posting a lot more as I start doing these Agenda media pieces.......



Fifty years ago the extent of sexual advice available in the public sphere was minimal. There were no self-help sex books, no Sex therapists and certainly no Cleo sealed sections. It was a very different landscape, one where America was scared of sex, where the Kama Sutra was considered pornography, one where they talked seriously of American as apple pie.

And certainly not the American Pie apple pie you may be thinking of. Well at least on the surface it was. Underneath her prim puritanically influenced exterior, under the skirts as it were, America had what these days we’d call a full and varied sex life. And it took a zoologist who had spent his early life researching gall wasps to break down the taboos and get the world talking about sex, acknowledging life’s second biggest reality.

The first biggest reality being bad café art.

A cursory glance over a newsstand confirms that this Dr Alfred Kinsey character did a pretty good job. Sex, once the unmentionable now permeates every aspect of our public life, well and truly out of the realm of the unmentionable. J Lo’s butt. One night in Paris. Michael Barrymore’s pool parties. Certain TVNZers and glass coffee tables. Charlotte Dawson at play. E-mail accounts full of invitations to ‘pound black ass’ and ‘enlarge that member, size matters guys’.

It would appear that all we really need help with nowadays is cutting down our diet of free and frank sexual discussion. A revolution that our man Kinsey brought about through two not-so-radically entitled reports; "Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female" (1953). Hardly sounds like the kind of material that would turn America on its ear but you really do have to watch the quiet ones.

Which is exactly what Kinsey the man was before he embarked on his project. Some say that it was his inexperience and quite startling lack of knowledge about the most basic and instinctual of human needs that led him to his life work. A process that changed the straight-laced son-of-a-preacher-man type scientist to the extent that he went from not knowing how to approach sex on his wedding night to enter into a world of wife swapping and homosexual experiences.

For although our generation may have house music for this, Kinsey had to blaze his own trail against the weight of an entire culture that just didn’t talk about sex, baby.

The two matter of fact titled books were reports on sexual activity of Americans. These were based on thousands of interviews about subject’s sex-lives and habits, proclivities and practises. And the stir they caused cannot be overstated. The findings of the first large scale look into the bedrooms and closets of American sexuality have been described as the first shots fired in the sexual revolution.

More than ten thousand men and women were interviewed and the end findings challenged the prevailing ideas of abstinence and heterosexuality as the norm The thing is that Kinsey unearthed, and meticulously recorded, a secret and prolific private sex life occurring all around him. Ten percent of all men were found to be exclusively homosexual and 80 of the other 90 were found to have at least a certain lean that way. 25% of married women had had affairs. And it was at this stage that one of life’s certainties was confirmed. He worked out that the only people who told him they’d never masturbated were lying.

As, in his carefully constructed and watertight confidential interviews, he would soon turn up that everyone treats themselves now and again. As you can imagine this didn’t go down too well. The disturbing depth that he went into won no friends either. Even today one can safely assume that the information he gathered on, for just one unsettling example, the length of time it takes to achieve climax in under 12 year old boys still wouldn’t find a receptive audience. The research in that category was, for your interest, conducted by a paedophile who kept good records.

This entire process of looking under the societal rock and letting all the many-legged truths scurry out brought Kinsey into contact with many undesirable elements. It is an ethical question well beyond most peoples’ reckoning or desired contact as to whether it is better to accept data from a man interfering with children or conduct the research afresh.

Either way fifty years later we are no closer to answers about how to approach the curly questions this survey threw up on the subjects of child sexuality and sexual orientation boundary lines. Aside from changing sex-habits from the least to the most discussed taboo this issue with categorising sexuality is perhaps the most significant effect of Kinsey’s work on our outlook today. Prior to his study the idea of having to categorise oneself as gay or straight was not an issue. If the possibility of a range of preferences is not officially acknowledged then the problem of having to gather people into camps simply doesn’t arise, so to speak.

Kinsey changed all this by proposing a scale, which had ten percent of all men as purely homosexual and ten percent as purely heterosexual. All men between these points were a mix of the two leaning in degrees more towards the one than the other. The scale runs from 0-6, where zero is exclusively hetero. The Kinsey Scale has long since fallen out of common knowledge and usage though could be due for a light-hearted revival. Meterosexuals, say, could be said to sit around the 4.5 mark. In any event whereas before it was implicitly expected that men where straight or gay, and very brave they had to be to be openly gay, though that is another story, the idea that there were shades can maybe be seen as responsible for all the aftershocks of identity politics and other such sociological afflictions and arbitrary categories. One can’t pick up a magazine without amateur analysis as to whether his wearing a pink shirt and having a hairy chest makes him, this week, a reterosexual, a fauxmosexual or simply a tosser.

All this exposure to new things can have unforeseen effects. For Kinsey some of the research went well past the interview process. One of his research assistants became the lover of both Kinsey and his wife, mutually and separately. Photographic records of Kinsey’s sexual encounters with subjects were recorded. When revelations about the extent of the bent to Kinsey’s methods came out it was quickly decided that one mans deviation is not in fact another mans sexual habits survey. Making swinger home movies is always going to be making swinger movies.

Which leads to the other major problem with his work, the sample that was interviewed. Many were volunteers and those who volunteer to speak about the unspeakable in a society are quite obviously going to be freer. Some candidates well and truly occupied the sexual fringes, such as paedophiles, and they were included and found through secret networks, not random no matter how you squint.

The most glaring problem though would have to be that one in four respondents were prison inmates. If prison inmate sexual activity is being used as the measuring stick for a societies' habits the findings may get a little skewed. Skewed prison style at that.

There is a wonderful legend about Winston Churchill drawing up the new borders for the Middle East after World War One. Having indulged too heavily at dinner he was drawing a straight line when affected by a hiccup. A change that has been there ever since and has no rational explanation. The resultant bump in the line helped to separate Kuwait from Iraq, so in part brought us Gulf War One.Well Kinsey provided a similar redrawing of our collective boundaries, simply by starting to map out what was occurring behind closed doors. And like that hiccup it was an imperfect approach that still affects the very topography of sex.


At 7:13 PM, Blogger a reader said...

who takes part in surveys, and who answers them truthfully, and who believes them anyway? still it's amazing how much mileage Kinsey got out of the exercise.


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