Thursday, January 24, 2008

Jumping To Conclusions - Alfred C. Kinsey

I leapt to a conclusion in preparation for another post, and thought my few readers might be interested not only in the case, but my internal reasoning. It might supply a necessary corrective to other conclusions I may have leapt to.

Alfred Kinsey was controversial when his books came out in the 40’s and 50’s. The traditional explanation among the educated classes was that he had exposed what society did not want to see about itself, and the public tried to discredit him to suppress unpleasant information. That is certainly what I was taught in both sociology and psychology at college in the 70’s, and I have run across the idea since. It is a tidy narrative, of (evil) moralists versus (good) scientists, and it has provided considerable buffering for Kinsey’s work over the years. To doubt him is to doubt Science. This is certainly the image he had of himself – a scientist warring with facts against superstition and opinion. It would be possible to read his biographical information and conclude that he was hypocritically hiding behind science to elevate his own opinions and feed his own demons, but my reading is that he was sincere in one sense. If he was hiding, it was not just from the public, but from himself. He really believed he was a scientist on a mission of truth, not some Trojan Horse of a sexual advocate.

It is quite obvious reading the biographical details of his sadomasochism, bisexuality, and intrusiveness that his personal agenda was a large part of what drove him, but there is no need to make that worse than it is. He believed he was enlightening society, not deceiving it, and personal agendas can drive us to serve either good causes or bad.

Kinsey settled into legendary status in sexual research, his data accepted fairly uncritically in the social sciences. In a mirror image of the moralists they were rejecting, social scientists liked the picture that Kinsey painted and defended it.

In the early 80’s a researcher interested in sexual abuse saw what had been right out in the open all those years but seemingly unnoticed: all this data on the sexuality of children, including measurements of how many orgasms five-year-olds could have in an hour – how had that data been collected? I remember reading childhood sexuality information in at least two college course, and in professional books of a more Freudian or intrapersonal dynamics bent – the calm assurance that even infants manifested sexual behavior – it never once occurred to me how that information had been obtained. Even years later, reading about how sex offenders reinterpret children’s behavior in a sexual way, seeing squirming and anxiety as signs of sexual excitement, I didn’t quite make the connection to Kinsey’s data.

The childhood sexual data is sometimes referred to as Chapter 12, or Tables 30-34, or Judith Reisman’s title “The Children of Table 34.” Some of it comes from adult retrospectives during sexual interviews. Some of it comes from the reports of pedophiles, two of whom have been identified, and their observation of hundreds of victims. Some may even have come from experiments done at the Kinsey Institute itself. The Institute denies this, though it acknowledges that the pedophiles’ information is part of the data. As the records were encoded, the raw data generally unavailable, and all of the researchers long gone, the debate is not likely to rise above the level of accusation/denial. Neither side can prove its point, and even evidence pointing one way or another is sparse. Cottage industries have sprung up on both sides, the anti-Kinseyans claiming “knowing now what Kinsey did hide, why shouldn’t we believe the scattered reports suggesting he hid other things?” and the Kinsey supporters attacking the accuser’s motives.

Applying an Assistant Village Idiot’s rule, we don’t need to go into the debatable parts of the discussion – we have plenty without it. We only need know that child molesters were encouraged to send in their data (which they would take as tacit permission from a Scientist to continue), and Kinsey’s description of the orgasms of little boys, as noted in the previous post , to make our judgment.

Children were abused to obtain this data.

One of Kinsey’s biographers, who expresses considerable approval of him, is also the author of a book on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. James H. Jones seems not to have made the connection. If it is a horrible thing to do deadly medical experiments on African-Americans in the interest of science, then it is horrible to sexually abuse little boys for the same purpose. One of the reasons the Left in the 70’s was paranoid about the CIA is because of the drug experiments done by that agency in Project MKULTRA. That Nazi doctors did pain experiments on concentration camp victims was proof of their evil. Fine, then. Why not Kinsey?

Answer: In social science research, the observer must adopt a non-judgmental stance in order not to bias the results. This is entirely proper, but it means that the social science fields attract those for whom this is a personality trait, not a stance. Therapists take a similar approach of non-judgment in order to create a bridge of understanding and to help. This has quite easily turned into a rejection of all judgments. Those who have this personality trait (interesting research here), finding an advantage in this field, turn the trait into a virtue. This is doubly and trebly so for sex researchers. I left off going to their conferences because so many prominent researchers and speakers believed that sexual expression was entirely cultural and relative, including sex with children. If society didn’t make such a big deal out of it, the child would not be harmed. Kinsey believed this and taught this to his staff. This attitude of nonjudgment became part of his crusade – that not only researchers, but all people should abandon these restrictions on sexual expression.

The new criticism of Professor Kinsey revived all the earlier criticisms of his methodology. 20-25% of his male interviewees were prison inmates, and he especially sought out sexual offenders. He included no African-Americans in any of his studies. His subjects turn out to be very disproportionately single, from eastern America, university-educated, and under 60. Thus it is hardly surprising to learn that his tables show an inflated amount of sexual experimentation. He arrived at a figure of 10% for homosexuality, which was accepted for decades as fact. (More recent studies show 1-4%, depending on definition).

But this is where I leapt to an unwarranted conclusion. I thus assumed that all Kinsey’s data must be bogus. It was an attractive simplification for me: In 1948, America underestimated how usual the sexually unusual was; Kinsey overestimated it. So let’s just assume that something in the middle is true.

Not so. Some of his data are quite good. The methods he developed to compensate for lack of randomness in his samples were creative, and offset some of that difficulty. He kept thorough records, some of which can be reused to ask different questions today. He did measure some things accurately, as later studies have replicated.

Kinsey was on his way to becoming something of a Darwin or Mendel in reputation before the 2004 movie came out – a cherished founder whose actual work was no longer consulted much.* But Hollywood, late to the scientific party but right in touch with defending imperiled progressive values, reactivated the entire No!-He-was-a-scientist! (All opponents are fundamentalist moralizers with unconscious sexual pathology, too!) routine, and I imagine the myth will perpetuate for at least another decade now.

*Except in regards to childhood sexuality. As no one would dare do such experiments anymore, his conclusions are still accepted by many as accurate. Despite knowing that the "scientific" reports are mostly the subjective evaluations of the men raping them, there seems this need to believe.

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