Thirty-two years ago this month, a pioneer in human behavior came to Los Angeles to deliver a plea against ignorance, fear and superstition. Throughout the country he was being reviled for his work; he was called a "Commie," a pervert, a pornographer. The urge to enforce morality is still with us, and I suspect that Dr. Alfred J. Kinsey would be unwelcome in some parish halls in Los Angeles today.
Kinsey began his career as a professor of zoology, making his mark with a study of gall wasps. The study found that each insect was different in some slight way. This discovery of differences within a single species would become the hallmark of his later studies of human beings. It would also be his undoing. Americans of the late 1940s and early 1950s were shocked by his assertion that it was not uncommon for ordinary men and women to express their sexuality in "aberrant" practices. Soon there were accusations that Kinsey was advocating homosexuality and other "perversions." His project lost its funding, and he died disillusioned and embittered.
Kinsey was a professor of zoology at the University of Indiana when he was asked to take on a new course titled "Marriage and Its Problems." Since this material was well outside Kinsey's area of expertise, he began to do research to prepare the curriculum.
He found that while there was very little scientific material available on the subject, there was a wealth of moral and religious studies. He found, he said later, "morals masquerading in the name of science."
To prepare the curriculum, Kinsey, who was married and the father of seven, began to do original research by interviewing the students who signed up for the course. He quickly found that in the lives of these real people he was getting data that were at great variance with what was then accepted as scientific fact.
Fifteen years of study later, in 1948, Kinsey published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male." Within two months, 100,000 copies of the expensive hard-cover volume were sold, and it quickly went through 10 printings in its first year.
The study was based on data supplied by 13,000 men. They talked about subjects such as masturbation, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, sado-masochism and bestiality--subjects that were then avoided in both polite conversation and scientific inquiry.
The differences that Kinsey found in sexual behavior were unexpected to many and shocking to some. Half the men in his study had had at least one homosexual experience. And, where previous studies had placed the number of homosexuals at less than 1% of the population, Kinsey classified about 13% of the population as predominantly homosexual.
Most significant of all, Kinsey reported that there was no basis for constructing opposing categories of people; rather, there were simply different categories of behavior, and people could move from one category to another and back again. He said, "The heterosexuality or the homosexuality of many individuals is not an all-or-none proposition. Males do not represent two discrete populations: homosexual and heterosexual." Kinsey concluded that homosexuality, just like any other category of sexual behavior, whether it was socially approved or not, was neither an aberration nor a pathology, but rather a capacity inherent in each human being.
Kinsey published his second report, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," in 1953. Anticipating a new wave of censure, he wrote in the preface: "There is no ocean of greater magnitude than the sexual function. And there are those who believe that we would do better if we ignored its existence; that we should not try to understand its material origins; and that if we sufficiently ignore it, and block a flood of sexual activity with new laws and heavier penalties and more pronouncements and greater intolerance, we may ultimately eliminate the reality."
The second study was based on data supplied by 8,000 women. Again it showed greater incidences of so-called aberrant sexual behavior than were accepted in society. As to homosexuality, it found that 11% of the women could be classified as predominantly lesbian in behavior.
In the ensuing outcry, Kinsey was denounced from church pulpits and in the halls of Congress, and in 1954 the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew his funding.
Kinsey was devastated. He had planned further volumes, 100,000 interviews. How would he complete his project? He spent the next two years searching for funds, and was turned away at every door. His spirit broken, Kinsey returned to the university and died there in 1956 at age 62.
Kinsey had held to the noble ideal that education brings understanding, and understanding brings tolerance. He wrote in a personal letter to a homosexual reader of his study, "It is desperately strategic that our civilization realize something of the diversity in human sexual behavior, and acquire some sympathetic understanding of that which is different from one's own."
Kinsey's work held men and women up to public view in all their diversity and richness. He showed us that the norm was variation, that each of us is different and unique, that there is no normal or abnormal. He brought sex out of the shadows and the gutters, and presented it as a normal function for procreation, recreation and, most of all, human love.
This is the enduring, and still necessary, meaning that Kinsey's work offers to today's world: that each of us needs and wants to love and be loved. How we fulfill that basic, universal human need ought not to be limited by what a church hierarchy or government office, or even an electoral majority, might say is the good and only way to love.