"Even now, a half-century -- and a sexual revolution -- later, a critically acclaimed, 2004 film Kinsey about his life languishes unmarketed and selectively exhibited because of a highly organized attack by Christian fundamentalists."
—Shirley Goldberg, 2005.
(Swans - September 9, 2013) As far as sexologists are concerned, Alfred Kinsey -- the father of the "sexual revolution" -- is about as famous, and as controversial, as they come. James Jones, who is the author of the behemoth biographical study, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), is more familiar with this history than most, having spent some twenty-seven years undertaking research that was drawn together in this weighty tome. But while his explosive expositions on human sexuality have meant that he always courted both public adoration and anger, Kinsey had always "carefully cultivated the image of a simple empiricist, a compiler of data who reported the facts with scientific disinterest." This deception, however, was vitally important to Kinsey, as his sexological success was dependent upon the wealth and prestige of the Rockefeller Foundation, who in turn liked to profess (albeit misleadingly) to only support objective science detached from political agendas. Of course neither was true for either the Rockefeller Foundation, nor for Kinsey, who unbeknown to his philanthropic benefactors "approached his work with missionary fervor" as a "crypto-reformer" dedicated to spending "his every waking hour attempting to change the sexual mores and sex offender laws of the United States." Thus contrary to his public image as a normal married man, Kinsey was in fact both a homosexual and a masochist, whose "messianic crusade" was in many ways an attempt "to reform the world that oppressed him." (1) Nevertheless Kinsey's work evidently pleased his funders.
Kinsey, however, was no political radical, and certainly at the start of his scientific career his political interests were closely related to the primary interests of the Rockefeller Foundation, as he had been an active supporter of both eugenics and immigration restriction. As Jones points out:
During the 1920s, he supported a new immigration policy for the United States. Along with many white, old-stock Americans, he wanted to limit immigration from eastern and southern Europe because he feared the "new immigrants" would damage the American gene pool. The spigot had to be closed, Kinsey explained, because "the melting pot cannot blend diverse materials that pour in too rapidly." Consequently he endorsed the bills passed by Congress in 1921 and 1924 to establish a quota system. (p.194)
Kinsey was also the author of a several popular academic textbooks -- with his first effort, An Introduction to Biology (1926) eventually going on to sell nearly half a million copies. Within this book Kinsey took the opportunity to eulogize on positive eugenics, but by his third book, Methods in Biology (1937), he had upgraded his genetic concerns to include negative eugenics: "writing approvingly of the need to discourage what he called 'hereditary defectives' from having children, through either 'complete isolation' or 'sterilization.'" And while politically-speaking Kinsey liked to think of himself as an independent, "he usually voted Republican; and more often than not, he sided with conservatives on the major issues of the day." (2)
Based at Indiana University throughout his career, Kinsey had a Ph.D. in zoology from Harvard and was an entomologist by training; but it was only in 1938, after the retirement of his university's sexually-conservative president, that he first "sensed an opportunity to use sex education to advance his private war against traditional morality." Kinsey thus "volunteered to develop a new class on marriage and the family" and in June 1938 he gave his first lecture on what was soon to become an immensely popular course. It was while teaching about "marriage" in the fall term of 1938, that Kinsey first made the acquaintance of visiting lecturer Raymond Pearl, a distinguished biologist and pioneering biostatistician from the Johns Hopkins University. Luckily for Kinsey, Pearl was already making a splash amongst sex researchers owing to the publication of his book The Biology of Population Growth (1926), and after giving a lecture for Kinsey's students Pearl "encouraged [Kinsey] to become a sex researcher." (3) On this front Kinsey didn't need much encouragement, but either way, from then on his sex studies went from strength to strength.
Kinsey's specialty, with regards his sex research, was his lengthy, in-depth interviews that served to probe every aspect of his interviewees' sexual histories. His collation of interviews was in fact going so well that by the end of end of 1938 he had already collected seventy-eight of them. During this period Kinsey kept up his day job as a tenured professor, financing his extra-curricular sex studies through the financial independence he gained though the sales of his biology textbooks. However, he persisted in his exhaustive efforts and by 1940 he had collected some 1,700 individual sex histories. It was at this point that he starting looking for external funding so that he could expand his ballooning research project.
Luckily for Kinsey, in March 1940 he discussed his pioneering research with a visiting researcher named Edgar Allen, who happened to be an influential member of the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex (CRPS) -- a committee that was "far and away the most important source of funding for sex research in the United States from the 1920s through the early 1960s." Allen was impressed with Kinsey's work, and encouraged him to make a formal funding application to the CRPS, which of course Kinsey did. Here it is important to point out that the CRPS was a standing committee of the Rockefeller front-group the National Research Council (NRC), and from its founding in 1922 (until 1947) was chaired by "one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century," Robert Mearns Yerkes. (4) Kinsey's research as just what Yerkes was looking for, and...
... Kinsey's request for funds offered Yerkes an opportunity to marry the human studies sought by the Rockefeller Foundation with the behavioral focus favored by the CRPS in the 1930s. Kinsey promised nothing less than the most extensive and intensive fact-finding survey ever attempted by science, and he touted his record in taxonomy to show that he could handle a job of this magnitude. (p.424)
Initially the CRPS approved a grant of $1,600 for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1941, and the following year Kinsey submitted a new budget request of $7,500, which was approved in April 1942. Yerkes was clearly impressed by his new find, but before he could authorize more substantial grants Yerkes insisted upon visiting Kinsey with two colleagues to check out the integrity of his research, Yerkes's two fellow inquisitors being CRPS board member and later CRPS chair, George W. Corner of the Carnegie Institution, and Lowell Reed, the dean of the School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University. In an effort to win them over to his case-study approach, Kinsey persuaded all three of his interrogators to give him their sex histories "so that they could evaluate his ability to secure accurate data." But more was at stake than just impressing his benefactors, and "Kinsey understood that the interview itself was a transforming event that would forever alter their relationship to his research." For after the interviews "he would possess their secrets, but they would not know his." (5) Kinsey had hit gold, as Jones notes.
In May 1943, the NRC announced a $23,000 grant in support of Kinsey's research. This grant, which represented nearly half of the CRPS's annual budget from the Rockefeller Foundation, was only the beginning. Over the next decade, the NRC would give Kinsey hundreds of thousands of dollars, rapidly increasing his awards to $40,000 annually. Compared with the grants in biochemistry and molecular biology being handed out by the Rockefeller Foundation's natural sciences division to investigators at places like the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University, the awards to Kinsey were relatively modest. But in the field of sex research, which was a small, underdeveloped area of science, they were huge. (p.438)
Kinsey prided himself on his ability to obtain case histories from people from all walks of life, which meant that he collected many interviews with "drug addicts, alcoholics, male prostitutes (both homosexual and heterosexual), female prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, and the like." This broad focus concerned Yerkes, and in August 1943 "he advised Kinsey to limit himself to presumably 'normal' male and female whites between the ages of twelve and seventy who belonged to what Yerkes called 'our U.S.A. culture and education.'" However, as Jones points out, Kinsey "had no intention of becoming an agent of social control" as he "was determined to document (and celebrate) human sexual diversity" irrespective of the views of his funders. (6)
It was during this time that Kinsey began really testing his relationship with Yerkes and the National Research Council by publicly referring to the Rockefeller Foundation as his direct patron. This was a controversial move, as the whole point of having front-groups like the NRC and the CRPS was to ensure that the Rockefeller Foundation could "remain safely in the shadows." Kinsey's subsequent reluctance to stop engaging in such personally-advantageous promotional behavior irritated Yerkes, but the final decision on this matter rested with Alan Gregg, the director of the Rockefeller Foundation's Division of Medical Science. Gregg apparently was less worried with Kinsey's abuse of his indirect relationship with the foundation, and on September 8, 1944, Gregg wrote a letter to Kinsey saying: "I have no objection whatever to your saying that the grant comes from the National Research Council and that the Committee is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation"; or "to your saying that the Foundation officer involved approves of what you are doing." (7)
Highlighting his carefree and highly supportive attitude towards Kinsey, in January 1945, Gregg proposed that Kinsey be offered a $120,000 three-year grant, indicating that its award should not in any way interfere with the CRPS's other work. This meant that the relationship between Kinsey and the Rockefeller Foundation would be "altered fundamentally," as the grant would need "to be approved by the foundation's board of trustees, and its decision would place the foundation on record regarding Kinsey's work." A few months later the grant was approved by the foundation's trustees, and two years thereafter Kinsey officially incorporated his research facility as the Institute for Sex Research. The following year Gregg then gracefully penned the preface for Kinsey's first major publication, the bestselling Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), a book that proved a phenomenal success with the public, selling more than 200,000 hardback copies within the first two months of its publication. (8)
Needless to say, with such a controversial book on their hands, with a preface written by Gregg, there was more than a little dissent within the Rockefeller offices as to the extent to which the Foundation should have lent their imprimatur to Kinsey's research. But that said, it seems odd to suggest, as Jones does, that Kinsey had somehow manipulated Gregg and the Rockefeller Foundation against their best interests. For instance, with respect to the monumental $120,000 grant, Jones writes: "Despite Gregg's and Yerkes's efforts to the contrary, [Kinsey] had succeeded in drawing the Rockefeller Foundation deeper and deeper into his research." (9) From reading Jones's account of the Rockefeller-Kinsey relationship, it would be easy to believe that it was Kinsey (the grantee) who had all the power.
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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work. (back)
1. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey, p.xii, p.4. With regard to his funding, Jones writes: "In 1982, I was awarded a summer grant from the Rockefeller Archives Center to examine a variety of materials pertaining to the Rockefeller Foundation's relationship with Kinsey's research. In 1984-85, I expanded my research on these and other topics under a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1988-89, I held a Senior Fellowship in residence from the Rockefeller Foundation at the Institute for Medical Humanities, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston." (p.xvii)
Given the key role that the Rockefeller Foundation played in supporting Kinsey, and his own role in challenging conservative sexual ideologies, his work is regularly challenged in a highly deceptive way by conservative authors; for criticisms of this literature see Poppy Dixon's 1996 article "Alfred Kinsey, and Judith Reisman's Dirty Little Mind"; and the Kinsey Institute's "Response to Judith Reisman." This article, however, will be drawing upon feminist critiques of Kinsey's research. (back)
2. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey, p.191, p.195. On the issue of negative eugenics, in April 1935, Kinsey gave a lecture that called "for a program of sterilization that was at once sweeping and terrifying. 'The reduction of the birth-rate of the lowest classes must depend upon the sterilization of perhaps a tenth of our population,' he wrote. 'The national that dares institute sterilization on this scale will be followed by its neighbors,' he declared. 'They cannot ignore the quality of their enemies.'" (p.809)
The story of how Kinsey recruited his first full-time researcher for his sex research tells us much about Kinsey's dubious personal politics. The individual in question was Clyde Martin. He had joined Indiana University as a freshman in the fall of 1937, but by the following year Martin's financial problems, which were compounded by feelings of loneliness, meant that he was considering dropping out of university. "Questions of a sexual nature intensified his angst," therefore, "like so many of his schoolmates" he paid a visit to Kinsey and Martin gave him his sex history. Feeling drawn to Martin, Kinsey then offered him a part-time job working alongside him in his garden, and by the following year he invited him to assist him with his sex research. However, given that he "already knew Martin's sexual preferences" Kinsey then proceeded to exploit the situation. As Jones observes: "Kinsey worked hard at seducing this insecure, anxious, and financially strapped young man, and Martin became the third and final love of Kinsey's life." (p.391, p.392, p.393) (back)
4. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey, p.349, p.418, p.419. Yerkes served as the chair for two National Research Council committees: the Committee for Research on Problems of Sex (from 1922 to 1947), and the Committee on Scientific Aspects of Human Migration (from 1922 to 1924). Until 1933, the CRPS received its entire budget, over $670,000, from the Rockefeller-funded Bureau of Social Hygiene. Katherine Bement Davis served as the executive secretary of Bureau of Social Hygiene from 1918 until 1928, and was the author of the pioneering study Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-two Hundred Women (Harper & Brothers, 1929).
For more on the history of the CRPS, see Sophie Aberle and George Corner, Twenty-five Years of Sex Research: A History of the National Research Council Committee for Research on Problems of Sex, 1922-1947 (W.B. Saunders, 1953); Vern Bullough, Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research (Basic Books, 1994); and James Reed, Sex Research in America: From Social Hygiene to Liberation Science (In Preparation). (back)
8. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey, p.452, p.454. Apparently Gregg was at first reluctant to write the preface, but either way he did eventually do it; presumably (as Jones implies) because Kinsey was able to manipulate him against his best intentions. Indeed, Jones writes: "Despite everything Gregg had argued in the past, then, Kinsey got what he wanted." (p.554, p.555) (back)