Discovering Sex

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When the decade of the fifties began, sex was still something of an illicit subject in America. Nor had there been any serious modernization of the technology of birth control in more than forty years. Never mind that an event as transcending as World War II had profoundly changed people’s attitudes on many subjects, including a far greater candor about things sexual among younger adults; these changes were nowhere noticeable in American mass culture. But in the decade ahead ordinary Americans were about to become infinitely more open and sophisticated about their sexual habits and practices. Even as the 1950s progressed, a team of brilliant scientists was speeding forward on its way to discover a simple birth-control device that its developers hoped could be taken orally each day—a kind of pill to control pregnancy. At the same time, by the middle of the decade there were the first signs of new social and political attitudes among American women that would surface in the next decade as the women’s movement. In short, a revolution was beginning.

“God, what a gap!”

Alfred Kinsey was both fascinated and troubled by the vast difference between American sexual behavior the society wanted to believe existed and American sexual practices as they actually did exist. For example, at least 80 percent of successful businessmen, his interviews showed, had had extramarital affairs. “God,” he noted, “what a gap between social front and reality!” And he spent the latter part of his career tearing away the facade that Americans used to hide their sexual selves.

Mrs. Kinsey said, “I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex.”

Kinsey was no bohemian. He lived in the Midwest, he married the first woman he ever dated, and he stayed married to her for his entire life. Because he was an entomologist and loved to collect bugs, he and his bride went camping on their honeymoon. In his classes at the University of Indiana he always sported a bow tie and a crew cut. He drove the same old Buick for most of his lifetime and was immensely proud of the fact that he had more than a hundred thousand miles on it. On Sundays he and his wife invited faculty and graduate-student friends to their home to listen to records of classical music. They took these evenings very seriously; Kinsey was immensely proud of his record collection. When the wife of one faculty member suggested that they play some boogie-woogie, the couple was never invited back.

Kinsey’s house was the only thing he had not paid hard cash for. He bought it with a small down payment and took on a mortgage of thirty-five hundred dollars. He was extremely careful about money and almost everything else. He once told a colleague, Wardell Pomeroy, to drive back from New York at thirty-five miles per hour with some large models showing the reproductive process: “Anything faster than that is not safe for such a heavy load.” The mother superior, Pomeroy called him.

Kinsey did not smoke, and he rarely drank. Relatively late in his career he decided to smoke since it would make him more like the men he was interviewing and help put them at their ease. Try as he might, he never quite got it right, and his assistants finally suggested that the prop was hurting rather than helping. With drinking it was the same. After his death Pomeroy wrote, “To see him bringing in a tray of sweet liqueurs before dinner was a wry and happy reminder that Alfred Charles Kinsey, the genius, the world figure, was a simple and unsophisticated man in the true sense of the word.”

His greatest passion was his work. He approached it with an intensity that was rooted in the Calvinist zeal of his forefathers. He generally worked every day of the year except Christmas Day. He had always been, his biographer Pomeroy shrewdly noted, a collector . As a boy he collected stamps, but it was the only collection he ever made that was not designed to be useful. Sickly as a child from rheumatic fever, he had not been able to play; instead he became a student of nature. He wrote his first book in his teens, a small monograph entitled “What Do Birds Do When It Rains?” By the time he was in college at Bowdoin, he had come to love collecting plants and animals.

As a graduate student at Harvard he won a fellowship that allowed him to travel around the country. “No other occupation in the world could give me the pleasure that this job of bug-hunting is giving,” he wrote, and he never failed to see the beauty in plants and in animals. Earle March, a San Francisco gynecologist, once spoke of Kinsey’s rare ability to “look through the ugliness to something lovely beyond.” March added, “I often thought about him as an athlete of the spirit.” During the early forties he published Edible Wild Plants of North America , which was voted the most important book of the year by the trustees of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

He seemed by this time to be the least likely candidate to become one of the most controversial figures of his generation. He was a highly respected professor of zoology in a good department at Indiana University. Esteemed by his colleagues for his collection of gall wasps, he was also popular with his students, a kind and humane teacher who was generous with his time.