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THE STORY OF THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO IN THE 1950S HELPED CREATE THE SEXUAL LANDSCAPE WE INHABIT TODAY
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
Though he continued to sign himself on letters “Alfred Kinsey, professor of zoology,” his days as a mere professor were behind him. His name from then on was a household word; everyone knew of him as the sex doctor. Within ten days of the book’s release the publisher had to order a sixth printing, making 185,000 copies in print, a remarkable number for so scholarly a piece of work. To the astonishment of everyone, particularly Kinsey, the book roared up the bestseller lists, a fact somewhat embarrassing to The New York Times , which at first neither accepted advertising for Kinsey’s book nor reviewed it. The early critical response was good. The first reviews saw his samples adequate, his scientific judgments modest, his tone serious. Polls taken of ordinary Americans showed that not only did they agree with his evidence but they believed such studies were helpful.
Then his critics weighed in. They furiously disagreed with almost everything: his figures on premarital sex, his figures on extramarital sex, his figures on homosexuality, and above all, his failure to condemn what he had found. Not only had he angered the traditional conservative bastions of social mores—the Protestant churches on the right, and the Catholic Church—but to his surprise he had enraged the most powerful voices in the liberal Protestant clergy as well. Henry Pitney Van Dusen, the head of Union Theological Seminary, and Reinhold Niebuhr attacked. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the head of Riverside Church and the brother of the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, complained that the advertising for the book was not sufficiently sedate. Harold Dodds, president of Princeton, said, “Perhaps the undergraduate newspaper that likened the report to the work of small boys writing dirty words on fences touched a more profound scientific truth than is revealed in the surfeit of rather trivial graphs with which the reports are loaded.” By trying to study our sexual patterns, Kinsey was accused of trying to lower our moral standards.
Kinsey was at first stunned, then angered, but never embittered. He was appalled by the failure of other scientists and doctors to come to his defense, but what surprised him most was the absence of scientific standards in most of the assaults. His critics were, he noted, merely “exposing their emotional (not their scientific) selves in their attacks.”
Kinsey well knew that his second book was even more explosive than the first.
The attacks wounded Kinsey, yet he refused to show it in public. Besides, there was a second book to finish. His biggest fear was that he might lose his key source of support, the Rockefeller Foundation. Unfortunately Henry Pitney Van Dusen was not just the head of Union Theological; he was also a member of the Rockefeller Foundation board.
At first the foundation stood firm. Alan Gregg, who was in effect Kinsey’s man at the foundation, congratulated Kinsey for handling himself so well in the face of such venomous criticism. But soon Gregg’s tone began to change. He started suggesting that Kinsey show more statistical evidence in the next volume, and before long he was warning that it might be harder than he had expected to sustain the funding.
The trouble, Kinsey learned, was the new head of the Rockefeller Foundation, Dean Rusk. Rusk had come over after serving as the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. Cautious to a fault, wary of the power of conservatives in Congress, he was not eager to take serious political risks on behalf of something that must have seemed as peripheral to him as sex research. B. Carroll Reece, a conservative Republican from Tennessee, was threatening to investigate the foundation, and one of the reasons was the Kinsey report. Kinsey sensed that Rusk was distancing himself from the institute.
The second book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female , was published in the fall of 1953. Kinsey was well aware that it was even more explosive than the first; he was, after all, discussing wives, mothers, and daughters. As a precaution Kinsey invited journalists to come to Bloomington for several days so that he could explain the data to them and thereby help them interpret it.
Like the first book, it was a sensation. Within ten days the publishers were in their sixth printing; it would eventually sell some 250,000 copies. Again the initial reception was essentially positive; some of the magazine reporting was thoughtful. Then the fire storm began. “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America,” Billy Graham pronounced. The worst thing about the report, Van Dusen said, was not Kinsey’s facts, if they were indeed trustworthy, but that they revealed “a prevailing degradation in American morality approximating the worst decadence of the Roman Empire. The most disturbing thing is the absence of spontaneous ethical revulsion from the premises of the study and the inability on the part of the readers to put their fingers on the falsity of its premises. For the presuppositions of the Kinsey Report are strictly animalistic….” Again Kinsey was disheartened: “I am still uncertain what the basic reason for the bitter attack on us may be. The attack is evidently much more intense with this publication of the Female. Their arguments become absurd when they attempt to find specific flaws in the book and basically I think they are attacking on general principles.”