Kinsey biography: enjoying his work

November 16, 1997|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,SPECIAL TO THE sUN

"Alfred c. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life," by James H. Jones. Norton. 937 pages. $39.95.

The birthplace of the sexual revolution is not New York or Paris, but a small college town in the middle of Indiana. Almost half a century ago a professor at the state university in Bloomington scandalized the world by publishing the first of his Kinsey Reports on sexual behavior.

His research collection of detailed sexual histories gathered from thousands of men and women revealed, among other things, that masturbation was universal, extramarital affairs were common, and homosexuality was widespread. In an age when the facts of sex were buried under thick layers of ignorance and fear when even the word "pregnant" was avoided in polite conversation, Dr. Alfred Kinsey opened up the secret world of human desire and exposed its diversity.

He was a courageous man who was prepared to risk his career for the truth. After the 1948 publication of Kinsey's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" and the female study five years later, he was widely attacked by traditional moralists.

Billy Graham warned, "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America." Critics in his home state demanded his resignation from the university faculty; and conservative congressmen waged a nasty campaign against his national patronage from the Rockefeller Foundation, eventually forcing it to withdraw support for the professor's research. Overworked and frustrated by his many enemies, he died of heart failure in 1956, at age 62.

But no one could put an end to the revolution he started. His work made a deep impression on an entire generation and helped to free many people from a lifetime of guilt. "You saved my life," one tormented man wrote to him. "I thought masturbation was a sin and was going to kill me."

Kinsey also prepared the way for the more tolerant sexual attitudes of later generations. An early reviewer of the male study was a young journalism student at the University of Illinois who gave the book high praise in the campus magazine. A few years later that young reviewer went on to start his own magazine, citing Kinsey's work as a guiding force in his life. His name was Hugh Hefner.

James H. Jones' book is the first substantial biography of Kinsey, and though it has its faults, it is an impressive work. Jones has spent 25 years uncovering information on his subject and has created a vivid portrait of the sex researcher's private life.

It was not a dull existence devoted to dry facts and figures. He was consumed by his fascination with sex in all its variety and when he wasn't writing about it or researching it or thinking about it, he was doing it with men as well as women. In groups and alone.

It would be surprising if the man who amassed the largest collection of pornography in the world - thousands of books, films, drawings, photographs, all of which are now housed at the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research - would have done so for purely scientific reasons.

He loved his work, and the ultimate irony of his life is that he - the man who spoke so freely about other people's sex lives - could not be frank about his own.

Thanks to James H. Jones, we now have a study of the man that shares the courageous spirit of openness and honesty that distinguishes the original Kinsey Reports.

Michael Shelden has written biographies of George Orwell and Graham Greene. He is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph of London and is a professor at Indiana State University.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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