Saturday, October 6, 2012

Attacking a Straw Kinsey

The book I was reading yesterday continues to frustrate and annoy me.  The author repeats his erroneous characterization of Kinsey's research -- "Kinsey's traditional behavioral scale for measuring sexual orientation" -- though I concede that this time he may be referring to later researchers' tendency to use the Kinsey continuum to measure sexual orientation, a use which Kinsey didn't intend in the first place and for which it doesn't really work.  But I don't think he understands this, because he clearly hasn't read Kinsey recently enough to have any idea what he wrote, or else has thoroughly misunderstood what Kinsey wrote.

The author spends some time explaining the limits of "a strictly behavioral approach to sexual orientation," and he's more or less right about them.  But then, Kinsey didn't purport to be studying "sexual orientation."  I stress that because so many writers on human sexuality falsely claim that he did.  Kinsey was studying sexual behavior, as the titles of his two big books make explicit.  Even that limited task was probably impossible, because most of his data came from interviews which sought to reconstruct people's sexual histories.  People who've had only one or a handful of sexual partners can probably remember all of them, though if they're over the age of about thirty, they probably can't remember accurately everything they ever did.  And that's assuming that the informant hasn't done anything he or she feels shouldn't have been done, and has either managed to forget it or chooses not to remember it for the interviewer.  It was Masters and Johnson who did some in-depth research into human sexual behavior in a laboratory setting, which more or less eliminated memory malfunctions for the behavior they observed, but couldn't reconstruct the subjects' histories.  Richard Lewontin's critique of another large-scale survey of human sexual behavior (only partially available online, alas, but you can see an exchange between Lewontin and the survey's principal author here) showed that people either can't or won't (or both) remember their sexual histories accurately, let alone report them accurately.

There are other factors, of course.  In an essay called "Aversion / Perversion / Diversion" Samuel Delany tells about a young man he met in a New York porn theater where men would go to have sex with other men.
As we began to touch each other, he leaned toward me to whisper, in a light, working-class accent, "You know, I've never done anything like this before.  All the other sex I've ever had has been with women.  But somebody told me about this place, so I thought ..."*
But Delany met the same young man at least twice more in the same theater over the next few months, and even though the youth greeted him with recognition, each time they began to touch each other, he would repeat the same formula.  Delany comments, "What troubles me in the memory of these encounters is, of course, how much of myself I can see in this fellow.  His litany, like some glorious stutter, recalls Freud's dictum: repetition is desire" (121).  What, I wonder, would the young man have told a researcher who was taking his sexual history?

It was a common criticism of Kinsey in his day that he didn't pay attention to the emotional side of sex.  Usually this complaint came either from religious figures, who weren't all that wild about the behavioral side of sex anyhow, or from psychoanalysts and psychiatrists whose claim to a more scientific account of sex was open to serious question.  The psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper which purported to show that Kinsey's sample was skewed because it was made up of people who were willing to talk about their sex lives, which apparently proved them to be perverts.  I'll have to track down Maslow's paper, because I'd like to know how he or anyone else could claim to know anything about the sexual practices of the people who wouldn't talk about their sex lives.  From what I've seen, people who deploy this argument are usually quite sure they know what people really do, but they can never explain how they know.  The answer I usually get is along the lines of Nice people don't do things like that, because people who do things like that aren't Nice.  I wouldn't take for granted that people who don't want to talk about their sexual histories have necessarily had fewer partners or a narrower range of practices; it could be the opposite, that they have more to hide.  But again, who knows?

Kinsey focused on behavior, not because he was under any illusion that behavior was the whole story, but because it was what could (however inadequately) be measured and counted.  And that was important, because the real fury over his work came from its indication that far greater numbers of people did what they weren't supposed to be doing than the critics wanted to believe.  This was true not only of homosexuality but of premarital and extramarital intercourse, especially among women: Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1953, was widely seen as an insult to the virtue of the American Woman, and there's general agreement that Kinsey lost the crucial support of the Rockefeller Foundation because of that controversy.

But the author I'm quoting is unaware of all this.  I mentioned in the previous post a remark by Kinsey about younger men whose overt experience is exclusively homosexual (because, for whatever reason, it was more available to them) although they know they are primarily interested in women.  A reading of what Kinsey wrote would have shown him that Kinsey was aware of these problems.  But there's no way short of a direct memory tap (which, luckily, is beyond reach of our technology for the foreseeable future) to know what people have actually done, or what their true "deep-seated" desires really are.  Researchers who've attempted to study what Kinsey didn't have come up against the same barriers: people don't remember accurately, they can't reconstruct their emotional history in any detail, and there's no way for the interviewer to tell whether they're telling the truth.  As Richard Lewontin wrote about this problem,
Even though the world is material and all its phenomena, including human consciousness, are products of material forces, we should not confuse the way the world is with our ability to know about it. Like it or not, there are a lot of questions that cannot be answered, and even more that cannot be answered exactly. There is nothing shameful in that admission.
Unfortunately, too many researchers are unaware of this, or prefer to ignore it because they believe there is something shameful in that admission.  They dismiss Kinsey -- or rather, their fantasy version of Kinsey -- and blunder ahead without learning from his achievements or from his failures.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, considering how much of science is trial and error.  What is bad is when their (willed?) ignorance leads to the publication of misinformation about their work and its predecessors.  For myself, I'm willing to simply throw out Kinsey's research, but only with the understanding that no one after him has produced any more reliable knowledge about human sexual behavior.

*As reprinted in Delany, Longer Views: Extended Essays (Wesleyan University Press, 1996), pp. 120-1.