Thursday, October 4, 2012


The book I'm reading today contains the following sentence:
Kinsey described people’s sexual orientation on a point scale from zero to six, again mostly based on their behavior (what they did and with whom).
It doesn't matter which book it was, because the substance of the sentence turns up in so many others, as well as in daily talk about human sexuality.  What does matter is that it's incorrect. The author is an academic psychologist, so he's passing along this misinformation to his students, as well as to readers of his book.  Reading it today was the straw that broke the camel's back, as it were.  Since I was in the public library at the time, I went to the stacks and found Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin, published in 1948 by W. B. Saunders in Philadelphia, and turned to the chapter on homosexual outlet.

As I've said before, Kinsey did not "describe ... sexual orientation."  The term doesn't appear in the book, in fact, though on page 641 he mentions "younger males" who "may even have all of their overt experience in the homosexual" because they "have not ventured to have actual intercourse with girls, while their orientation is definitely heterosexual."  This is the only time the word "orientation" appears in the entire book, and in context it's clear that he's using it to mean something like "predominant interest," not a fixed biological or psychological mechanism as the term is commonly used nowadays.

In fact, Kinsey repudiated any such notion.  In 1941 he had published a couple of papers demolishing hormonal theories of homosexuality, and he repeated throughout the chapter on homosexual outlet that he rejected the concept of homosexuals (or heterosexuals) as discrete kinds of persons.  The space he devoted to developing and explaining sexual experience as a continuum was one way he tried to undermine that concept.  (Despite this, he referred in the text to homosexual persons, though in context he clearly meant the term as shorthand for "persons with significant amounts of same-sex erotic experience.")

This can also be seen in his discussion of bisexuality.
As previously pointed out, it is rather unfortunate that the word bisexual should have been chosen to describe this intermediate group. The term is used as a substantive, designating individuals – persons; and the root meaning of the word and the way in which it is usually used imply that these persons have both masculine qualities and feminine qualities within their single bodies. We have objected to the use of the terms heterosexual and homosexual when used as nouns which stand for individuals. It is similarly untenable to imply that these “bisexual” persons have an anatomy or an endocrine system or other sorts of physiologic or psychologic capacities which make them partly male and partly female, or of the two sexes simultaneously [656-7].

… It [“bisexual”] should, however, be used with the understanding that it is patterned on the words heterosexual and homosexual, and, like them, refers to the sex of the partner, and proves nothing about the constitution of the person who is labeled bisexual [657].
He concluded,
The very general occurrence of the homosexual in ancient Greece ... and its wide occurrence today in some cultures in which such activity is not as taboo as it is in our own, suggests that the capacity of an individual to respond erotically to any sort of stimulus, whether it is provided by another person of the same or of the opposite sex, is basic in the species. That patterns of heterosexuality and patterns of homosexuality represent learned behavior which depends, to a considerable degree upon the mores of the particular culture in which the individual is raised, is a possibility that must be thoroughly considered before there can be any acceptance of the idea that homosexuality is inherited, and that the pattern for each individual is so innately fixed that no modification of it may be expected within his lifetime [660].
In rereading the previous paragraph I noticed something odd.  We don't really know much, if anything, about the incidence of homosexual desire or behavior in any culture, including ancient Greece.  What we do know is that sex between males was less taboo there, though it was also regulated and restricted in various ways.  We know this because of the documentation of such relationships in "mainstream" Greek literature and discourse from that period.  But no one ever did a systematic survey like Kinsey's to find out how many Greek men actually had sex with other males.  And despite the very strong prohibition and stigmatization of sex between males in early twentieth-century America, Kinsey found that its occurrence was very wide indeed.  It could be that even in those supposedly more tolerant societies, the actual occurrence of sex between males might be no greater than it is here and now.  We have no way of knowing.

Kinsey's strictures on biological explanations of homosexuality have not been confronted by later researchers.  Indeed, most researchers today have tried to ignore what he said and wrote, often by misinterpreting, or misrepresenting, or simply misunderstanding it. His criticism of hormonal theories was simply ignored, and the same inadequate concept of "the homosexual" is standard in research today.

Of course, it's quite possible that Kinsey was wrong.  But he hasn't been shown to be wrong.  There was a graduate student with whom I had some conflicts when I first began running the GLB Speakers Bureau at IU, who told me in one of his more conciliatory moods that sex research had "moved beyond Kinsey."  I told him that it looked to me as if it hadn't yet caught up with Kinsey.  It should be remembered that Paul Gebhard, one of Kinsey's original team and later head of the Institute for Sex Research, tried to discredit Kinsey's numbers for the incidence of homosexual behaviors.  To that end Gebhard removed all histories of prisoners and others who might have "contaminated" the sample and tabulated the results all over again -- but he found that the percentages dropped only a tiny amount: from 37% to 36.4% for males who'd had at least one sexual experience to orgasm with another male, for example.  Despite this, people who should know better continue to accuse Kinsey of overcounting homosexual experience because he included prisoners in his sample.

Another graduate student, a decade or so later, conceded that the Kinsey scale wasn't intended to refer to or measure "sexual orientation," but declared that sex researchers use it for that purpose today.  She didn't, however, explain how those researchers measure "sexual orientation."  There isn't, to my knowledge, any way to do it.  Today's researchers either allow subjects to assign themselves a number on the Kinsey scale, or administer to them a version of Kinsey's interview; the result is called their sexual orientation.  Since the interview can at best only count overt sexual experience, and a very impressionistic account of desires and fantasies, the result remains a sexual history, not a measure of sexual orientation.  (As the quotation about inexperienced younger males above indicates, experience is considerably affected by the availability of willing partners, as much as it is by one's own predilections.)

I think that what's going on here is that the biological sexual-orientation model is so dominant today that even people who've been trained to know better impose it on all discussion of human sexuality.  The psychologist I quoted at the outset simply took it for granted that in writing about homosexuality, Kinsey was describing "sexual orientation," although he wasn't and would have rejected the concept.  I wouldn't be surprised if he has never actually read the chapter on homosexual outlet in Sexual Behavior in the Male. (Just as I suspect that most people who quote Foucault's famous aphorism about the Origin of the Modern Homosexual have never read The History of Sexuality.)  Why bother?  Everybody knows what Kinsey said.  And everybody knows he was wrong anyway, and sex research has moved beyond his clumsy, primitive beginnings.  If I hadn't been conditioned by the authority-skeptical ethos of Gay Liberation, I might think the same way.