Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All Along the Kinsey Continuum

This weekend I reread Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation (NYU Press, 1999), by Janis S. Bohan, Glenda M. Russell, and several other contributors.  The book is an attempt to sketch out a social-constructionist approach to sexual orientation in clinical practice and in public policy; I first read it soon after it was published, and remembered that some of it was interesting and useful.  I decided to reread it to see how it looked to me now, especially after having read a lot more on the subject in the past fifteen years.  I'll probably have more to say about it later, but for now I want to lament that the authors have made the same error about Alfred Kinsey's work that so many other writers on sexual orientation have made.

Bohan and Russell write:
Perhaps more striking is the persistent plausibility of this dichotomous portrayal given that, even within this culture, its inadequacy was established more than forty years ago, when Kinsey and his colleagues demonstrated that this binary depiction of sexual orientation is flawed.  Their work revealed, instead, a range of self-reported sexual orientation described not by discrete categories but by a seven-point continuum, ranging from exclusive homosexuality (six on Kinsey's scale), through varying degrees of bi- or ambisexuality (scores of five to one), to exclusive heterosexuality (zero on the scale)...

Kinsey's work also suggested that sexual orientation is not entirely defined by sexuality per se; an individual's placement along the continuum reflected both overt and "psychic" reactions.  In addition, Kinsey's findings indicated that people's self-defined positions along this continuum may change over time and that many subjects identified periods in their lives when their sexual orientation was quite different from how they later identify themselves.  Thus, sexual orientation is portrayed by Kinsey's work is composed not of discrete categories, whatever the number, but of vague, permeable, and potentially shifting "locations" along a continuum [86-87].
Kinsey's work does not "portray" sexual orientation, self-reported or otherwise.  The Kinsey continuum represents sexual experience or "outlet" (to use Kinsey's term), overt behavior or "psychic" response.  I remember that his colleague Wardell Pomeroy wrote later about someone (who may have been his client rather than someone whose sexual history he took for Kinsey in the 1930s and 1940s) who thought of himself as homosexual until Pomeroy pointed out that he had more heterosexual experience than homosexual, but I don't recall Kinsey addressing this sort of thing in his big books.  He did, as I've mentioned before, refer once to "orientation" in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, when he referred to "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" (641).  But that's the only time he uses the word in the book, and in context it's clear that by "orientation" he means something like "predominant interest."  The Kinsey continuum refers only to sexual experiences, not to sexual orientation as it's talked about today.

I have no idea where Bohan and Russell got that bit about "many subjects [who] identified periods in their lives when their sexual orientation was quite different from how they later identify themselves."  I suspect it's because of the way Kinsey and his colleagues organized their data, for example, that 10 percent of the male subjects' experience (again: not "orientation") was more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.  That's not the subjects talking, it's the researchers.  And since the data refer to experience, whether overt expression or conscious attraction and desire, it doesn't necessarily indicate a change in "sexual orientation": it may indicate a change in circumstances, opportunity, environment, or something else.

For example, a friend was shocked to find that while his father was stationed near San Francisco in the military before he married, he had some sexual experience with other men.  Being 1) young, 2) in uniform, 3) unattached and 4) located near a gay mecca made him accessible to gay men who are attracted to military trade and cultivate them, often generously.  When he was discharged and moved back to the rural Midwest, such opportunities dwindled.  He could have begun seeking out male partners -- they can certainly be found here -- but apparently he didn't.  It appears that he viewed his experiences with men in the Bay area as something that didn't count, since he was far from home and the military was a temporary gig; think of him as a sexual tourist.  He married heterosexually and raised two sons, one of whom turned out to be gay.  So my friend's father could have been a 4 or 5 on the Kinsey continuum based on his youthful experiences -- it's compatible with having a lot of homosexual experience for three years, followed by decades of exclusively heterosexual outlet -- though without getting his full sexual history it's impossible to know.  Did his "orientation" change?  There's no way to tell, because we have no way to measure sexual orientation.

True, the kind of experience a person has over time may tell us something about his or her "sexual orientation," but only a part of it.  Maybe it's like a student's grade point average as a sign of "intelligence" (another murky concept): chances are an intelligent student will have a high GPA, and a less intelligent student a lower one.  But the actual number will depend on various factors: which school he or she attends, for example.  A highly intelligent student may do badly in school because of stress, the inability to focus because of the distracting diversions of campus life, having chosen the wrong major, and many other factors.  A less intelligent student can still have a high GPA through working hard and consistently, choosing one's courses strategically, and so on.  And -- rather like the Kinsey continuum -- a student's GPA can move up or down the scale, but it's not likely to move from a 1 to a 4 GPA in four years, just as one's position on the Kinsey scale is not likely to move from 6 to 0 or vice versa.  One's declared identity can change that drastically (for equally diverse reasons), but one's sexual history is cumulative, and not directly a measure of one's inner nature any more than average grades are.

Perhaps some reader will ask me how I can claim I'm right about this, when all these other smart, credentialed people get it wrong.  I read the damn book, that's how.  I do wish I understood how so many smart, well-trained people can get Kinsey's work so wrong.