The American male

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 19 June 1948</strong>

The first Kinsey report on the sexual activities of American men caused a sensation when published in 1948. As Alex Comfort noted in his review for the New Statesman, Kinsey revealed an America divided in attitudes to and practice of sex according to education: the less educated a man, the younger he became sexually active and the more forms of sexual behaviour he considered perverse. This looks like a division based on class, a subject even more taboo in America than sex.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The investigation into human sexual behaviour published by Dr. A. C. Kinsey, of the University of Indiana, has probably attracted more attention in America than any other psychological document for many years. Apart from the public interest attaching to anything with the word "sexual" in its title, and apart from the rather prejudiced uproar which objective investigation of social and moral custom always excites, the importance of the information obtained, and the striking revision of existing ideas which it entails, make this book* of lasting importance outside the special fields of psychology and anthropology.

In spite of a great body of writing on sexual behaviour, scientific study and, especially, the attempt to decide how far the impulses and behaviour of a given patient are statistically normal have been handicapped by the fact that we have so far had no real information about the attitudes and practices which make up the sexual life and custom of the ordinary man. Kinsey points out that a certain number of primitive peoples, who regard their sexuality with complete frankness, attach as much ritual and inhibition to the processes of cooking and eating as Western cultures attach to sexuality; and he speculates how much we should know about nutrition and digestion if the incidence of taboos were reversed.

Kinsey’s investigation is a serious attempt to obtain facts, by the process of, interviewing personally 12,000 Americans of all social and geographical groups. Very high praise is due to the patience of the interviewers, to the elaborate precautions which they took to secure the confidence of their record (it was coded, and no written copy of the key exists) and to the extremely painstaking statistical precautions, but it is the public to whom, as the investigators admit, the chief credit is due. Once the subjects had been convinced of the value of the survey and of the seriousness of its intention, their willingness to answer questions of a kind which might be expected to provoke emotional resistance, and to discuss frankly exploits which were socially discreditable, punishable, or both, was ungrudging. The investigators encountered opposition from organisations, from “wowsers” and from the police, who made several attempts to have them arrested and their grant stopped, but never from their subjects. A public ranging from doctors and children to old ladies and criminals co-operated freely: all it asked was informed help with its personal problems.

The results, which are unique in scope and in being, to all intents and purposes, statistically unassailable, will astonish very nearly everyone. The layman’s first reaction is lilelyto be disappointment at the lack of variety in his own sexual experience having regard to the possibilities. Nobody who reads Kinsey can remain conceited about his own sexual uniqueness. While the book’s most sensational content is the extremely high incidence of sexual practices which psychiatry has come to regard as abnormal, including an incidence of bestiality in one rural population exceeding 10%, the most important social findings relate to differences in custom and moral belief. The American public, which is conveniently divided by its educational system, is shown, anthropologically, to consist of completely separate nations, each with its own social mores and its own standards of acceptance and rejection. These sub-nations are not racial but educational. Differences between racial groups (the Negro population is so far excluded for lack of data) and successive generations are negligible, but the college-level differs as widely from the artisan class as one native tribe from another. Kinsey shows that beliefs concerning what is or is not sexually permissible are determined almost wholly by these educational group mores, and tend to become fixed by the age of 16.

The lowest group accepts pre-marital and extra-marital intercourse, but rejects as abnormal almost all other forms of behaviour; it rejects nakedness and erotic experiment, even within marriage, but it accepts prostitution. The highest group tends to reject complete sexual relations outside marriage, but accepts a wide variety of behaviour within marriage, as well as masturbation and pre-marital "petting," which the lower level regards as perverse. Most striking of all is the finding that the War, the depression which preceded it, and the wealth of other historical changes in the last half century have had negligible effects on these patterns of conduct. Kinsey is able to show that the man who consorts with prostitutes in the Army would have done so as frequently and at as early an age had he never joined up. Differences between religious groups are also analysed. Fascists may be interested to know that Orthodox Jews represent the most rigid of all groups in their moral attitudes.

More important from the viewpoint of psychiatry, and possibly more irritating to the moral theorists, are the incidences of individual practices in the population under study. By the late teens, 85 per cent of males of the grade- school group and 75 per cent of the high school group, compared with 42 per cent of the college group, engage regularly in pre-marital intercourse. There is some evidence that these findings could be paralleled here. Figures for extramarital intercourse by married males are equally striking. Most remarkable of all is the existence at some time in life of overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm in over a third of the male population.

Kinsey shows conclusively that homosexuality is not a pathological entity—there is an imperceptible gradation from wholly homosexual to wholly heterosexual, and homosexual practices bear no relation to psychological disorder. Most of the frankly homosexual are well-adjusted in spite of social pressure. Sublimation, the diversion of sexual energy into non-sexual fields, he regards as an academic possibility rather than a fact: those who claim it are either persons whose sexual energy is low, or who do not recognise as sexual the outlets in which they engage. Variation in sexual energy is equally striking, and Kinsey remarks, rather sourly, that in a known series of individuals the lower the rate of sexual outlet, the greater the austerities which the subject prescribed for others.

The law regarding sexual conduct in America, as in this country, fails to coincide with the mores of any group. Its prohibitions are based on the view that all sexual conduct should be prohibited per se, unless it is unavoidable for procreation. This tallies with the view put forward many years ago by Ouspensky that such laws originate not with the ruling class, but with the “infrasex,” the section of that class whose sexual energies are least developed. In fact, if the laws now existing were enforced, about 8o per cent of the male population of America would be in prison. The enforcement of the laws relating to homosexuality alone would involve the segregation of one in three of the male population.

More important are the legal conflicts which arise from differences of social custom in different levels. The college-bred teacher who discovers a child of the lower educational level having sexual experience at the age of 14 is likely either to punish the child or to recommend it as a “care and protection” case, oblivious of the fact that the incidence of such conduct in the group concerned is about 50 per cent. A boy may be arrested by a policeman for doing something which the policeman, at his social level, regards as a perversion, tried by a judge who regards it as normal but is bound by the law to punish, and transferred to the care of remand home governors, psychiatrists, social workers and probation officers, all of whom, regarding his action in terms of their own mores, will look upon it differently. Kinsey also stresses the significance of these differences in marriage guidance, when an upper-level doctor recommends the practices of his own group, unaware that they are likely to outrage the customs and feelings of patients drawn from other levels.

It is important, in view of the differences existing within the American population itself, that these figures should not be transferred wholesale to an English population, where they are almost certainly inapplicable; but similar work, guided by Kinsey’s experience of methods, is long overdue in this country. While the statistical prevalence of a practice is no guide to its desirability, and while Kinsey studiously avoids moral judgments, the conclusions of such surveys in terms of rational morals are unavoidable. The book is hard to obtain in England, but any intelligent reader who can obtain a copy should do so, and read it without being deterred by the body of figures and tables. Dealing only with males, it is the first of of a projected series of nine. Its effect upon the reform of our attitude to sexuality, in medicine, in society, and in personal life, is bound to be far-reaching.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis