The man who dragged American sexuality out of the Dark Ages, Alfred Kinsey, is still controversial, as a new film attests. Laurie Abraham visited his stories institute to plumb the mysteries of female desire—and learned a few things about herself.
Page after page, line after narrow line it goes, the Record of Marital Contact Frequency of Mr. and Mrs. R.C. Young* from a small town in the Midwest, so that by the time it abruptly ends with Monday, December 31, 1951: 1 male orgasm, 1 female (manual); female superior, you’ve imagined a life—a love life and the other, everyday kind. And you’re bereft that it’s over, for them and for you. Because from this terse diary—which includes only the date of each “contact,” the number of orgasms per spouse, whether hers was through intercourse or by hand, and the position (missionary unless otherwise noted)—you know that he’s gone. Mr. Young has died. Why else would this couple end 21 years, from 1930 to 1951, of astonishingly regular intercourse and lovemaking and wild grappling—some of each, surely—except that one of them has left this mortal coil? How did Mrs. Young cope without her husband, without his body? How did she go on?
You know Mr. Young is the one who became sick and died because though the log reveals that they discovered the “female superior” position when she was pregnant with their second child, born October 17, 1937 (“Woman delivered of a baby” is all the diary says; no gender, no exclamation point—no child would dampen the Youngs’ ardor), Mrs. Young was on top only sporadically until the spring of 1949. From then on they would always use that position; he must be too weak to do otherwise. Indeed, Mr. Young’s pain and fear recede only, I think, when he’s looking up at her, his wife of so many years, and then afterward when he watches her get out of bed, fish the Champion Line notebook from the drawer where it’s hidden beneath a stack of handkerchiefs, and make the usual entry. How did I get so lucky? He thinks, watching. At least I have this, her.
I found the Youngs in the vast archive of sexual documents, art, and film at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington. When I visited in September, all I knew was that I was fascinated by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey—whose two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, then five years later Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, made him one of the most famous Americans of his time—and that I was curious about what was still going on in the place that bears his name. Kinsey was the first to announce loudly and authoritatively—based on more than 17,000 highly detailed, in-person interviews—that U.S. men and, yes, women were having sex, and lots of it: with themselves, before marriage, extramarital, oral, with animals occasionally, and so on. As Jonathan Gathone-Hardy notes in his superb 1998 biography, Sex the Measure of All Things, press coverage of the male book alone fills six shelves worth of bound volumes; loose clippings take up six more.
I’d gone on a bit of a Kinsey binge over the summer in anticipation of the release of writer-director Bill Condon’s (Gods and Monsters, Chicago) biopic about the man, called simply Kinsey, as well as of a T.C. Boyle novel based on his life. (It’s hard to understand the need to fictionalize a life as full and outrageous as Kinsey’s, and Boyle’s effort does prove pale, or at least superfluous. To give one example, near the end of The Inner Circle, prostitutes line the block waiting for Kinsey and a colleague to measure their ejaculation distance. I’d assumed the scene was invented until I read the biography and learned that, indeed, male prostitutes had queued up outside a Manhattan apartment building in November 1948, earning $3 a pop to confirm for Kinsey that the distance is not far.)
Today the most controversial aspects of Kinsey’s life—unknown to the public at the time—are that he encouraged his staff to have open marriages, filmed colleagues and other volunteers having sex in his attic, pierced his foreskin during sexual experimentation, and used a sex diary given to him by a pedophile for a chart on orgasms in preadolescent boys. This last item should have been apparent to the earliest readers of the male volume but inspired not a murmur of protest back then, when the culture was not so attuned to the sexual abuse of children.
The Kinsey Institute of 2004 is in one sense full of secrets. By its namesake’s order, the home movies are locked up here ad infinitum, and you can’t get into the library without being buzzed in. When I visited in the fall the staff was visibly on edge, worrying about the public’s reception to the November movie starring Liam Neeson. All the fretting, the furtiveness can seem excessive—until you remember the attacks that Kinsey and his progeny have regularly endured, the latest of which being a congressional attempt in July 2003 to strip nearly $500,000 worth of National Institutes of Health funding from an ongoing study about sexual arousal. The project survived, barely.
In another sense, the modern Kinsey Institute seems the opposite of mysterious: a warren of offices where a handful of researchers toil away at projects that inevitably seem banal as compared with Kinsey’s planet-rocking work—and vaguely depressing. To satisfy funders, modern sex research is always framed in terms of disease or dysfunction. So the study about sexual arousal is called “Mechanisms Influencing Sexual Risk Taking,” the goal being to stem the spread of HIV and other sexual scourges. Important, of course, but Kinsey—who was sex positive long before sex positive was a phrase—must be howling in his grave.
Or maybe not. Erick Janssen, the lead investigator on the arousal study, says he’s not “ashamed” of the sexual-danger spin, and Kinsey probably would have admired his pragmatic willingness to work within the constraints of his time. “If you’re creative, you combine basic things with the applied,” says the Dutch native. “The project was almost defunded anyway, so if we had focused on the pleasure, God knows what would’ve happened.”
And despite its sobering title, the arousal study is about pleasure. It’s yielding basic information about what sparks and extinguishes arousal in all of us, which is one of those subjects that, like the Kinsey Institute itself, is utterly shrouded, a subject about which we know everything and nothing.
Walking through IU’s leafy, rolling campus the morning I volunteer to be a guinea pig in Janssen’s lab—for journalistic purposes, and who wouldn’t jump at the chance to check out how her sexual systems are operating?—I’m light, swingy. I`ve been able to run and have breakfast alone with the paper for the first time in a long time. The sun is warm on my skin (come to think of it, on the sex-and-mood survey Janssen had fill out before coming here, I’d checked AGREE next to “Sometimes just lying in the sun sexuality arouses me”—though in truth, I can’t remember the last time that happened), and there are fresh-faced girls and boys crisscrossing the paths all around me. Do I look old to them? I think. If only they could see into my heart! I’m as tender and alive as I was as their age. I am, I swear.
When I get inside the Institute, I notice I’m nervous. The explicit art that lines the halls (like a drawing of a woman in foreshortened perspective, her legs spread and her bare feet and genitalia practically jutting off the paper) is one sign that this is not the History Department, and it’s off-putting as I’m soon to be attached to a sensor that will measure my physical arousal while I view an erotic film. The nakedness and rampant coupling is taunting me: That woman, sexy? She’s not going to respond at all. Dead as a doornail. Like many married women I know, I’m capable these days of going long stretches without wanting sex, which is maddening and frustrating and not just a little bewildering. I’ve had the best sex of my life with my husband—and in the misty past but recently, in our eighth or ninth year together—so why don’t I want it more? I know, I know: I’ve got two small children and demanding work, I’m getting older, my marriage is getting older. But what about Mrs.Young? She didn’t succumb to such exigencies.
Janssen’s lab assistant is a pleasant young woman who gives me an overview of what to expect and shows me how to insert the vaginal plethysmograph, which will record my blood flow, or level of excitement. She leaves while I get settled, and then the first movie begins, about the habits of domestic cats. (Pussy-cat? Is there something going on here? I’m paranoid— it’s a nature film to gauge my baseline physical responses.) Then I’m shown a series of photos of men of varyingly levels of hotness and asked to rate the likelihood that I’d sleep with them following a few hours of talking in a bar (assuming I were unmarried). This is designed to assess my risk tolerance, so I’m told each potential paramour’s number of previous partners, whether he usually wears a condom, and if one is available for our make-believe dalliance.
From cute boys the video moves to… the scene in Sophie’s Choice where Nazi soldier orders Meryl Streep to choose which of her two children to keep! If she refuses, presumably both will be sent to the gas chamber. Janssen is specifically examining how emotions—anxiety, depression, happiness—impact sexual arousal (which could help predict when someone is more likely to, say, lose her head and have unprotected sex with a stranger). He told me beforehand that so far he’s found that contrary to the usual expectation, up to 20 percent of men and women are more aroused when they’re blue or fearful. The theory behind this is that some people use sex to escape ugly moods, like a vet who told Janssen in a focus group that he got an erection when his helicopter lost power and went into free fall in Vietnam, to his lasting shame.
Through my tears—How in the world did she choose?—I’m next forced to imbibe three minutes of soft porn. Afterward, as I sit there punching through questions on the computer, I’m a little pissed. No, I don’t feel aroused! It would be a sin to get aroused after watching a mother give up her child.
You can guess the end of this story. Later, handing me what look like electrocardiogram results, Janssen points to spiky red lines indicating that though I was still roiling from Meryl’s suffering, my vaginal blood flow rose as I watched a Barbie blond get it on in a gazebo (though I’m not among the one fifth of the population who’s specially stoked by sadness). The disjunction between my reading on the plethysmograph and my so-called subjective arousal isn’t unusual for women. One study showed that while women report preferring “female-centered” porn clips to male-, our nether regions respond equally vigorously to both (which is not as vigorously as men respond to either male or female erotica).
So my body may have something to tell me—if I’d let it. Because another piece of information I picked up from Janssen suggests that my mind is not my friend in the bedroom. In addition to excitability, he measures two types of inhibition on the written survey. My first score—gauging the chill-factor of unwanted pregnancy, disease, and the like—confirmed what I already knew about myself: I’m not a poster girl for safe sex. But while I’m less inhibited than average in this regard, I’m more so when it comes to factors such as distractibility and preoccupation with things going well sexually. It’s a “compensation” pattern Janssen says he’s seen before. Once in the flow, distractible people like me are loath to mess with success—so, hey, who needs condoms.
I have been with the same man for nearly a decade, so my irrational tendencies no longer threaten my health or happiness. Still relevant, however, are the damned intrusive thoughts. If I’m to notice my body’s signals—and Janssen believes that contrary to the conventional sexual-response model, before one has thoughts of desire “something trigger you could arousal”—I have to hack through a thicket of anxieties and obligations. I’ve got to clear the mental brush. But then am I trying too hard?
A common opinion in research circles is that sex surveys like one the University of Chicago published in 1999 inflate the extent of female sexual unhappiness. The poll concluded that 43 percent of American women were suffering from “sexual dysfunction” based on the following question. In the past year, have there ever been several months or more when you: lacked interest in sex; couldn’t have an orgasm or had one too quickly; had physical pain during intercourse; didn’t find sex pleasurable; felt anxious about your performance; had trouble lubricating?
The respondents weren’t asked whether they perceived such “problems” as, well, problematic. But in trying to tease out the difference, former Kinsey Institute director John Bancroft reported in 2003 in The Archives of Sexual Behavior that the portion of women who say they’re distressed about their sexual functioning is roughly half the number that the Chicago team counted. `’Central to this conceptual debate,” Bancroft writes, “is the question of whether absence or reduction of sexual interest or response is necessarily…maladaptive.” Not being into sex, he goes on, may be “an appropriate or at least understandable reaction to…states of fatigue or depression or the presence of adverse circumstances.”
So perhaps I’m admirably adapted and only need to gracefully accept the lot of an exhausted working mother. Back at the Institute, associate director Stephanie Sanders doesn’t seem opposed to this path of least resistance. “It’s easier, on average, for men to get in a sexual mood or decide to have sex”, she says, her tone kindly. And Janssen adds that even men aren’t as uniformly lustful as everyone assumes. All those dudes popping Viagra? He argues that a fair number of them merely have a modest level of desire, but any man who doesn’t perpetually want sex believes he must have a medical problem—a notion the drug companies gleefully encourage. “You give a guy a stiffy,” Janssen says, scowling slightly, “and he’s supposed to be fine.”
Wait a minute here. This is the Kinsey Institute; these people are supposed to be frantically copulating maniacs, proselytizers for the glory of sexual fulfillment. All this science, judiciousness—it may be the truth, but it occludes this for me: sex feels good and I want more of it. My own body, my husband’s—I don’t get enough of either.
To this end, my lab work may crack open a few new opportunities. I’ve tented to conceive of my personal desire—enhancement project as one that depended on steering my thoughts in a more sexual direction, which would in turn rouse my body and then—husband willing—lead to mutual quadruple orgasms, or something like that. But instead I might think of tuning my ear to my body, not my brain. But there’s that word think again—and all of this can get pretty circular, not to mention laughably dualistic. In focus groups conducted by Sanders, one woman described the situation this way: “The arousal, the interest, they tend to blur….I’m not even sure how to separate one from the other.” (The trickiness of female arousal definitely has been a cold shower for the makers of Viagra and it’s knockoffs—they’ve basically given up on marketing the drugs to women after trials showed that for most of us, increasing blood flow to the genitals does not translate into arousal or desire.)
Science can take you only so far. The true inspiration at the Kinsey Institute is found in the archives, where in touching relic after relic, you contemplate how real humans project tenderness and commitment. Over the years, Kinsey received some 60,000 letters, many from people distraught because sexual pleasure had eluded them or because the sexual pleasure they did experience was somehow “wrong”.
Dear Dr. Kinsey: I would be grateful if you would advise me where I may find out about curing impotency. I am frigid and my physician has not been able to do anything to correct this condition. One has advised a tonic, but I have heard this is irritating to the kidneys. Is this true?
Very truly yours, Catherine Flowers*
Dear Dr. Kinsey: My wife and I cannot pay you a fee. We are poor: But we read your article in Time and thought you would be good enough to answer our sex question. Here it is: We cannot take the conventional face=to-face position in bed because the opening to the vagina is almost at the rectum. So we have to [lie] like this: T. I thinks I get results but my wife gets nothing, only by hand manipulation. And she is very sad about it and asked me to write to you.
Sincerely, Mr. and Mrs. J Meyer*
Dear Dr. Kinsey: I am writing to ask to be a subject in your research…in hopes of understanding why my husband and I are separated. I am 24 years old, have been married eight years, and have two children, ages three and five.
Sincerely, Ann Martin*
For years Kinsey personally responded to each request for help, advising people to find a qualified local psychologist or psychiatrist but also offering advice, like this to the Meyers: “If hand stimulation is satisfactory it is difficult to understand why there can be any objection to such a technique….Whatever the technique husband and wife use, if they secure satisfaction from it, it should bring the two individuals together in a satisfactory emotional relationship.”
Reading one after another of these exchanges is transfixing—I can’t budge from my hard library chair. The boldness, the earnestness of Kinsey’s confidants fills me with grief and respect and love. I’m immersed in the yearning and shame of people who lived just 50 years ago—one scene in the Condon movie shows Kinsey asking a dewy young couple if they’d tried oral sex. “But my brother told me that that causes problems later on with having babies”, the husband demurs—and the power of sex is palpable, as is Kinsey’s bravery in testifying on its behalf. An entomologist who combed the continent collecting a whopping 300,000 gall wasps before he turned to obsessively amassing human sexual histories, Kinsey hoped that mountains of data would prove what he fervently believed: that sex was the most natural of activities and if repressed only led to suffering, the kind he’d endured as a young man growing up in a stem, unforgiving religious household.
Apparently the Youngs didn’t hear or heed the “experts’` of their time, until Kinsey. Answering his call for the public to send him sexual ephemera of any kind—more proof—they posted their meticulously kept record to Bloomington. It’s impossible to know which one had the idea to donate their lovemaking to science or for that matter who actually made the entries in the diary. Interestingly, I immediately assumed that she’d done it, though men are thought to be the more common keepers of sexual statistics.
But that may be because until recently women weren’t permitted to publish such scandalous things. Two years ago, the most talked-about sexual diarist was Frenchwoman Catherine Miller, and this year it’s former New York ballerina Toni Bentley. In Bentley’s memoir about anal sex she reveals that she kept notes of each encounter (precisely 298, if you like to count) so as to make the unreal seem real. It’s a kick to imagine how delighted Kinsey would have been by the respectful reception The Surrender has received—a full page (mixed) review in the Sunday New York Times, no less. But with reams of clinical detail mixed with clunky paeans to her preferred act, Bentley wasn’t nearly as stirring to me as the… belt fetishist.
The last treasure I came across in the library was a journal chronicling a middle-aged belt fetishist’s courtship of a sad divorcée who, after time and gentle persuasion, agrees to join in with the former’s self-described hang-up. The man is also some kind of community theater director, you deduce as you read, and there are many passages like this [slightly paraphrased] one, from the couple’s first date: The [South Pacific] rehearsal was a pleasure for both of us. During the break, I presented her with the gift I had in my jacket pocket. It was the maroon belt. She held it for the remainder of the show. On the way home, she commented that she would have to make an outfit to go with it.
She held the belt for the remainder of the show; it wasn’t red, it was maroon. Does the nearby librarian, she’s formidably formal, notice that I’m practically weeping? “A fetish is a story masquerading as an object,” psychiatrist Robert Stroller famously said. Unlike Bentley, who keeps her sex completely cut off from the rest of her life—she never once did anything so deadeningly pedestrian as have dinner out with her cherished “A-man”—the belt fetishist wants to be loved and tied up, and he can’t experience the former without the latter. The Youngs, in my fantasy, wanted a version of that too. Sex and love and love and sex, until it was all mixed up in one rich stew. For the first two years, the entries in their diary are virtually identical:
Thursday, January 30 1930: 1 male orgasm
Monday, February 3 1930: 1 male orgasm
Wednesday, February 12, 1930: 1 male orgasm
Then, as the crocuses start to open in the spring of 1932, you read, in script as neat and lovely as my grandmother’s: Wednesday, April 13, 1932: 1 male orgasm, 2 female orgasms. A banner beginning, and from that day forward Mrs. Young’s pleasure is as regular as the seasons.
My plane from Indiana arrives back in New York very late, and when the cab drops me off at home it’s almost midnight. I get into bed, still thinking of the Youngs, of the belt fetishist, of the devotion of Alfred Kinsey. I press into my husband. “Is this the Kinsey Institute?” he asks, laughing a little.
“Yeah,” I say.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.