[Paleopsych] TLS: (Kinsey) Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy: Dob, dob, dob

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Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy: Dob, dob, dob
The TLS 	July 08, 2005

AMERICAN SEXUAL CHARACTER. Sex, gender and national identity in the Kinsey 
Reports. Miriam G. Reumann. 294pp. University of California Press. $49.95; 
distributed in the UK by Wiley. £32.50. 0 520 23835 4.

One of the oddest contradictions, in a country riven by contradictions, is how 
the United States - the world's most powerful and confident nation - is at the 
same time the most insecure, the most anxious, the most terrified of national 

One manifestation of this is an obsession with that slippery and quite possibly 
non-existent thing, national character. There is nothing new about this. In the 
early 1900s, for example, the US was swept with fears about declining 

One solution was Boy Scouts, imported from Britain to stiffen effete and feeble 
American manhood. Alfred C. Kinsey's father shared these fears and compelled 
his son, the future entomologist and sex researcher, to become a Scout. Kinsey 
loved it. He wore his uniform all the time and eventually became the first 
Eagle Scout in America.

Kinsey is the focus, or at least the jumping-off point, for American Sexual 
Character. Miriam G. Reumann has taken reactions during the 1950s to the two 
Kinsey Reports (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male published in 1948, Sexual 
Behavior in the Human Female in 1953) as the best way to analyse America's 
perception at that time of its national character. Reumann feels she can do 
this for two reasons: it was axiomatic then (as it is now) that American sexual 
character was national character. Americans could be defined by what they did 
sexually. From this it followed that private sexual acts were in fact political 
acts. In 1956, the Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin wrote that the new 
sexual freedoms were "the greatest threat to American democracy since the rise 
of Fascism in Europe". Sexual anarchy, widely foretold, would lead to political 

If this was so, Kinsey's Reports would clearly be explosive. His Male Report 
revealed that men were behaving in ways totally different from those hitherto 
assumed and accepted by society. For instance, half of them were unfaithful to 
their wives. Only 45 per cent of their sexual outlets were obtained in 

Even more disconcerting, 37 per cent of them had had some experience of 
homosexuality leading to orgasm, and for 4 per cent this was their only 
experience of sex. Both Reports were extremely dense. The New Yorker said that 
"much of the (Male) volume consists of tables and charts" so confusing "that 
the ordinary reader can no more appraise its contents justly than he can 
appraise those of a manual on pre-stressed concrete". No doubt -but thousands 
of commentators were eager to do the appraisal for him.

The Report's revelations covered such a wide range of behaviours that they 
could be extended to an equally wide range of anxieties. The sociologist David 
Riesman and others talked of Americans as "consumers of sex", echoing and 
adding to contemporary anxieties about burgeoning consumer capitalism. American 
sex lives would threaten the international balance of power. The fear was: what 
would foreigners think? They would think Americans were sex mad and lose all 
respect for them.

(This is almost the only area where Reumann's usual multitude of examples fail 
to appear. It seems that foreigners didn't particularly care.)

Kinsey's statistics about men could just about be accepted, despite the 
anxieties they aroused. What nearly everyone hoped was that his Female Report 
would reveal a much more reassuring situation: that women were faithful in 
marriage, and chaste outside it and before it. According to Modern Woman: The 
lost sex (1947) by Marynia F. Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg, a woman's sexual 
"role is passive. It is not as easy as rolling off a log for her. It is as easy 
as being the log itself". No wonder the Report was awaited with excitement. In 
a rather odd comparison, Reumann points out that readers ranked only the 
possibility of a Third World War as "more exciting". However, the results were 
horrifying. American women, it seemed, were not logs at all -they were far more 
like American men.

They had apparently been leaping the boundaries that were meant to circumscribe 
them in all directions -into bed with other women (possibly 25 per cent of them 
if you allowed fantasy as well); with other men, 40 per cent outside marriage,

50 per cent before marriage; they masturbated almost as much as men (all of 
whom masturbated).

A great many commentators were duly horrified. Clearly, marriage was 

Divorce rates had rocketed as a result of the Second World War. So what now? 
Marriage was the bedrock of society. "If the family fails", said a professor of 
education, "it might well be impossible for industry or the Government to 
succeed." Other authorities spoke of "tidal waves of promiscuity, delinquency 
and divorce". And what of unfortunate men? Faced by the voracious women 
revealed by Kinsey, many would become impotent. Demanding better sex, women 
would leave their husbands for other men if they didn't get it -or, it now 
seemed likely, for other women. One of the most disturbing flaws in the 
American national character revealed by Kinsey was homosexuality. Homosexuals, 
of course, welcomed this. But, at first, very few other people did -though 
reactions were complex and contradictory. The 1950s saw the country once again 
in the grip of anxieties about a decline in masculinity -the figures about 
homosexuality "proved" this to be true. At this time, it seemed a further 
threat to marriage. Homosexual sex was seen as so fatally attractive that men 
would be seduced from their wives by other men, and wives seduced from their 
husbands by other women. "Mass chaos" was predicted. A Senate Committee found 
that "one homosexual can pollute an (entire) Government office".

Of course, reactions were not as simple as this brief resume suggests. Miriam 
Reumann threads her way through the complexities and contradictions, and 
demonstrates them with great skill and an almost overwhelming mass of 
quotation. Yet her book raises questions. For one thing, why is America wracked 
by these intense anxieties? This is speculative territory. National cultures 
often seem to remain dominated for centuries by powerful factors in the past 
which have long since ceased to operate, or operate much less powerfully. The 
United States was an immigrant nation composed in waves of widely different 
nationalities and races. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, if feelings that the 
nation might disintegrate, might even have not really cohered as a nation, 
remained strong.

But then, why the 1950s? The particular years of this study were indeed 
turbulent and frightening, the disturbances after a real war were followed by 
the Cold War, the changes being brought about by the very rapid growth of 
wealth and the first stirrings of feminism: all these made for anxiety. But 
most of these changes took place all over Western Europe. Moreover, sex, in the

US, is still a major election issue. George W. Bush, in his recent election 
manifesto, promised millions of dollars for abstinence programmes -and they are 
now pouring out. Abortion and gay marriage (indeed, homosexuality generally) 
were both central talking points. Kinsey ushered in decades of sexual 
discussion, which continues today. Intense verbosity has replaced intense 
silence. Surveys are still forbidden Federal funds. The Conservative Institute 
puts Kinsey's work third on its list of the most dangerous and damaging books 
published in the twentieth century.

But were, are, the particular anxieties here set forth justified? The answer 
would seem to be -not really. As Kinsey pointed out, nearly all his informants 
were born in the early 1900s. He hadn't created anything: he had simply 
revealed social/sexual changes that had been going on for half a century. And 
America was still standing. Take divorce. It took thirty years for divorce 
rates to climb back to the height they were after the War, and they are now 
even higher than that; yet marriage is still central and society survives.

(The anxiety is partly because contemporary divorce is compared to a mythical 
past of stable marriage.)

The fact is there doesn't seem to be any real connection between sex and 
politics, or "national character", or the strength of a nation, or any of the 
other issues raised by the voluminous material gathered here. Certainly, no 
cogent argument for this is provided. American Sexual Character is little more 
than a colossal round-up of dozens and dozens and dozens of quotations -from 
books and newspapers and magazines -and if sourced from recent publications, it 
would have been dismissed as a scissors-and-paste job. But as Alan Watkins 
noted recently in the Observer, the further back such surveys go, the more 
scholarly and respectable they become (this book is certainly scholarly -the 
words "discourse", "critique" and/or "narrative" are on every page). In 
America, it will, for this reason, be respected. But whether it is significant 
or valuable, I am much less sure.

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