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February 22, 2005

What Lies Beneath the Titillation

I find myself curious about Providence Journal editorial boarder M.J. Anderson. I know from some brief reviews of her brand-new book, Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner, that she's the daughter of South Dakotan journalists and went to Princeton in the '70s. I know from elsewhere that she began as a reporter for the Providence Journal in 1981. But the things that I'd like to know are of a more personal nature.

I don't wonder such things out of voyeurism or twisted lechery. Rather, it has seemed to me, as I've grown older, that much of the sexual revolution is built on personal lies — distortions, at least — and I wonder what might linger behind Anderson's recent celebration of Alfred Kinsey. One can imagine, for example, the feeling of titillation mixed with pride at superior knowledge that a Midwestern Ivy Leaguer must have felt in an academia in the thrall of revolution. Closer to the Velvet Underground than to "Okie from Muskogee." Considering her shared hope, with Kinsey, "that we might throw off a crippling sense of sin, and understand how profoundly we are not just moral beings but physical ones," one wonders what crippling sins Anderson has thrown off, and what were the effects. After all, we're talking Kinsey, here — a man "appalled at how little [literature on human sexuality] was based on empirical evidence."

As a man born around the time that Anderson walked the halls of my (then-future) home state's most highly acclaimed school, I grew up and learned about sex entirely within the culture that was the legacy of Kinsey and the sexual revolution. In high school, as a college dropout, and then as a frat boy, I've witnessed the escalating perversion that can result when the assumption is that everybody is, and should be, living "normal" sex lives (which is to say, without limits). Ironically, I found it a great relief to discover that it simply wasn't true that everybody was living more promiscuously and managing to be better adjusted than I was.

I've learned that, of my '60s-nostalgic elders, many evince a self-inflicted ache at having lived fairly mundane lives; although contemporaneous with a supposed mass liberation of the libido, they have no experience outside of the dreaded traditional structure. Either they are bitter at being cheated, or they take on faith that one could live more wildly than they and achieve the same degree of contentment (think Al Gore, with his stable nuclear family and his radical views on what family should mean for others). Either way, they have no personal basis to advise Kinseyism.

Others of my elders appear, having been hurt by their lifestyles, to be striving to further justify them, rather than correct them. The deceptive hope is that the deviancy in their own lives — whether divorce or infidelity or homosexuality — can simply be defined as "normal," thereby washing away the sting. And still others are simply perverts. Kinsey, from what I've read, was one of these last.

I realize that Anderson's is an opinion piece, but certain sentences beg for journalistic exploration. Among Kinsey's latter-day supporters, one often hears the blurring admission that he was a "flawed man," but perhaps a word or two could have been spent explaining this:

Around the same time, owing to difficulties he and his wife encountered when first married, he began studying the literature on human sexuality. ...

He and his wife were both openly intimate with other partners (men included, in Kinsey's case). Their example led to some irreparable wounds among his associates, whom he encouraged to experiment.

To understand the humorous turn of those last two sentences, one must have read a 2003 piece by Janice Shaw Crouse:

In his personal life, Albert Kinsey was promiscuously bisexual, sado-masochistic, and a decadent voyeur who enjoyed filming his wife having sex with his staff.

Encouraged to experiment, indeed! Returning to Anderson for more serious matters, consider the disclaiming passive voice with which she begins the following:

Although his methodology was later faulted, he induced millions to consider that the range of "normal" behavior was much broader than they had assumed, and included homosexuality.

Faulted for what, pray tell? Well, we can turn to Janice Shaw Crouse for enlightenment:

He used over 300 children, including babies, in his studies of female orgasm. Some critics legitimately accuse Kinsey of child molestation. The American Board of Pediatrics argues that his data are not the norm; that he used unnatural stimulation and, even then, did not prove his point. Using pedophiles, he charted the length and frequency of infants' and children's supposed "orgasms." ...

In terms of subjects, Kinsey used volunteers — a practice that scholars decry because of the selection bias it introduces. Many psychologists say that exhibitionists and unconventional sexual experimenters are the most likely respondents, thus distorting the results of the studies. A quarter to nearly half of Kinsey's subjects were prisoners, hardly reflective of the general population. Plus, over 1,400 of his subjects were sex offenders. Kinsey's samples were skewed in other ways as well: His subjects were overwhelmingly single when less than a third of the population was single during the 1950s, and they were also predominantly college educated.

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of Kinsey's supposedly "scientific" method was his definitions. He classified prostitutes and cohabiting females as "married" women, and then claimed that 26 percent of married women committed adultery.

Such are the subjects whom Anderson applauds for having redefined "the range of 'normal' behavior." She writes that "post–sexual revolution, it is almost impossible to imagine the relief Kinsey's reports must have inspired," and the wry reader might think to agree that many a pedophile, prisoner, and prostitute must have been much relieved to be blended with the prudent suburban housewife.

So, I can't help but wonder what induces the likes of M.J. Anderson to raise up Alfred Kinsey. Is it a deliberately blind adulation of a cultural icon — a better-informed version of the ignorance from which Che Guevera benefits? Is defense of Kinsey really just the outward manifestation of defense of the waning side of the culture war? Or is there something more personal, psychological, behind the spin? To be sure, Anderson is far from the only person to whom this applies, but the habit of defining the cultural norm without offering empirical evidence in the form of personal experience can be, as Kinsey might have agreed, appalling.

In this respect, a more balanced study of Kinsey himself might benefit our body of knowledge, if only we could push beyond the reflex that leads us to blame "a repressive society" when even a flawed, faulted, adulterous, sado-masochistic scientist becomes depressed.

Posted by Justin Katz at February 22, 2005 7:04 AM

It seems to me that encouraging gays to enter into monogamous relationships relates to and is based in responsible, covenantal living. Regarding homosexuals as deviants has helped to marginalize them, but I see no evidence that it has led to a stronger sexual ethic that in any way enhances society. Indeed, I think it has led to lessened expectations of gays and encouraged the development of a number of pathologies.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at February 22, 2005 9:51 PM

Joel -
the problem with that approach is that
a number of people (including several who
comment here) regard homosexuality itself
as a pathology and intrinsically deviant.
Therefore, to them, there is no justification
or motivation to treat homosexuals as anything
other than pathological and deviated.

But with love, of course - we are Christians,
are we not?

Posted by: Robert at February 23, 2005 12:57 PM

But I don't see it as a disease at all Robert. As for the other, I don't think you can demonstrate any homogamous practitioner that doesn't enjoy being deviant. The problem comes from them wanting to swap the deviant with a recognizable norm as if there was nothing deviant about it.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 23, 2005 1:11 PM

Historically, homosexuality has always been on the deviant fringe of society -- forbidden fruit -- even in places where it was well tolerated (while often still being technically illegal), and not just in Christian lands but pretty much anywhere it was allowed to be practiced at all. It was more often than not a sign of decadent wealth and power, and an enlightened "devil may care" attitude. (Which would also explain its presence in so many pagan rites)

For most gay males, this still seems to be the case. It's not "courtship", and it never can be. How totally boring for me to even suggest it.

Gay women do seem to be another animal altogether, but i'm not convinced that that is much more than a form of gender xenophobia. With all due respect to my fellow socially awkward peers, of course.

Posted by: Marty at February 23, 2005 7:05 PM

"It's not "courtship", and it never can be."

Then when two men have been together for 50 years in a committed relationship, what is it?

Posted by: Res Ipsa at February 23, 2005 7:13 PM

The exception. Not the rule?

Posted by: Marty at February 23, 2005 7:58 PM

My guess would be 50 years of deviancy. What counts as courtship in a homogamous relationship Res Ispa? I can only imagine some weird parody.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 23, 2005 9:10 PM

If you can't imagine it, then you can't be terribly imaginative or a deep person. That you can't believe that two men or two women can share a lifetime commitment of love and respect and fidelity says more about your prejudices and life experience then it does the alleged "deviancy."

There is nothing loving or Christian or even moral about not being able to imagine that two men or two women can't have the same level of love and commitment that a heterosexual couple can have. Whether you think it should be given legal recognition is one thing, but to be unable to imagine it means something even more profoundly sad.

Posted by: res ipsa at February 23, 2005 10:35 PM

"The exception. Not the rule?"

Undoubtedly the exception. Just as a relationship of that length would be the exception among heterosexuals. Given the high failure rate of marriages, the significant levels of infedility, the high levels of out of marriage births, there is clear evidence it would be an exception among heterosexuals too.

Posted by: res ipsa at February 23, 2005 10:38 PM

Res Ipsa,
That is absolutely amazing... to imply that I would be unloving, immoral, and unchristian for viewing homogamous sexual relationships as immoral... unbelievable, but amazing nonetheless.

What am I to make of the fact that you didn't answer my question as to what constitutes courtship in homogamous sexual relationships? Lack of imagination?

Posted by: smmtheory at February 24, 2005 12:12 AM

Undoubtedly the exception. Just as a relationship of that length would be the exception among heterosexuals.

You will agree with me that up until around 1960 or so, there was nothing exceptional at all about 50 year wedding anniversarys, won't you? That they were the rule, rather than the exception? And that "gay marriage" was simply unthinkable at that time? And that the decline of marriage into something other than it has always meant ('til death do us part') is very relevant to why gays think it can be redefined still further? You would agree with all that, right R.I.?

Posted by: Marty at February 24, 2005 6:33 AM

What am I to make of the fact that you didn't answer my question as to what constitutes courtship in homogamous sexual relationships?

How about we begin this inane discussion by you telling us what you think constitutes courtship in a heterogamous sexual relationship? And then why don't you tell us why you think a gay courtship is nothing but a "weird parody" because if I'm going to imagine a parody of something, I should probably have a good idea about what that something is and why gays parody it....

Posted by: Michael at February 24, 2005 10:37 AM

Considering courtship as engaging in activities leading to mating... people that practice homogamous relationships might attempt to come close to mating with their partner, but they certainly can't be giving birth to a child of themselves and their partner. That is the parody of people who practice heterogamous relationships engaging in activities leading to mating and giving birth to a child their union has created.

As Marty suggests, it never can be... not without specific and extreme scientific intervention (which would introduce another aspect of parody).

Posted by: smmtheory at February 24, 2005 12:22 PM

here's my 'weird parody' story.
I met my husband-to-be in March of '94.
We were both volunteering at the AIDS
Dance-a-thon fundraiser in San Francisco.
We exchanged phone numbers, called each
other the next day, and made a date for
dinner the following weekend. That went
very well, we certainly wanted to see more
of each other, so we made a date for lunch
and a movie the weekend after that.

Since he lived and worked in the East Bay
and I lived and worked in San Francisco, it
was difficult to schedule evenings together
during the week, but we called each other
every evening, and met for lunch or dinner
every weekend. When he went on a cruise with
his sister a few months into this, he wrote
me every day.

Shall I go on? Does this strike you as
"weird parody"? Given that you can see the
love and commitment we share - and have
shared for a decade - as 'deviancy' and
nothing more, that should not surprise me.

Posted by: Robert at February 24, 2005 12:25 PM

"Considering courtship as engaging in activities leading to mating... people that practice homogamous relationships might attempt to come close to mating with their partner, but they certainly can't be giving birth to a child of themselves and their partner. That is the parody of people who practice heterogamous relationships engaging in activities leading to mating and giving birth to a child their union has created."

I know you hate this analogy, but since infertile couples and senior citizens cannot "mate," is their courtship also a "parody." They are as physically incapable as same-sex couples of "mating."

Posted by: Res Ispa at February 24, 2005 1:06 PM

You're putting words in my mouth that don't belong there. I've never said that sharing love and commitment with somebody of the same gender is deviant (in that it deviates from the normative sexual relationship). I share love and commitment with my friends all the time. It is when that same sex relationship revolves around sex that turns it deviant. At any rate, your parody of courtship seems rather pedestrian to me. Now if you or your partner start trying to have uterus and ovaries grafted internally so that you two can produce fruit of your union then that is where it would turn to the weird. You and your partner have adopted a child correct, or is that a different Robert? Adopting a child and pretending that is the result of a courtship is a parody of a natural family. I really can't see why my tax dollars should be invested in the illusion that this country will benefit from something like SSM.

BTW, I usually reserve the morality argument for somebody that professes to be a devout christian. Is that what you are professing? If not, it doesn't do much good to discuss secular morality because that is always subjective.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 24, 2005 10:45 PM

Res Ipsa,
You were perhaps hoping that I would hate that analogy? Actually, it is a very apt analogy. When two people of opposite gender are unable to bear fruit from mating, their relationship is just a parody of courtship. But you shouldn't rule out senior citizens as being incapable of procreation if all their sex organs are still intact. It might be highly unlikely, but not impossible.

Posted by: smmtheory at February 24, 2005 10:57 PM