Sunday, 26 May 2013

Indiana - Sex in America

Although he was a very well-known figure during the 1950's, I might never have heard about Professor Kinsey's research into sexual behaviour, had it not been for Bill Condon's movie Kinsey (2004) starring Liam Neeson.  As part of my research, I also read Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's Alfred C.Kinsey - A Biography: Sex, the Measure of all Things (1999), a very sympathetic portrayal of this ground-breaking scientist.

What's so embarrassing about sex?

The study of sexual behaviour is a fascinating subject area, incredibly relevant when trying to understand other people's cultures - yet, it is an area of study that carries a lot of 'baggage'; taboo, ignorance, (a)morality and downright animosity.  I don't consider myself to be a prude, but I did feel a bit self-conscious reading Kinsey's biography on public transport (with the word Sex prominent on the cover).  Strangely enough, the only other time I've felt like this was when I was doing research on alleged cannibalism in the South Pacific.

What is it about sex that shocks people so much?  Surely, it's an incredibly important aspect of human culture that every one of us is involved with?  Well, coming from Ireland, a nation that was incredibly sexually repressed when I was growing up (although I hope things have moved on a bit since then!), I can really relate to the sexual repression that Kinsey fought against for most of his adult life.  People suffer terribly because of the sexual laws of their particular society and not much of it makes sense.  Understanding another culture's attitude towards sex, means understanding the historical/cultural values that have defined 'morality' in that particular society.

Kinsey's crusade

Cerne Abbas giant from Wikicommons
Despite the importance of his work, Kinsey was questioned, undermined and morally castigated in ways that few other scientists have had to endure.  Perhaps if he'd stuck to his first great passion, the study of gall wasps, then he might have had a much quieter life, as just any other professor in Bloomington, Indiana! I'm sure, he wouldn't have achieved as much fame with his study of gall wasps, as he has done through his research into human sexual behavious and perhaps he wouldn't have lost his own sexual inhibitions and explored his own sexuality, as he did? 

From what I've seen and read, it seems as though he was an eccentric character; stubborn, passionate and determined in his pursuit of a greater understanding of this key area of human life.  He may well have been ahead of his time and despite the constant attempts by the religious 'right' to turn back the clock, Western society, in general, seems to be moving forward in terms of understanding human sexuality, although there is still a long way to go.

Misconceptions about sex

One of the most interesting things I learned from reading Kinsey's biography was that the 'missionary position' - woman on her back, man lying on top, facing her - such an accepted 'norm', certainly in Anglo-Saxon culture, is perhaps the most unnatural position for a woman to start with.  Kinsey got interested in sex research because of problems he had with his own wife, when they first got married.  For many women, the first experience of sex was off-putting, painful because of the deeper level of penetration that the missionary position permits.  Kinsey argued that a much more natural position for male-female couples is 'woman on top, man on his back' - this way the woman can control the level of penetration and do what feels most comfortable and enjoyable for her.

I realised that the 'traditional' missionary position is something that has been imposed on male-female couples by a male-dominated, religious society.  As with female castration in parts of Africa, the missionary position was encouraged, to ensure that women didn't enjoy sex too much and also because this position reinforces man's dominating role over his female partner.  Not surprisingly, it worked and many of our mothers and grandmothers led lives that were sexually unfulfilled.

Anyone's crime?

The Death of Hyacinth by Alexander Kiselev
One of the things that shocked people so much, when Kinsey's studies were published, was the high percentage of people, particularly men, who had engaged in sexual activity with the same sex.  This was during a time when sodomy, which included all homosexual acts and many heterosexual ones (eg. oral sex) was a felony or serious crime, in every American state.  Kinsey was distressed when he visited 'sex offenders' in prison, many of whom had been convicted for performing oral sex or engaging in homosexual acts - his study showed that 'everyone's crime is no one's crime', ie. it was hypocritical for society to imprison people for sexual acts that were so widespread in the general population. 

Gay or Straight?

Kinsey didn't believe, as many people still do, in a simple 'gay/straight' dichotomy - instead he pioneered a 'spectrum' of sexuality, a six-point scale to indicate whether someone was more attracted to their own or the opposite sex.  Given the harshness of sodomy laws at that time, I personally feel that it was important for society to first embrace a 'dichotomy' and recognise same-sex relationships - although our choice of a life-long partner hardly seems relevant to our choice of sexual partners and I tend to agree with Kinsey that we are all born bisexual and learn our sexual behaviour as we mature. 

Punishing people for their sexual choices is, quite simply, barbaric and I'm really happy to live in a world where same-sex relationships are sanctioned by many (mostly Western) societies.  However, I've never really believed in the 'genetic' argument, as to why someone is gay and I also find it hard to believe that someone's sexuality will remain the same throughout their entire life. 

When Kinsey studied gall wasps, he discovered that no two specimens were exactly the same - he also caused a lot of controversy by his 'expansive' approach to taxonomy.  Like Kinsey, I also believe that each person's sexuality is unique - although the straight/gay dichotomy helped late-20th century society find a place for same-sex relationships, I still think we have a long way to go, in terms of really understanding human sexual behaviour.

Sex and War

Detail, Bathers at San Niccolo
My theory on society's sexual phobia is that the society/community leaders fear the powerful energy of sexual release.  People have risked life, limb and career to find sexual satisfaction and it's an impulse that every culture/society struggles to control.  Sex is used as a weapon in times of war, as a motivating factor in terms of achieving fame and success (how many musicians started writing music because they wanted to attract sexual partners?)  Sex is even promised as a reward in the after-life for people who can remain 'pure' in this life. 

Truth be told, most societies are scared of releasing people's sexual energy - sexual liberation is all-too-often linked to a fear of breakdown in law and order.  However, studies of cultures outside the West have shown that sex can, in fact, be a great peace-maker in society - I personally believe that, when people are sexually content, they are less likely to feel frustrated, aggressive, abusive or violent towards society/other people.  Perhaps sexual freedom is the worst thing for a country intent on making war - could this be another factor in a society's instinct towards sexual repression?

Americans and Europeans

Towards the end of his life, Kinsey travelled to Europe - it surprised me to hear that he found Europe incredibly 'liberated' compared to the United States.  I think we Europeans usually assume that Americans are much more liberated in sexual matters than we are - our perception of American sexuality is, all too often, a result of our experience of American movies and TV shows.  The reality, I imagine, is that the US is still a fairly conservative place, on the whole, when it comes to sexual attitudes.  The US seems to contain many of the extremes of human experience - at once, the most liberated/wealthiest/modern country on Earth, at the same time repressed/poor and backward looking?

I've leaving with a trailer for Kinsey - if you haven't seen this movie already, I'd highly recommend it!

Image credits:

All images are taken from Wikicommons, you can find the copyright conditions on the following pages:

The Cerne Abbas Giant

Kiselev - the Death of Hyacinth

Detail of the Bathers at San Niccolo by Domenico Passignano

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