Imagine you’re an inhabitant of Harry S Truman’s America. A white middle-class housewife, perhaps, of the sort that Julianne Moore plays in the films. Or a pipe-smoker who refers to his son as “Junior”. Now imagine that an earnest scientist, clipboard in hand, wants you to answer a questionnaire. Easy stuff first. Age, height, cooking and sewing abilities, moviegoing habits. Then the queries get more personal.
In warm weather, how often do you sleep nude? Have you played strip poker with both males and females? Did it lead to petting or intercourse? Do you prefer to have intercourse in the light or dark? How many of your partners were of other races? With what relatives have you had intercourse? Enough, you might think, to make the normal American of the 1940s call the cops. But the project that crunched and tabulated the answers to these questions rewrote the idea of the normal American – using data offered willingly by 18,000 interviewees.
Seventy years ago, Dr Alfred Kinsey, a biologist at Indiana University whose first specialism had been the reproductive cycle of the gall wasp, published a textbook called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. This, and its later companion volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, did for pecking, necking and copulating what the Domesday Book had done for Norman England – it made it measurable. If you wanted to know how many American women had experienced extramarital sex (26 per cent), how many American men had had sex with each other (37 per cent), or the length of the average American penis (5–6.5 inches), the Kinsey Reports could satisfy your curiosity.
That curiosity turned out to be almost insatiable. In 1948, Kinsey’s publishers kept two printing presses chugging day and night to meet demand. Cole Porter put him into the lyrics of Too Darn Hot. Kinsey himself became a recognisable public figure. He took the sex histories of celebrities, including the playwright Tennessee Williams and the cast of both Broadway and touring productions of A Streetcar Named Desire. His methods became so well known that 1940s sex pests began to use them as camouflage, turning up in offices and college campuses pretending to be researchers from Indiana University.
The man who generated this cultural wave was an eccentric. Alfred Kinsey was so parsimonious that he painted the walls of his house with tea. On hot summer days he liked to stand among the irises in his garden in Bloomington, Indiana, wearing a tiny thong. The flowerbeds of the former Kinsey family home are now empty, but the house remains – and visiting there, I was struck by its, higgledy-piggledy brickwork. (Kinsey, I was told, hated straight lines, and demolished the garden wall because the builders had made it too neatly.)
Kinsey’s real legacy, though, lies down the road at the university Institute that bears his name. Its archive is prodigious. Pull something from the endless shelves and you may find a directory of 18th-century courtesans, a monochrome portrait of Yul Brynner in the buff, or a Victorian serial story such as Lady Pokingham, or They All Do It.
On the floor above is a long corridor where, behind each door, Kinsey’s inheritors are mapping out the sexual geography of the 21st century. Behind one, I encountered a dapper septuagenarian named Bill Yarber, who, beneath a Japanese print of eye-popping explicitness, was pondering data on the etiquette of modern condom use. Behind another, I found research scientists Justin Garcia and Amanda Gesselman discussing their investigations into how online dating sites are reshaping sexual behaviour. (The answer: massively.) Other researchers on the premises are asking whether virginity has lost its association with virtue; whether the romantic sexual kiss is universal in humans; whether cheating on your spouse is more common in men than women.
If the Institute’s founder were to listen at the keyholes today, he might be baffled by some of the terminology. Kinsey was interested in sexual acts, not sexual identities. He wanted to know what you’d done, where and with whom. He wanted to document the breadth and the variety of sexual behaviour, not construct a taxonomy of human types. But he would recognise the methods: the painstaking harvest of data on an aspect of life that’s often difficult to discuss.
Why did his correspondents yield so much to him? It was partly a matter of technique. As his biographer, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, told me: “He wouldn’t ask, ‘Have you ever slept with a horse?’ He would say, ‘When did you first sleep with a horse?’ And if someone was sleeping with horses, they would have to say.”
But there was more to it than this. Kinsey was arrow-straight in his dealings with interviewees. He promised and delivered total anonymity. Apart from those who boasted about surrendering their sex histories, the names of his respondents are lost to history.
Thanks to Kinsey’s fidelity, those post-war housewives and pipe-smoking men put the desires of a generation on the record. A record that offers us a map of the sexual past, from which we might navigate a path into the future.
Sunday Feature: Oh Dr Kinsey, Look What You’ve Done to Me! airs on Sunday at 6:45pm on Radio 3