Sixty years ago, Alfred Kinsey, a professor of zoology at Indiana University, published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, an 804-page tract documenting impressively high rates of non-normative behavior among ordinary Americans, including widespread premarital intercourse, marital infidelity, homosexuality, and masturbation. The report made a ponderous pretense at being value-free.
The scientific facade fooled no one. Despite Kinsey’s numerous assertions that he was merely an empiricist, the disclaimers were disingenuous. A polemicist with a strongly sex-affirmative and antiguilt agenda, he was intent upon proving that many if not most American men deviated significantly from the social rules governing sexual behavior, and that had their transgressions been discovered, quite a few of them would have been found guilty of breaking a law. Kinsey’s take-home message outraged the defenders of bourgeois rectitude, whose hysterical indignation was contemporary with the intensification of the Cold War, the rise of aggressive McCarthyism, and the escalated emphasis on conservative family values and gender roles. Five years later, it was no surprise when the publication of Kinsey’s companion volume Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (asserting, among other things, that a woman’s capacities for orgasm and marital infidelity were essentially no different from a man’s) was met with a storm of objection in the media that successfully laid waste to the zoologist’s credibility and funding.
If in America the Kinsey Reports sold into the markets for prudery as well as prurience (the voyeuristic fascination inseparable from the moral outrage), the European response—especially among West German, French, and Swiss journalists, sociologists, and theologians—is less well known. It was also one of horror—not at the prevalence of sexual activity, but rather at what was perceived to be an utter lack of genuine sensuality in American culture. As a Swiss psychoanalyst put it in his critique of the Kinsey Reports, “Everything exudes an air of numbed lovelessness.”
European commentators were aghast. In erotic terms, the United States was a frightful wasteland: the women were apparently frigid, the men sexually inept. The American “dating game” was said to epitomize a culture of rampant competitiveness and superficiality. Single females needed to enhance and falsify their breast size to achieve any sexual self-esteem at all, and married women found their only fulfillment in the success of their husbands’ business careers. To European eyes, the version of Protestantism that dominated the American scene instilled sexual inhibition in men and women alike; the distinctly American premarital activity known as “petting” was seen not as a clever compromise that permitted mutual orgasm without the risk of pregnancy but as yet another sign of the sex-negativity of American culture. With a zeal that can only be read as schadenfreude, Europeans described the chief military and ideological victors of World War II as pathetically lacking in erotic imagination and playfulness. Above all, they emphasized that there was something sad (as opposed to threatening) in the world Kinsey envisioned.
Europeans fixed on something that many Americans had not. Kinsey counted orgasms the way other people counted beans or pennies or cars on the highway: he considered orgasms (or “sexual outlets” as he called them) equivalent units that could be added, subtracted, and compared. The problem with Kinsey, his Europeans critics contended, was that he never thought about the quality of the orgasm, only its quantity. And he never thought at all about love.
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