Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN HIS OWN SURVEY of the sexual urge, "Let's Do It", Noel Coward made sure that he acknowledged the patron saint of sexology: "Even Kinsey, with a deafening report, does it," he sang, completing his account of universal fornication. He was right about the bang, anyway. As a questionable film from Secret History (C4) reminded you, the publication of Kinsey's research had an explosive impact on American society: "Bombs, H and K" read the headline on one newspaper report, and it seems the reverberations have still not died down. The central charge in Tim Tate's film, which recorded the latest aftershocks from the initial blast, was that Kinsey had relied on paedophiles for his findings on child sexuality. I was going to write for his "controversial findings", but the curious thing was that this was a dog that did not bark at the time. There was no wild outcry on first publication about the fact that several tables in the report detailed the time it took for children to reach orgasm, with entries for children as young as five months old and durations as long (and transparently incredible) as 24 hours. Either newspapers at the time were too preoccupied by the broader headlines or, more likely, their sensibilities hadn't been scraped raw in this particular area, as ours have. In that sense "Kinsey's Paedophiles" was as much a register of changing attitudes as a piece of revisionist history. At the time, the term "paedophile" would have been an essentially clinical description - now it is a word to raise a mob.

For those who oppose everything that Kinsey did, this connection is naturally a useful one, and there have been some press suggestions already that Tate was co-opted by those on the American far-right, whose agenda is not the morality of scientific procedure, but that of sexual behaviour. Even allowing for that, though, the story was a shocking one. Dependent on respondents for information about illegal sexual behaviour, Kinsey had formed secret associations with paedophiles, in particular a voracious erotomaniac called Rex King, who wrote detailed diaries of his numerous sexual encounters. It appears that Kinsey's own passion for raw information had blinded him to what lay behind the tables -- "I congratulate you on the research spirit which has lead you to collect data over these many years," he wrote to King, "Everything you have accumulated must find its way into scientific channels." A better scientist would have been extremely wary of these "facts" - how can you base solid conclusions about child sexuality on the reports of a man who has a vested interest in depicting his victims as consensual pleasure seekers? And even the very worst scientist would see that interpreting "groaning, sobbing or more violent cries, sometimes with an abundance of tears" as evidence that a child has had an orgasm, was grotesquely unreliable. But Tate's accusations didn't stop there - there was some evidence that in his zeal for knowledge, Kinsey might have steered his contacts in the direction of particular research questions - in other words, that he might have procured fresh acts of abuse rather than simply asked for details of old ones. During the trial of an ex-Nazi paedophile who had corresponded with Kinsey, the accused suggested just that - though this testimony, too, had a taint of self-interest. Not all of those who assisted Tate were hostile to Kinsey - the most damning evidence of a kind of professional deformation of conscience came from Clarence Tripp, a loyal Kinsey aide who helped compile the Institute's comprehensive film record of sexual acts and who dismissed the very idea of child abuse as a kind of puritanical fiction. He conceded, in the interests of absolute accuracy, that two of King's victims might have become distressed, but that was only, he implied, because of anatomical difficulties - "there was a fit problem," he said blithely.

I didn't entirely trust Tate's account - he didn't properly substantiate the wilder claims about Kinsey's own sexual psychology (it was claimed that he had circumcised himself without anaesthetic), and his film was often crudely manipulative in a way that made you suspect its invisible tailoring - the Kinsey Institute, for instance, was filmed from a low angle, looming like some sinister bastion of mad science. But even so, the main charge stuck - Kinsey allowed abusive men to think that they were conducting experiments, and at that point observation turned into encouragement.