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James H. Jones Interview


James H. Jones is a Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. 

He is the author of Kinsey: A Public/Private Life and Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

James H. Jones

Professor of History, University of Arkansas 
Author, Kinsey: A Public/Private Life 

QUESTION: How would you characterize Alfred Kinsey's personality? 

JAMES JONES: I think at a public level he was terribly successful. If you look at his accomplishments as a youth, you get an impression of a young man who was terribly focused, who knew how to get what he wanted, who was willing to pay the price, which many adolescents aren't, to achieve the goals he set for himself. He was not a concert-quality pianist, but certainly a very accomplished amateur. He was the valedictorian of his high school class. He was an Eagle Scout, one of the first Eagle Scouts in the United States, I think about number seventy-seven if I place him right. He was a Sunday School teacher. He was an accomplished outdoorsman, and he was a very pious Christian. 

The part of his life that did not keep pace with the public accomplishments was his social life. Almost to the person, people who knew him at that period of his life described him as a loner. Shy, not diffident but shy, somewhat retiring, polite. A person who other people looked up to and respected, but certainly did not count among their friends. I think his childhood in that regard was fairly lonely. 

QUESTION: How did his environment influence his development? 

JAMES JONES: I think probably the crucial thing would be a very repressive sexual atmosphere. Kinsey was born at the end of the nineteenth century, and it's a period in which Americans are experiencing what more than one scholar has called a crisis of civilized morality. By that I mean a number of issues are starting to put sexual questions before the public's attention. A rising divorce rate, fears of abortion, something that very much approaches cultural phobia with regard to masturbation. A number of issues, again, that make Americans look at sexual questions with new intensity. 

Kinsey grows up in a family with a father who is really an overbearing patriarch, strict to a fault, terribly demanding, quick to criticize, very slow to praise. And I think Kinsey is a person who at a very young age takes very seriously the cultural prescriptions that he is supposed to fulfill. If you look at all his accomplishments, it's a guy who is probably just working his way through a cultural agenda, and doing so with enormous success. 

I don't think it's an overstatement to say that Kinsey really strives for moral perfection. He asks a great deal of himself. This perfectionist strain in his personality, it runs like a mineral trace. He's the sort of individual who would be, I think, very hard on himself if he tried to do something and then couldn't accomplish it. It's with regard to his private behavior, to his own self-explorations regarding his sexuality that I think he starts to really experience a great deal of guilt as an adolescent and probably as a pre-adolescent. These areas of his life remain for him somewhat confusing, I think, and deeply troubling for a number of years. 

QUESTION: How was his family life an influence in this area? 

JAMES JONES: I suspect that like most Victorian families Kinsey's family did not have a great number of discussions on sex. I suspect that the information that was conveyed was conveyed more by inference, and was conveyed more by a generally disapproving family attitude toward ways of the flesh. His parents did not drink. His parents did not smoke. His parents did not allow card-playing. His parents were extremely strict about honoring the Sabbath. Kinsey was not allowed to go to dances. He was not allowed to take part in much of the social life that his classmates took part in. 

As an adult, Kinsey often referred, especially among his co-workers, Paul Gephardt and others, to his youth and described in many regards as wretchedly unhappy with regard to his private life. Again, he was very pleased with the Boy Scouts and very pleased with certain aspects of his life, but with regard to private or social life, he felt that this had been a really tough odyssey. And often I think what would accompany his lamentations about his past, about his youth would be the expressed hope that his research would spare young people in the future the same kind of, as he saw it, pointless and really crippling guilt that he had experienced as a youth. 

QUESTION: How did he meet his wife and what was their relationship like? 

JAMES JONES: As an adolescent, Kinsey has no dates. No dates in high school. In college Kinsey had no dates. In graduate school he was working on his doctorate at Harvard, he did not date. The first woman to my knowledge he dated was the woman that he subsequently married, who was Clara, who became his wife. In many ways she was exactly the kind of person who could appeal to someone whose only social experience had been very limited and whose ability to make overtures to the opposite sex would be pretty small. 

I suspect what happened with them, Clara took one look at Alfred and said, you're exactly what I'm looking for. You're a smart guy, fun to be with, you like the outdoors. They actually met on a biology department picnic. And when she met him, I think she was very enamored, very interested, and I think he becomes more interested over time. But she had the kind of take-charge personality who could take someone like that in hand and whose sociability I think would have made up for his shyness. 

I think the courtship or marriage and early years together did change his life. He went from being a person who had no contact with the opposite sex to being a young man in love, and then a husband. I think they shared a number of things at the beginning that made their courtship and made their early marriage congenial. An interest in the outdoors, an interest in hiking, working together in summer camps where they were counselors to youths. Then when they married I think it's really kind of a Victorian horror story because neither one of them was experienced sexually, and they had a great deal of difficulty consummating the marriage. That took several months actually to resolve itself. After it did resolve itself, apparently, though, they were able to, you know, to develop a good sex life together. I think he was good with his kids - from all reports an involved father, and I think he enjoyed being a parent. 

QUESTION: How did Kinsey become interested in sexology? 

JAMES JONES: After Kinsey became world-famous as a sex researcher, the explanation that he gave the public as to how and why he became a sex researcher pointed to something called a marriage course. This course was offered at Indiana University beginning in 1938. It was a time when marriage classes were becoming very popular in colleges and universities across the country. Indiana didn't have one, and he led a group of academics who put a course together. 

But it's really, I think, not accurate to say that his interest in sex research begins with this course. Kinsey had really mastered much of the sexology literature and the marriage counseling literature in the late 1920s, early 1930s. I think he read his material largely to learn about himself, to become a more successful or skillful lover with his wife, and also to explore again questions about his own sexuality that he wanted to see what the scientific literature had to say about. 

When he starts the marriage course in 1938, he is from the beginning planning to use the course to do sex research. He has put together a questionnaire in anticipation of having students whose histories he can take. He has practiced his technique as an interviewer. He really wants to do things. He wants to disseminate information in that course which he is teaching, but he also wants to be a researcher and he wants to use the students in that course to begin to put together a fuller portrait and understanding of human sexual behavior. 

Kinsey has a magpie's love of facts. He is to his fingertips an empiricist and he worships data. In his view, if you can find data, if you can just compile enough information, you can start to have information that casts light on issues that society knows nothing about. His big objection to the literature of the day on sex is that it's morally tainted. And by tainted he means it's proscriptive. It spends a great deal of time making value judgments about what people ought to do. What Kinsey wants instead, is an approach to sexuality that first of all finds out what people actually do, and then instead of prescribing how people should behave, he wants to turn that formula on its head. What he'd really like to do is take behavior and elevate it to normality, a kind of morality of numbers. 

When Kinsey was an entomologist, using taxonomic approach to his discipline to make contributions to the theory of evolution, he was a passionate entomologist, he was a passionate taxonomist. He was an enthralled evolutionist, or evolutionary biologist. And the same kind of passion that he brings to the quest for knowledge and for career advancement as a zoologist he brings to his research on human sexual behavior - with one important exception. Increasing the human drive that is part of the man, increasing the passion that is part of his soul for all research he does is a very strong social warrant. Kinsey is at odds with the way society regulates human sexual behavior, and what he wants to see is a much more encompassing ethic of tolerance that will make a room at the table for lots of different kinds of people who don't fit under the cookie cutters of prescribed morality. 

QUESTION: What about objectivity in science with regard to Kinsey? 

JAMES JONES: It's very hard to find valueless or value-free science. It remains a cultural ideal. It's one that we pay great lip service to as an ideal, but like many ideals, people usually fall short of achieving them. In Kinsey's case his great desire to have people not think badly of one another because of their private lives, it's a passion and it gets him to bed at night and it gets him up in the morning, in conjunction with his love of collecting data itself. To understand his personality, you have to get both parts of that story together. You have to understand that the quest for data in Kinsey is the ground of his existence. It's not fake. 

In Kinsey's mind he sees himself as being a tough-nosed, or hard-nosed, tough-minded scientist. So when he goes after data, the data to him are sacred objects that he used to construct understanding. When he puts that data together, his passion to have the story come out in a way that will promote tolerance I think shapes everything he does. To my mind it's impossible to read his works, to read the Male volume and the Female volume without sensing instantly that you're in the presence of the reformer, a person who has a message that goes with the data. 

With Kinsey the desire to change how people view human sexual behavior, the desire to create an ethic of tolerance for different kinds of behavior, this is so embedded in his being, it comes out of his life, it comes out of, I think, his own struggle against guilt as a child, a struggle that spills over into adulthood and continues to cause him problems, I think, every day that he lives. He really believes that if he can get the information before the public, that if the information is presented with the right complexion then it will allow only one set of conclusions, which is in the direction of social tolerance. 

QUESTION: Did he "cook the numbers"? 

JAMES JONES: Kinsey would never have knowingly doctored the books. Kinsey went to bed at night believing that he was an honorable, disinterested scientist from the standpoint of not cooking the books. With Kinsey, though, with the passion to do what he wants to accomplish, to accomplish what he wants to do is so strong that the presentation of the data and the collection of the data I think are skewed, and they are skewed in the direction of making certain that a wide range of behavior gets before the public. That's not to say that there isn't a wide range of behavior in the public. If Kinsey taught us anything, it's that human sexuality has a continuum of behavior, and people locate themselves at different points on the continuum. What Kinsey did, I think, was to make behavior that seemed very marginal but aberrant in a moral lexicon much more common and much more approachable to people because he says it represents X amount of the population. 

QUESTION: How did he get people for his interviews, his sexual histories? 

JAMES JONES: As a field biologist, he perfected field techniques, and those field techniques included compiling huge samples, going across large geographical expanses. And his notion was that if you could collect enough specimens and do enough - or do it across a vast enough expanse then you would begin to have an overview really, or understanding of the problem that you were studying. He takes that same approach of huge samples across geographical expanses, dogged pursuit of every specimen that he can locate, and he just transfers it bodily to the study of human sexual behavior, never doubting that if he collects enough and does it in enough different places, he'll put together a portrait of human sexuality that starts to look like the truth. He would speak before church groups, he would speak before civic groups, he would speak before schools, high schools, colleges. 

He would speak before professional organizations. He was an absolute master of the rubber chicken, pea soup circuit. His presentations before these audiences were spellbinding. He would give kind of ongoing reports about what his data were uncovering. At the end of these presentations he would make an ardent appeal. He would tell the audiences that science needed to know about human sexual behavior, and the only way science was going to be able to learn about behavior was for people like themselves to step forward and answer his questions. 

He had really good answers for the people who might be reluctant, or who might fear that confidentiality might be violated. Kinsey told people at the outset that he would take their identities to his grave, that they would never have their confidentiality violated because he used a position code or he used his own cryptography, so to speak, to encode what their answers were. Their names didn't appear anywhere, and so the issue of confidentiality was virtually guaranteed. 

What you find with Kinsey is that many people, given the wide reassurances about the research and his credentials as a researcher, and the issue of confidentiality, that many people were willing, and in some instances eager, to talk because he makes the interview itself a very agreeable experience for most people who had it. It's a cathartic experience for people. 

QUESTION: How wide was the circle of people he drew from? 

JAMES JONES: Kinsey met a variety of people in his interviewing travels, and the image he presented to those people was of an earnest, almost kind of corny Midwestern professor. Bow tie, tweeds, nice kind of smell of formaldehyde about him from being a biologist. He would have to engage and sell himself to people who were vastly, vastly different. At Times Square he, over time, met most of the hustlers, knew them on a first-name basis. They in turn introduced him to their network of people and if you did network analysis, you would see Kinsey breaking into his circle, ever-increasing groups of kind of marginal and underworld characters. 

Kinsey, I think, enjoyed those episodes a lot. I think he liked the danger and almost the romance of being this infiltrator of worlds that no scientist had been able to discover or explore, and I think he found that aspect of his work very gratifying because I think really at one level it increased his sense of masculinity. I think Kinsey always wanted to demonstrate male competence and to show that he was one of the guys. He had not been an athlete in high school and I think that kind of gave him some problems. 

QUESTION: Are there any unexpected qualities about Kinsey? 

JAMES JONES: Kinsey has a certain sweetness about him. There's no gainsaying the fact. People sense a gentleness and acceptance of who they are. He goes out of his way with people to be reassuring, in that regard non-threatening and non-judgmental. He's a very learned person, so he can speak with great authority on so many topics that it's just impressive in that regard to be in his presence. Kinsey's private life was at odds with his public persona. Publicly Kinsey presented the image of a very staid, Midwest university professor, family man, a person who was pretty conservative in his social outlooks and political views. Sort of the professor next door is the image that he presents. Privately, as I say, Kinsey is a scientist to be sure, a person who loves data, to be sure, but a passionate social reformer. Privately he's also a person who pushes the envelope with regard to experimentation with behavior. 

I think in addition to wanting to observe for scientific purposes, I think Kinsey has a prurient interest. I think he's interested at an erotic and human level in some of the stuff, you know, that he's studying. So fairly early on Kinsey moves away from just collecting histories. He starts collecting artifacts - material, cultural objects, such as photographs and films - and then he takes the next step and really sets up situations where he can observe human sexuality. He does this in bathhouses in San Francisco or New York. He does it more concretely in the attic of his home. He's able to entice a number of individuals to come to his home and for the benefit of science engage in various sexual acts which are then being filmed in his attic. So he stages a number of contacts. And again, one of the images I have of Clara that's really quite sweet is that people will be involved in the attic with all kinds of sexual acts, and she'll come in with milk and cookies and towels for them to dry off and freshen up. And then milk and cookies and then the next round of behavior will begin. 

QUESTION: What was his level of interest in homosexuality? 

JAMES JONES: Kinsey is certainly interested in his early years of marriage in heterosexual intercourse. He and his wife have children, they have a sex life that they work to make better. There are letters and references to reading sexual manuals and what-not in the hope of becoming more skillful and less inhibited lovers. Over time I think Kinsey also starts to explore another set of interests that had been part of his private emotional makeup for probably back to childhood, and that is his homo-erotic interest. He is attracted to members of the same sex sexually, and beginning certainly by the late 1930s, he is beginning to try to explore and act upon his private needs. 

I think in part when Kinsey does sex research from 1938 on, and as he is introduced to gay subcultures in a number of cities, this is a revelation to him. He's seeing groups and behavior that he knew nothing about, and he is, very attracted to them. He's also aware, though, that if information about these interests comes out that his standing as a scientist would be diminished if not destroyed. So he's very, very careful to keep quiet and secret his participation or interest in same-sex relationships. 

QUESTION: How did his attitude of tolerance fit into the society at the time? 

JAMES JONES: I think Kinsey's personal history makes him a good deal more sympathetic to people whose sexual histories are disapproved or condemned by society. I think his ethic would be much more tolerant and much more encompassing of a variety of behaviors. But let's make clear something. At this time the only sexuality that is sanctioned by society is marital intercourse, heterosexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Premarital intercourse is condemned, extramarital intercourse is condemned, masturbation is condemned. Nocturnal dreams, or wet dreams are seen as a problem that required medical attention. 

The list of don'ts inhibiting and proscribing behavior is very, very large. So for Kinsey to be sympathetic to behavior that's condemned by society means that he's embracing a lot of behavior, or is exposing in his work and documenting the persistence of incidence of behavior in his work that is pretty widespread and is condemned. Again, as part of his own personal interest, he is very sympathetic toward homosexuality and he is very sympathetic towards other kind of behavior that are condemned by society. 

QUESTION: How did his method of sampling create difficulties for his work? 

JAMES JONES: No one prior to Kinsey had attempted to amass as much data on human sexuality as he did. Also, sampling theory, or sampling technique - and Kinsey does his work in the 30s and 40s - is really in its infant stage. There's actually one national survey, so to speak, that I can think of in late 1930s and early 1940s, and then the Gallup people were starting to pioneer that technique at the same time that his Male volume comes out. But the idea of random sampling, which becomes kind of the holy grail of sampling theory later on, is at that point in its infancy and doesn't have the same kind of cultural authority that it comes to have shortly thereafter. Kinsey always contended that a random sample, while terribly desirable - and he conceded that - was simply not possible because of the kind of research that he did. His argument, simply put, was that too many people are going to decline my invitation to contribute histories, and that declination rate is going to skew my data. So I despair, was Kinsey's answer. I would love to get it, but I despair of being able to get a random sample. So, the sample that Kinsey went after was a grab sample, and a grab sample is kind of a quaint term for, if you can't get a random sample, you grab the ones you can. And statisticians actually are not as harsh or condemning of grab samples as many people might think. 

QUESTION: How representative were his samples actually? 

JAMES JONES: I don't think any scientist of his day had his data more carefully scrutinized than Alfred Kinsey. An army, okay, of social scientists who went after him. And there was also a very high level review by three of the nation's most distinguished statisticians. They went to Bloomington. They looked at his books, so to speak, and they broke down the cells in his data, and they issued a report. The report by and large gives Kinsey a pretty clean bill of health. 

The American Statistical Association appointed a committee of distinguished statisticians to review Kinsey's data. It was composed of three of the leading lights of the field. They went to Bloomington, they spent a great deal of time and effort reviewing his data and issued a very lengthy report. The report by and large gave Kinsey a clean bill of health. It's much more favorable than it is negative. 

Then again, if you look at Kinsey's work in the context of social science, okay, in the 1940s and early 1950s, it's a work of towering ambition. It's just really hard for us to read back to that time and understand how primitive sampling theory was in the late 1930s, early 1940s. The book was out in 1938. Kinsey actually contacts and gets a lot of advice from George Gallup. He made it a point in many areas of his work to go to the best experts he could find and to try to get assistance in areas that he knew he did not command with the same degree of expertise. 

And Gallup was actually pretty favorably disposed toward what Kinsey was trying to do. He felt that the grab sample, especially since it was combined with what Kinsey called the 100 percent sample, and that was interesting. Kinsey would go to, let's say, a school and lecture, or to a church and lecture. And he would say, the value of your histories would be greatly enhanced if I could get all of you, if I can get 100 percent sample of this group that I'm talking to today. And the statisticians later, when they saw the success that he had in many instances of getting these 100 percent samples, they thought that was neat. They were impressed by it. They felt it added some additional validity to the data. 

I think for many people the crucial question about Kinsey's data was how representative are they. Can we take these numbers and understand from them what percentage of what group in the country does what. That's the crux of it. Kinsey's sample was not a representative sample. There are all kinds of skewings that attend the sample as a result of its nature. For example, the prison population is one issue. Over-represented certainly in the Male volume. Another issue would be people from the northeast, the geographic skewing. There's also an educational skewing. He found it relatively more easy to get college-educated people who were vulnerable and amenable to his pitch of let's help science, than he was to get people from the backwoods who were hard to get together in the first place anyway. 

QUESTION: What were some of the impacts of his works on society? 

JAMES JONES: When I think about Alfred Kinsey what I think about is a pioneer. I think of a person who opens a new field of inquiry and who convinces the public by his efforts that human sexuality can be studied scientifically, and should be studied scientifically, and that social policy, mores, laws, whatever, should be informed by what science learns. 

So at the highest level what Kinsey learns or what he discovers is as important to opening questions of social debate. What happens when Kinsey publishes the Male volume and the Female volume is that American society gets permission to talk about sex. You can go in bedrooms, you can go in barbershops, you can go in cafes, you can go on sidewalk street corners and people are talking about issues that they never would have talked about before. Alfred Kinsey says X number of people masturbate. Alfred Kinsey says X number of men have premarital intercourse. And those issues which had been more or less verboten and kept under wraps by the conspiracy of silence, that a lot of people don't talk about sexual questions, that this is not something that polite society will allow - that is, at least momentarily - suspended. And people have permission, really, by science, the great secular force in our society, to open these questions to discussion. 

I think Kinsey's work precipitates the most sustained and the highest level discussion of human sexuality up that point in American history. And out of that discussion will come a review of sexual policy, will come a review of sex offender codes, will come a review of gender roles, will come a review of the place of gays in American society. And to the extent that Kinsey forces, okay, the public to reevaluate and to accept science as an arbiter of these issues, to that extent he changes American society. I think Kinsey is every bit as much of a revolutionary force as Freud with regard to getting people to think about private behavior. 

QUESTION: How did he react to the controversy at the time his books were published? 

JAMES JONES: At that point I think the controversy does weigh on him heavily and I think he pays a heavy personal price. Kinsey was in some ways extremely naive. Because he believed so passionately in what he did himself, research that he was doing, he largely presumed that when he presented his data to the public, the public would be impressed by the efforts, by the sweat capital, that they would be impressed by the integrity of his analysis, that they would be impressed by the volume of data that he compiled, and that they would greet him as a pioneer in a field that had been neglected. 

I think for all of his belief in what he did, he was not prepared for the viciousness of the attacks of some of his critics, and I think he was deeply wounded by some of those attacks. And I think the group that got to him the most - he expected it from religious quarters, he expected it from the right, he expected it from a number of groups. He didn't expect it from fellow academics. I think what hurt him personally and wounded him inside where it really hurts was the fact that people that he felt would welcome him as a fellow investigator nit-picked him to death on a bunch of stuff, and in many instances called into question even the morality of what he was doing. 

There's a real irony that attends Kinsey's work. The male volume comes out in 1948, the female volume comes out in 1953. Sandwiched between those years is the rise of McCarthyism, and McCarthyism had many facets, but one of the facets that Kinsey found personally most distressing was the attack on gays in the State Department and elsewhere, and the creation of a national hysteria on gays in American society. What should have been for Kinsey the best of times really was the worst of times. He published those books at a time in which he felt that the public discourse that his books precipitated would create a climate of acceptance, and he had the rotten luck of running into one of the great, I think, villains of twentieth century American history. 

QUESTION: Did he have an agenda? 

JAMES JONES: Well, I think with Kinsey an important point to keep in mind is that reform movements are led by people who have something to gain and who have something that they feel that they've lost in society. It's no surprise that the feminist movement in America has been led by women. It's no surprise that the civil rights movement in America has been led by African-Americans, the largest people's uprising in American history in that it changed our society. There's no surprise that labor movements, okay, have been led historically by people who put on overalls and went to work and organized the factories and stuff that they worked in. 

We should not be surprised, therefore, on questions of private behavior that those groups that have been the most marginalized and have suffered the most at the hands of social ostracism and moral condemnation are groups that seek to change the climate of opinion, and again, seek a place at the table. Alfred Kinsey's work on human sexual behavior came out of the soul of a scientist. It also came out of the soul of a person whose private behavior was at odds with society, and if you put the two together, you have a complete human being and a motivation comes from both private concerns, okay, and intellectual interest. 

His data speak to a zillion things. If you understand his data to mean establishing a continuum of behavior then it's pretty impressive. If you understand his data to say at that age boys first start having erotic fantasies, as cognitive rehearsals for masturbation, it's impressive data. If you say at what age do boys or girls start masturbating - those parts of the data I think you can probably take to the bank because they don't have to do with percentages in terms of representative groups. They had to do with personal development, with developmental issues. There, if you have enough people you can probably take those data, information and say, yeah, that starts to have the ring of truth. If I say that Kinsey's group weightings, okay, are skewed and stuff, that throws the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn't give him credit for the things that he did well.


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