Donna J. Drucker. The Classification of Sex: Alfred Kinsey and the Organization of Knowledge. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. Illustrations. 256 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8229-6303-5.
Reviewed by Katherine Angel (Queen Mary University of London)
Published on H-Histsex (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Chiara Beccalossi
Donna J. Drucker’s book aims to put classification at the center of an analysis of Alfred Kinsey’s work. She distinguishes her project from numerous other publications on Kinsey that focus on, among other things, sexology, gender, and survey methods. The book is a work of detailed scholarship; she burrowed into numerous institutional archives and plumbed countless letters. It covers Kinsey’s taxonomic practice in his gall wasp research; his work on edible wild plants; his school textbooks and life sciences teaching guide; his biology, evolution, and marriage courses; and the methods and technologies he used to develop his Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) (hereafter Male and Female Reports).
One of Drucker’s main aims is to show a significant continuity across all of Kinsey’s varied work. She writes that a scientist’s “intense focus and emphasis on naked-eye observational techniques and practices can configure an entire career even through a seemingly dramatic shift in study object” (p. 13). This emphasis on continuity can be suggestive: for instance, in the analogy between Kinsey’s concern with unhelpful classifications (such as “weed”) in his edible plants work, and the demoting of classificatory structures in the Male and Female Reports. The heterosexual-homosexual rating scale in the reports in effect eliminated the distinction between heterosexual and homosexual; it decoupled desire, behavior, and experience from identity, placing all behavior on an equal footing. (This also amounted to reworking the uses of classification; classification need not be hierarchical.)
Kinsey’s methods for gathering millions of gall wasps, and the punch-card technology for ordering and manipulating sex behavior data, also chime well with Drucker’s continuity thesis. Elsewhere, however, Drucker’s insistence on Kinsey’s “focus on individual variation,” as well as his “detailed labeling and recording of each data object, the maintenance of flexibility for the manipulation of each object, and his prioritizing of mass yet targeted collecting,” can feel forced, especially when she invokes Kinsey’s “commitment to naked-eye observation” (pp. 13, 86)—something she does not define, and which sustains the continuity thesis mainly through vagueness.
Kinsey was well aware of problems with his interview methods (primarily around deceit, memory, and anxiety), but remained insistent that these could be addressed within the technique itself, rather than being profoundly intermingled with it. However, “face-to-face” interviews are not equivalent to naked-eye observation, and not an unproblematic source of “information.” Nor are interviews uncharged sexually; they might themselves be enmeshed with transference, projection, fantasy, and pleasure. Drucker fails to probe how Kinsey’s classificatory urges may have encouraged him not to press his methodology harder and to examine the epistemological and ontological questions posed by the subject matter—sex—itself.
Drucker states that while many of his peers in biology shifted to studying evolutionary processes in laboratory-created experimental animals, Kinsey shifted to studying the sexual behaviors of humans “in their natural environment.” This phrase, “natural environment,” reveals her lack of scrutiny of the particularities of interview processes, and her failure to consider the interviewee’s location in an ontologically and epistemologically ambiguous space between pure observable data and lab-created creature.
Given Drucker’s emphasis on naked-eye observation, it is odd that she skims so lightly over Kinsey’s films of sexual acts, disclosed only in 1972 in Kinsey’s coauthor Wardell Baxter Pomeroy’s book. While Drucker writes that “many are intrigued by the highly sexed and voyeuristic Kinsey, who quietly filmed sex acts ... in his attic, while his wife Clara served coffee and persimmon pudding,” she also states that “making films of human sexual behavior made sense to Kinsey, as he wanted to be able to study human behavior using the same media that animal behavior scientists used” (pp. 164, 155). One does not need to endorse problematic psychohistory or prurient psychological speculation to want more here. The risks, challenges, and epistemological questions involved in this far-from-neutral observation are just as worthy of exploration as the punch cards on which Drucker has much interesting material. And as Drucker notes but does not explore, the films’ occlusion within the Male and Female Reports does not preclude their epistemological significance in the knowledge whose technological and classificatory shaping Drucker is keen to trace.
Drucker rightly emphasizes Kinsey’s desire not to pathologize human variation, and rightly criticizes his failures in this regard (a blindness to specific reproductive anxieties and sexual stigmas for women, and a perpetuation of comparison to a norm, particularly a class norm). But her criticisms do not penetrate her account of classification; nor does she place Kinsey sufficiently in sexological or scientific context. He may have been radically non-moralizing, but he was also highly invested (whether strategically or deeply) in a progressive politics of biology, and in marital sex as both barometer and enabler of social harmony. And while Drucker concedes that Kinsey’s rhetoric of neutrality is naïve (“Equalizing the nature of many of the topics he covered was itself a bias, but one that Kinsey was more comfortable with than the behavior-specific biases” of other studies [p. 92]), she does not reveal how deeply Kinsey’s “scientific method” (a phrase used many times, without unpacking) is suffused with what Paul Robinson has called Kinsey’s “ethic of abundance in sexual matters”—his emphasis on quantity of orgasms, and his bias toward sexually active lives. Kinsey’s privileging of simultaneous orgasm as a key goal of marital sex identifies him as one of the century’s sexological figures involved in a project of sexual injunction that is as ideological as any other. This project, with its injunction not this time to propriety or parenting, but rather to pleasure, is one we can easily be uncritical of, because we are, whether we like it or not, its inheritors.
Drucker is right to inject into analyses of Kinsey some recent historiographical developments, such as the “material turn” within science and technology studies, with its emphasis on technologies of data recording and mobilization. And her book is full of fascinating detail, some of it refreshing and new, on Kinsey’s working life, reading, and collegial relationships. But every book faces its own problems of focus and frame—questions, indeed, of classification. And her concern to prioritize classification, albeit understood rather narrowly, combined with a reluctance to dwell on the “highly sexed” Kinsey, allows Drucker to gloss over the sexuality that Kinsey studied in such detail, and which cannot be so neatly separated from the epistemological practices that seek mastery of it. For all its rich and detailed focus on Kinsey’s methods, the overall result is a rather narrow work.
. Paul Robinson, The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 45.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-histsex.
Katherine Angel. Review of Drucker, Donna J., The Classification of Sex: Alfred Kinsey and the Organization of Knowledge.
H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews.
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