Saturday, March 12, 2011

Addressing The Bogus Arguments

One of the most common arguments I see from the religious right wingnuts is essentially that all study of human sexuality is invalid because they don't like Alfred Kinsey. Consider this screed by No Apologies writer Tom Bartlett.

...Despite Judith Reisman revealing the sexual abuse revealed in Kinsey’s own writings in which infants were repeatedly brought to orgasm, apologists set this aside as irrelevant. If such treatment of infants is acceptable and his research is valid, why is there still a stigma and laws against what is regarded as sexual “abuse” or “exploitation” of children?

Considering that Ms. Reisman's writings are featured regularly on Wingnut Daily, I'm somewhat inclined not to take her work too terribly seriously. When I take a few minutes to find responses to Ms. Reisman's criticisms, I find myself unsurprisingly reading a formal response over at the Kinsey Institute's website, which quite clearly calls into question the particulars of her criticisms:

Allegations against Alfred Kinsey and his research on children's sexual responses, as reported in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, were first made in 1981 by Dr. Judith Reisman. She subsequently enlarged on these ideas in a book written jointly with Edward Eichel and published in 1990 (Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud). When The Kinsey Institute responded, Reisman filed suit in 1991 against The Kinsey Institute, then director June Reinisch, and Indiana University, alleging defamation of character and slander. In September 1993, Reisman's lawyer withdrew from the case, and in June 1994 the court dismissed Reisman's case with prejudice (which means that Reisman is prohibited from refiling the suit)., Ms. Reisman sued when the Kinsey Institute responded to her allegations about Kinsey's work? That sounds like a credible response to me. Or perhaps it's really more about the usual over-the-top distortions that I have come to expect from the religious right wing.

Below is a reiteration of these accusations, recently reported, and the Institute's response.

The act of encouraging pedophiles to rape innocent babies and toddlers in the names of "science" offends. The act of protecting them from prosecution offends. The act of falsifying research findings which, in turn, open the floodgates for the sexual abuse of children, offends. (from Dr. Laura's (Schlesinger) website)

This would be a cause of great concern if it were true. Kinsey was not a pedophile in any shape or form. He did not carry out experiments on children; he did not hire, collaborate, or persuade people to carry out experiments on children. He did not falsify research findings and there is absolutely no evidence that his research "opened flood gates for the sexual abuse of children." Kinsey did talk to thousands of people about their sex lives, and some of the behaviors that they disclosed, including abuse of children, were illegal. In fact, many sexual behaviors, even those between married adults, were illegal in the 1940's and 1950's. Without confidentiality, it would have been impossible to investigate the very private lives of Americans then, and even now.

While there may have been ethical issues in Dr. Kinsey's work, I would submit that those issues have been unreasonably blown out of proportion.

Others have criticized Kinsey's raw data:

Jones wrote that Kinsey's sexual activity influenced his work, that he over-represented prisoners and prostitutes, classified some single people as "married",[23] and that he included a disproportionate number of homosexual men, particularly from Indiana, in his sample, which may have distorted his studies.[12][13] It has also been pointed out he omitted African Americans in his research.[24] Bullough explains that the data was later re-processed, excluding prisoners and data derived from an exclusively gay sample, and the results indicate that it does not appear to have skewed the data. Kinsey had over-represented people who were homosexual, but Bullough considers this may have been because this was stigmatized and needed to be understood.[12][13] It was Paul Gebhard, in the 1970s, who removed all suspect data (e.g., pertaining to prisoners and similar respondents), and recalculated significant sets of figures against results given by "100 percent" groups. He found only slight differences between the original and updated figures.[25]

So, coming back to Bartlett's suggestion that somehow Kinsey's work justifies enabling pedophilia, his argument is not just a little bit incorrect, it's outright wrong. Where does he get it wrong? Besides quoting highly questionable allegations against Kinsey himself, Bartlett's argument conveniently overlooks the very fundamental point of consent. It is generally accepted in our world that children cannot make a consent decision in such matters. Further, it is widely accepted that child sexual abuse results in serious psychological trauma to the victim. It isn't rocket science to understand that harm occurs to the victim and that the victim cannot make a reasonable consent decision - hence the ridiculousness of Bartlett's assertion. Of course, he's notorious for making straw-man arguments.

Similarly, while there are moral and ethical questions that pertain to Kinsey's methods, we must not forget that he did his work on human sexuality from the 1930s to the 1950s - an era during which much of what he was exploring was subject to criminal sanction. Attacking historical works based on a projection of current understandings is an unreasonable line of argument which attempts to dismiss the results of that research not on the research itself, but on the basis of objections to how that research was conducted.

For example, at the turn of the 20th Century, it was considered ethical to experiment on people directly with x-ray equipment. Today, with the understanding we have of the effects that such radiation can have on people, we would consider that type of experimentation to be unethical because of its consequences. Even if we were to criticize that work on the basis of those ethical considerations, it does not render invalid the findings of that work itself.

Although Kinsey's methods may not have been ideal by modern standards, I think that accusations of malfeasance in his work are gross exaggerations inflated for political reasons. The Kinsey Institute has addressed these objections reasonably and rationally over the years. Kinsey was essentially a pioneer in the field of sexology - whether his findings were objectively correct is an academic discussion.


N. Sessoms said...

You quoted Tom Bartlett stating that "Despite Judith Reisman revealing the sexual abuse revealed in Kinsey’s own writings...."

Read that phrase over a few times just to make sure that there's nothing there. If Kinsey openly wrote it, and openly published it, there was nothing for Judith Reisman to reveal. Of course the non-existent Reisman revelations make big headlines on rightwing and Christian sites with a strong bias against sex.

Yes, Kinsey did indeed gather information from people about their criminal behavior. As far as I know a lot of our other information about, say, organized crime is based on similar research by police. And I think the research about the attitudes of male rapists is based on some interviews of male rapists. I'm sure that scientists who write about serial killers may have interviewed a few.

So a number of people obsessed with the idea of sex with children condemn Kinsey because of his research. But when you drain their indignation of its emotional core, what scientifically is left? As far as I can tell, there's nothing, save for the type of logic that would maintain the criminologist supports rape when he interviews one, or the social psychologist pushes prostitution if she writes an accurate view of the profession.

Kinsey's also been faulted for interviewing criminals and other assorted nasty people who the good people don't like. One can exclude these people, as you mentioned, and still get results almost identical to those originally presented by Kinsey.

But if the majority of the populace ran afoul of anti-sex laws it would impossible to gather real data without those criminals. In addition, and it's something the anti-Kinsey people usually don't admit, Kinsey used a number of different occupational classes in his research and was very open about it.

MgS said...

Agreed ... my point being largely that the attacks on Kinsey's work are based on moralizing objections rather than the research itself.

(essentially showing us a lot of the objector's "squick" factor)