What Would Kinsey Say Now?

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Cover of Kinsey bookPerhaps addiction is a graver danger than repression

August 25th marks the 53rd anniversary of Alfred C. Kinsey's death. He was a key figure in condemning sexual repression, and I'm grateful for his contribution. At the same time, I hope our society can now exercise the same courage he once demonstrated—by rethinking some of his conclusions in light of recent discoveries about the effects of sex on the brain.

Kinsey fiercely opposed the Victorian attitudes about sex that darkened his childhood. Determined to break the association between guilt and sex, he insisted that repression was our greatest peril.

He taught that we'd thrive if we adopted his conviction that orgasm is nothing more than an "outlet," however intense or frequent the stimulation. Seemed reasonable, right?

Kinsey's zeal led to widespread codification of his beliefs—and strident debate with religious extremists. Despite the difference in their perspectives, both forms of zealotry unfortunately discourage a relaxed, inquiring attitude about orgasm and masturbation. At present, mainstream America is pretty firmly persuaded that Kinsey had it right. This has led to a widespread view that we really ought to pursue both orgasm and masturbation frequently or risk unhealthy repression.

Kinsey was certainly right to be wary of repression—for sound neurological reasons that are coming to light now. The pathways in the brain that light up with our earliest intense sexual experiences are very non-specific. They tend to link all elements associated with intense arousal, automatically and indiscriminately.

One of the most regrettable associations arises when initial sexual experiences occur after being forbidden. Excitement and risk intensify the wiring (learning) process in the brain because they increase dopamine and adrenaline. (So does novelty.)

A person whose initial sexual experiences have an illicit or dicey ("I may burn in hell for this") aura, may therefore be at risk for seeking out future shocking, unsafe, and highly novel activities in connection with sexual expression, long after that person sheds any religious conditioning. Even guilt itself can become pleasurable. Why? Simply because a primitive part of the brain once put 2 (arousal) + 2 (risk or "Thou shalt not!") together-without conscious input—and wired itself accordingly.

Kinsey appears to have suffered from some version of this brain-wiring mishap, perhaps as a consequence of his strict Methodist upbringing and/or his sexual experiences at boys' camp. Whatever the impetus, as an adult he struggled with escalating sadomasochism, injuries from which may have shortened his life. (He died at an early 62.) Kinsey advised, "Tell your sadomasochistic friends to observe great caution. The human body adjusts rapidly and the levels are capable of escalating rapidly." According to his biographer James H. Jones, in Kinsey's later years:

There was something grim in the way Kinsey was approaching sex, not only in his private life but in his research. In both areas, he was becoming more compulsive, like a man who had become addicted to risk taking. The sexual escapades in his attic [sadomasochistic acts with his male lovers] were political dynamite. ... Yet not only did he go right on staging these sessions but he compounded the danger by creating a visual record. (Alfred C. Kinsey, J.H. Jones)

 KinseySexual repression that is harsh enough to make a child see sex as unnaturally "risky and exciting" may contribute to sexual addiction. Guilt is thus clearly counterproductive, but awareness of how the brain and sexual stimuli can interact is not. Kinsey, however, insisted that all would be well if we simply adopt the "if it feels good, do it!" rule. Was he right?

I certainly thought so. In fact, I was a dedicated member of the "each to his own taste" club. Then, men began showing up on my web site's forum, desperate to unhook from escalating Internet porn use. Like Kinsey himself, they were trapped in the search for increasingly extreme sexual stimulation, and the withdrawal symptoms when they tried to stop were debilitating (shaking, severe headaches, insomnia, intense social anxiety, and so forth).

When I enquired confidently about their religious backgrounds, I was surprised to learn that many had none. Guilt about sex was apparently not the cause of their addictions. Huh?

I concluded that threats of hell are not the only way the brain can wire itself for sexual addiction. Highly charged sexual experiences of any kind may do it. And today's Niagara of ever-more-extreme Internet porn is apparently ...at least for some... one of those highly charged experiences. (Many of the porn-hooked visitors are in their mid-twenties, having begun using Internet porn years seven or eight years ago, and I'll have more to say about how some are slowly overcoming their challenge in a future post.)

Recently I came upon the words of Harvard psychologist Howard Shaffer, "A lot of addiction is the result of experience ... repetitive, high-emotion, high-frequency experience." This makes perfect sense, given the way the brain's primitive reward circuitry automatically wires intense experiences in order to remember them.

Speaking of experts, the late psychiatrist and addiction expert Gerald G. May concluded that his profession took a wrong turn in the last century when it codified the belief that repression is our primary danger. May was no fan of repression. However, he felt that addiction was far more debilitating, given the way the brain works. As he put it, "addiction limits the freedom of human desire." And without that freedom, a person cannot effectively address challenges—including overcoming repression. (As we'll see in a future post, chronic low dopamine can increase social anxiety, making overcoming repression even more of a challenge.)

Without free will, an addict is destined to keep his attention on repeating a behavior, not because he likes it, or because it's "merely an outlet," but because his brain has adjusted itself to depend upon the neurochemical hit that accompanies his chosen "medication." These neurochemical demands tend to escalate—just as Kinsey's did. (The Chinese observed this very "ratcheting up" of sexual desire after orgasm thousands of years ago. Art of the Bedchamber)

Our culture's current fear of repression may be leading more and more of us to wreck ourselves on the hidden reef of addiction. Perhaps it's time to codify the need for a healthy middle ground rather than focusing solely on the (very real) peril of repression. We could start by learning more about how orgasm affects the brain, and how soothing affection and connection promote balance in a way that sexual satiation alone cannot.

Kinsey was, above all, a scientist. New facts ask us to reexamine our conclusions. I suspect that if Kinsey were aware of the recent neurochemical findings that explain how intense experience can wire us for addiction, he would be willing to broaden his early hypotheses that (1) repression is our only risk and (2) orgasm can never be anything but a harmless outlet.

I say we honor the anniversary of Kinsey's death by reconsidering our codified assumptions about orgasm, repression and addiction with the same courage he showed in challenging Victorian thinking. His contribution was vital, but it was only a first step. Steering for neurochemical balance, even if some of us have to learn to skirt especially intense and addictive stimuli and focus greater effort on bonding behaviors, may be more vital to sustained well-being than unfettered sexual expression.

For science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)

[From an academic listserve]

If you read the old report of 1948 of the bisexual Kinsey, you will discover that he already knew about a certain amount of "fluidity" - both from his statistical findings and from his own experience. Also, just take a look at the diaries of Drs. X and Y.