Kinsey and What's Normal

A silver lining to the cloud that is Hollywood's Kinsey can be found in how Alfred Kinsey's views on sex are again coming under critical scrutiny, as is the fuzzy thinking often used to propagate them.

Statisticians and researchers can show through detailed analysis how wrong Kinsey's supposedly scientific conclusions were. Here I focus on the question of normality and how we are supposed to readjust our views of morality based on Kinsey.

The famous studies of human sexuality conducted by Kinsey claimed that a high percentage of people engage in what by traditional moral standards is sexually immoral behavior. Many of Kinsey's results have been challenged by other studies and are generally held by many experts to have been refuted. Some scholars argue that Kinsey deliberately skewed the results to advance his sexually permissive worldview.

But what if Kinsey's figures had been correct? The conclusion many people think we must draw from Kinsey — and which many people have drawn — is that traditional moral norms regarding sex aren't good for people. Sexual license, on this view, is actually a good thing.

Let's set aside the pragmatic arguments from the social and personal disasters generated by the sexual revolution. Instead, consider the sheer logic (or illogic) of the argument from statistics for revising sexual morality.

Does it follow that if, say, most married people commit adultery at some point or another — as Kinsey claimed, but other researchers haven't corroborated — that adultery must be moral? In other words, if the normal conduct married people exhibit, whatever they may claim to do, is adulterous, should that lead us to conclude that fidelity in marriage is wrong and adultery is good?

Let's try that logic in other areas of life. How many of us have never told a lie? Does the fact that almost every human being has lied mean that lying is acceptable? Some people justify lying in order to save lives (e.g., hiding Jews from Nazis) or to avoid hurting people's feelings (that “white lie” you told your mother about her new dress). Moralists debate and quibble over whether and the extent to which such things are, in fact, lies. But most people at one time or another have lied for reasons they themselves otherwise acknowledge are wrong. Does this mean lying in this way should be commended because it is, statistically speaking, “normal”?

Or how many of us have never stolen something, even if only a candy bar as a child? Does the fact that all of us or most of us have done it at some level at least make theft morally acceptable, or something to be extolled?

If neither lying nor theft can be justified by an appeal to numbers, why, then, should we conclude that marital infidelity could be baptized if we found — contrary to what researchers seem to have found — that most married men and women are unfaithful to their spouses? One hundred percent of us do something immoral or unethical at one time or another. That doesn't make it “morally acceptable” to be immoral or unethical, regardless of whether we would call doing wrong “normal.”

The problem is, “normal” can mean what everyone or most everyone does. That's what we might call statistical normality. But “normal” can also mean “according to the norm,” the standard concerning the good that ought to be done and evil that ought to be avoided. That's what we might call moral normality. What is statistically “normal” is frequently not morally normal, which is why we exalt the virtuous man. He stands out precisely because he is not “normal,” statistically speaking, but is “morally normal” in that he sets the standard or norm the rest of us should strive for.

It's no good simply looking to statistical normality to determine moral normality — certainly not if traditional Christianity is right about fallen humanity. Most of us are, in varying degrees, hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. The best most of us can hope for in this life is to become honest hypocrites, people who admit we fall short of the standards we nevertheless insist upon as good and right.

Hypocrisy is, as H.L. Mencken observed, the compliment vice pays to virtue. The moral masks we hypocrites wear reveal what we should look like, even while they conceal, or attempt to conceal, our true faces.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis noted how most human beings know at least two basic facts regarding right and wrong: (1) that there is a universal, objective moral law and (2) that we all violate it. This is another way of saying that what is normal, as far as what human beings should do, isn't normal as far as what human beings in fact do. Even if Kinsey had discovered evidence of what is normal regarding sex in the second sense of normal, it wouldn't have undercut the evidence (or the ethical demands) of what is normal in the first sense. To claim otherwise, as Kinsey did, is to voice not a mature sense of morality as some claim, but the most childish of retorts to justify evil behavior: “Everybody else is doing it.”

Mark Brumley is president of Ignatius Press and associate publisher of