“Ancient Codes” and “Biologic Norms”: Kinsey’s Uses of Cultural Development Theories and Classical Archaeology

In October 2018 Jen Grove spoke on ‘”Ancient Codes” and “Biologic Norms”: Kinsey’s Uses of Cultural Development Theories and Classical Archaeology’ at our project conference Sexology and Development: Exploring the Global History of the Sexual Sciences.


This paper explores sexological uses of evolutionary theories of development and their intersection with the collection and reception of visual and material culture from the past. Specifically it will focus on Alfred Kinsey, who, like many sexual scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before him, was interested in, and built up his own collection of, archaeological and anthropological artefacts, as part of an exploration of cross-cultural approaches to sexual behaviour. Like his predecessors, this evidence was used to throw contemporary societal mores – in this case relating to the sex lives of mid-twentieth century Americans – into sharper definition.

Cross-cultural comparison was used by Kinsey firstly to argue against the ‘normal/abnormal’ classification of sexual behaviour which had to a large extent dominated sexual science for many decades: if artefacts from the past can prove sexual mores to be culturally-specific, they must also therefore be socially constructed. However, Kinsey also looked to representations of sex which demonstrated the continuity of this ‘normal/abnormal’ paradigm in Western thought. The use of material from ancient Greece and Rome highlights this tension in Kinsey’s understanding of cultural development: ancient classical culture’s values had fed Judaic traditions which developed into Christian principles that now dominated America morality, and which were, Kinsey suggested, recently sanctified by science. However, antiquity also provided Kinsey with visual evidence about global variation of attitudes to sex with which he challenged contemporary Western ideas about, for instance, acceptable sexual acts and heteronormativity.

This emphasises the wider ambiguous modern reception of Greece and Rome which were at times presented as founders of Western civilisation and at others as more liberated and/or more licentious “primitive” or “pagan” cultures. This paper will explore the complex role that “primitive” time and space played in constructing sexological theories. This paper contributes to our greater understanding of the contradictory nature of cultural evolutionary theories and their deployment in sexuality studies in the modern period.