“Dear Doctor Kinsey”: Letters to Kinsey about Queer Female Desire in the Postwar United States

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:50 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Amanda H. Littauer, Northern Illinois University
Kinsey’s findings about homosexuality in his Human Male volume shocked American society and fueled the anti-gay witch hunts of the early Cold War, but his research also unearthed—and provoked—soul-searching about queer acts and desires among women. In this piece, I argue for the complexity and diversity of mid-century sexual culture by analyzing average people’s letters to Kinsey after the release of the Female Report in 1953. Letter-writers provide deep insight into the perspectives of average people experiencing a range of queer desires in the 1940s and 50s, raising intriguing questions about mid-century sexual practices and terminologies. For instance, a 28-year-old African American woman lamented that “women leave their husbands to come to me,” ask “embarrassing questions” such as “are you Cold, or are you sexy,” and ask her to zip their dresses in the women’s room at Penn Station. “Cold/sexy” could signal an alternative language of butch/stud/fem, though elsewhere in the letter “Cold” evokes “frigidity,” a term usually reserved for heterosexual women. The reference to Penn Station suggests the possibility of lesbian cruising in public bathrooms, a phenomenon usually attributed to men. Queer readings of sex practices between women and men reveal even more ambiguity in postwar Americans’ use of sexual categories and terminologies. A male letter-writer, for instance, was deeply disturbed by his fiancÚ’s apparent interest in performing oral sex on him; he wondered whether this “condition” was caused by her close female friendships and whether the desire to be “abnormal” with one man meant that she was necessarily promiscuous, asking, “Women that are funny with men, are they with women also [and are they] satisfied with one man, or do they like a lot of men?”. Minimizing the salience of the hetero/homo distinction, such transgressive desires call for interdisciplinary analytic strategies and fresh historical interpretations.