Puberty, Perversions, and Allen Ginsberg; or, My Life as a Teenage Sexologist

I was in tenth grade, in my teenage counterculture phase, when I discovered the sexologists. Most teenagers, I think, go through a counterculture phase, when they devour Ginsberg and Kerouac and at least think about drug-taking and free love, even if they’re too dorky to really go through with it. Most teenagers go through a phase of coming to terms with an idea of themselves as sexual beings, as proto-adults, as people newly able to relate to their fellow proto-adults in entirely different ways. Most teenagers today, I think, must see something of themselves in the Beats, because today it is cool to be a misfit and cool to write poetry or songs as an expression of why your misfitedness is how the whole world ought to be. And so did I: Allen Ginsberg has been easily one of the single most influential people in my life. Long before I knew what it meant to be “blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,” I imagined myself to be an “angelheaded hipster” in my own suburb. I read Ginsberg under the table in American history class until I’d learned “Howl” off by heart; and when we had to do five-minute individual presentations on poems in my English class, I took up half the period subjecting my poor teacher and classmates to a lecture on how “A Supermarket in California” ripped off Whitman and Lorca.

But the piece of Ginsbergiana of which I’m reminded today is a few paragraphs in Bill Morgan’s very long biography of the poet, which I received for Christmas in 2006 and spent another few months reading under the table in class. The book is in a box in Princeton now, but those paragraphs talk about when Ginsberg was living in New York in the ’50s, at the height of the Beat era, and his drug-dealing dropout friend Herbert Huncke introduced him to a researcher named Alfred Kinsey who was writing a book about Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and looking for interesting case studies. Kinsey and Ginsberg had dinner in a diner near Times Square and Kinsey got plenty of juicy material about the poor poet struggling with his sexuality and always falling uncomfortably in love with his straight male friends. It was fascinating not only to realize that Kinsey’s research involved paying underworld types like Huncke to seek out countercultural men with more colorful stories (hardly a scientific way to do a survey of the population!), but also to realize that such stories existed. Wikipedia research, of course, ensued, and I soon learned that individual anonymous case histories were a staple of the history of sexological research in Europe and America. I read tantalizing snippets on the Internet of archaic-sounding sexual autobiography, and I was hooked. For the rest of high school, whenever I went to the university library, I would sneak guiltily off too the wing on the sixth floor where I knew the “sex books” were. I’d take the English translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis off the shelf and sit on the linoleum poring over one of the earliest systematic studies of sexuality, shame causing me to slip round the corner into the history of marriage books if anyone came by.

Sexology was my puberty, my coming of age, surely as transformative to me as any teenager’s first girlfriend or boyfriend. I leaped into a world of “deviance” and “perversion,” because to a sheltered and easily-shocked 16-year-old, any sexual behavior was as weird and perverted as any other. As I branched out—to the 18th-century pornography I brought with me on my orchestra’s trip to Europe, or the Olympia Press books I read for my (totally-embarrassing-not-a-real-piece-of-history-writing) European history research paper—I developed easily the most infamous reputation that any late-blooming girl without a first kiss behind her has ever had. Like teenagers “who chained themselves to subways for the ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine” without having injected or ingested a single real drug, I carried around Kinsey for the caché, and I sat alone at lunch and actually slogged all the way through Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s unbelievably boring novel Venus in Furs so that I could tell people where our word “masochism” (a Krafft-Ebing coinage!) came from. And when I left for college, I guiltily hid my little, growing collection of 18th- and 19th-century sex lit and 20th-century Kinsey-spinoff studies in my backpack; and I slipped away from the bustle of orientation weekend to make my first foray into the university library system, getting lost looking for Havelock Ellis on Firestone B-floor.

Over time, I got used to visiting the stacks shelved under Library of Congress classification HQ, and over time I stopped running away if I saw another person standing there poring over a book about lesbians. As the months went by and I made some friends and found a new home and took a great, great class called “Gender and Sexuality in Modern America,” homosexuality started to separate itself out from all the other strands of perversion. Through the lens of homosexuality, I discovered more memoirs than I’d ever read in my life, by people not too different from me who’d used the primary sources of previous eras to access a subject they didn’t otherwise know how to address. I read more and more, and became conversant in the secret languages of those who lead double lives, and in the not-so-secret languages of those who create new languages in order to bring those lives out into the sunshine. I read about those who discovered Plato the way I’d discovered Krafft-Ebing, and Whitman the way I’d discovered Ginsberg. I grew to care very deeply indeed for the centuries of lonely people who snuck off to libraries as a way to confront shame and fear, and to admire beyond measure those who thought to write about it in the hopes that the next generation might not be so embarrassed by it all. I grew to see it as my 21st-century job—at least for now—to keep their stories alive, and to do the thinking, writing, and talking necessary to bring their work to a new generation living in a new social context. It’s been sexology ever since—and now Ginsberg’s lines about the men “in public parks… scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” stand out to me more than those about drugs and jazz.

Today “Howl” does not hang over my desk as it once did, and I am not quite so inseparable as I once was from the old City Lights paperback. But Ginsberg is part of the literary lineage through which I have found a sense of purpose, and he is never far away. Today, reading about the 19th-century sexological intellectuals whose story I hope in a few short months to begin to tell, I pieced together the elements of the sexual lineage Ginsberg believed tied him to Whitman: Ginsberg had slept with Neal Cassady, who had slept with a man named Gavin Arthur (incidentally, the grandson of the president), who may or may not have slept with Edward Carpenter, who may or may not have slept with Whitman. These claims get trickier as you get farther back, and it’s harder to figure out what counts as sex at the turn of the 20th century than it was in the Clinton White House. But reading that today, I thought of how Ginsberg used that lineage to make sex a process of literary and spiritual inspiration, and what a tool the intellectualization and academization of human sexuality has been to those who seek to understand themselves, their world, and their place in it.

I am writing this, probably the most particularly sexual blog post I have written in years, as I look out my bedroom window to a suburban street, young voices shouting at each other and skateboards clattering on the pavement as the neighbors’ kids play in their driveways. I have sat here for the past two weeks, too, on a crash course through the intellectual history of 19th-century sexuality, and I plan to do the same until the end of the month when I take off for Canada. I can’t help thinking, as I look out the window, of freshman-year fall break, the week before the 2008 election, when our neighbors with the skateboarding kids had “Yes on Prop. 8” signs in their front yards, when I waited in the living room to give out candy on Halloween and heard parents telling their children to pass by our house because our sign said “No on 8.” As I go back to reading about intellectuals like John Addington Symonds, who seem to have believed that if they wrote enough about homosexuality it would cease to be a crime or a disease, I can’t help reaffirming my belief in the good work that words do, and the good work that scholarship does. And I can’t help but think, as I go to open yet another book about sodomy, and look out the window once more, that maybe I managed to find in me a shred of real countercultural subversion after all.

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