The Kinsey controversy

Note: This article contains explicit sexual references that may be offensive to some readers but are necessary to its discussion of this film. SDG

The life and work of Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the Indiana University entomologist turned pioneering sexologist, has provoked accounts and interpretations as divergent, and as bitterly contested, as John Kerry’s Vietnam service in the last election. And, while it’s true that Kinsey’s work warrants such scrutiny, it’s also true that this only makes the task of weeding through the arguments more daunting.

To some, Kinsey was a fearless academic pioneer who defied conventional social taboos and helped end an era of rampant ignorance, misinformation, and fear about sex. To others, he was a depraved propagandist in a bowtie who draped a cloak of academic respectability over lies, sin, and perversion. Some claim that he and his researchers may even have carried out sexual experimentation upon children; others insist that Kinsey’s data was gathered solely from interviews.

There seems to be no distinguishing the man from his cause; as with Kerry’s war record, opinion on Kinsey seems to divide strictly along party lines, though the lines are moral, not political. Those with permissive views of homosexuality, masturbation and premarital sex uniformly accord Kinsey respect and recognition; those who maintain traditional Judeo-Christian sexual morality regard him as an unprincipled snake in the grass. There are other figures who can elicit credit or censure across party lines, but opinion about Kinsey — not just of his conclusions or the effects of his work, but of his methods and motives — comes depressingly close to a litmus test of moral opinion.

The human propensity to construe data in a way congenial to our individual prejudices can be an almost inexorable force. The progression from "It would be very handy if this were true" to "It ought to be true" to "It probably is true" can be a perilously slippery slope. Indeed, this is precisely the charge that Kinsey’s critics make against his work — that he recklessly distorted the facts to suit his own libertine agenda, which aimed at the normalization of all forms of sexual behavior, including adult-child and human-animal sexual interactions.

Of course, the same human weakness for convenient propaganda might equally be faulted for the long-standing credence given to other erroneous notions about sex by society prior to Kinsey. For example, the 19th-century canards about masturbation causing a host of conditions ranging from blindness and insanity to hairy palms and green faces were doubtless propagated for moralistic reasons, by individuals who found the threat of such dire consequences congenial to their moral outlook. It’s easy to pass on an idea when you feel it might do some good, and can’t see in any case that it could possibly do any harm.

Except that such myths do cause harm — in part because, being untrue, they pose a convenient target for opponents looking to debunk what others tried to defend with shoddy weapons. From a traditional moral perspective, keeping ourselves in the dark about sex only made it harder to know what we were looking at when people like Kinsey began selectively shining lights around in various corners. Whatever harm Kinsey did, whatever blame he bears for his legacy — and I think it is enormous on both counts — it was men more like Kinsey’s sternly religious father who set the stage for his work.

As an entomologist, Kinsey made a name for himself studying individual variations among gall wasps by amassing a huge collection of specimens. When he turned his attention to sex research, Kinsey followed an ostensibly similar approach, sampling volunteers and amassing a vast collection of "sexual histories," analysis of which he and his colleagues published in the controversial, surprise best-selling studies, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

It is widely recognized that Kinsey’s methods, though pioneering, were flawed in many respects. For various reasons, his survey samples were substantially skewed toward non-representative populations, including convicted criminals and homosexuals. Ostensibly to encourage candid responses, Kinsey trained his researchers always to ask leading questions that assumed that the subject had engaged in the behavior in question (e.g., "How often do you masturbate?"; "When did you first have extramarital sex?"), and to maintain a neutral, nonjudgmental manner at all times.

Kinsey’s policy of nonjudgmentalism was, however, more than mere methodological neutrality. He didn’t just prescind from moral questions as a scientist studying human behavior — he seems to have been adamantly opposed to negative moral judgments about virtually all forms of sexual behavior, and his published studies explicitly reflect this bias.

For example, in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male he and his colleagues debunked taboos against bestiality, ridiculing "those who believe, as children do, that conformance should be universal, any departure from the rule becomes an immorality" which only "seems particularly gross to an individual who is unaware of the frequency with which exceptions to the supposed rule actually occur," and expressing surprise at "the degree of abhorrence with which intercourse between the human and animals of other species is viewed by most persons who have not had such experience" (pp. 667-68).

Pedophilia Kinsey likewise whitewashed, arguing in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female that there seems to be no reason, apart from "cultural conditioning," that a child should be "disturbed at having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even more specific sexual contacts," and going on to implicate "the current hysteria over sex offenders" as the real danger to children (p. 121).

Even rape Kinsey lightly regarded as "easily forgotten"; he has been quoted as quipping that "the difference between rape and a good time depends on whether the girl’s parents were awake when she finally came home."

Was this amoral vision of human sexuality merely the skeptical rationalism of an unsentimental scientist? On the contrary, it seems to have been the deeply personal credo of an individual with severely disordered passions. From his secretive childhood to his exhibitionist adulthood when he and his colleagues engaged in collective practical "research" on film, Kinsey practiced extremely bizarre forms of masturbation including inserting foreign objects (e.g., toothbrushes, bristle end first) down his urethra and similar masochistic exercises. Public nudity, wife-swapping, homosexual promiscuity, and group sex were all part of the culture of Kinsey’s inner circle.

Kinsey’s pornographic auto-documentaries apparently remain under lock and key at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, which publicly promotes a much more conventional portrait at its founder on its low-key website. "We don’t know everything about the intimacies of Alfred Kinsey’s life (we leave that to the biographers)…" reads a typically terse comment on the Kinsey website, speaking to the controversy surrounding Bill Condon’s film, Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson.

As this comment tacitly suggests, Condon’s film at least scratches the surface of its protagonist’s emphatically checkered life. Like other recent biopics of influential but troubled men such as Ray and A Beautiful Mind, Kinsey is willing to allow its subject to be a flawed human being — up to a point.

So, for example, Kinsey is stung when accused in the wake of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female of "insectizing" American womanhood — yet the film has already shown Kinsey himself, first forming the idea for his study of sexual behavior, describing human beings as "larger, slightly more complicated gall wasps." Kinsey comes across with insect-like inhumanity himself in a scene in which he tries to explain to his anguished wife, Clara (Laura Linney), the scientific validity of his recent homosexual fling; when Clara angrily tells him, "Stop using science to justify what you’ve done," our sympathies are clearly meant to be with her, not him. Later, when Clara has a revenge fling with the same man, Kinsey’s principles won’t allow him to think "jealousy," but he’s plainly inarticulately uncomfortable.

Here and elsewhere, Condon nods toward the sorts of conventional sexual attitudes that were antithetical to Kinsey’s worldview. Yet in general it does so in a way that softens the characters rather than ambiguating them. For example, Kinsey’s jealousy at his wife’s brief fling, though hypocritical, makes him seem more human and naive than the real Kinsey, who actually demanded that Clara copulate with other men on film.

In one key scene, Kinsey sits down to take the sexual history of a sexual monster named Kenneth Braun (William Sadler), whose detailed accounts of his own sexual encounters with an alleged 600 boys, 200 girls, countless adults of both sexes, and animals of various species were an important source of data for Kinsey, especially regarding the alleged sexual responses of preadolescent children.

As Braun recounts his sexual history, a Kinsey colleague (Chris O’Donnell) abruptly reaches some threshold of tolerance and storms out of the room. Kinsey, adhering to his policy of nonjudgmentalism, encourages Braun to continue.

"I suppose someone like me really puts your beliefs to the test, huh?" Braun comments.

"What do you mean?" asks Kinsey.

"Do what you want," the other summarizes.

"I never said that," counters Kinsey with controlled feeling. "No one should ever be forced to do anything against their will. No one should ever be hurt."

This isn’t meant as a purely theoretical comment. We’re supposed to gather that Kinsey believes Braun has in fact hurt people — presumably, the hundreds of children he has abused. In light of Kinsey’s actual, published views of adult-child sex, though, this would seem to be sheer dishonesty.

In general, the film supports the picture of Kinsey as a bookish, ivory-tower academic who simply happened to study an explosive area of human behavior with an open mind. Clara tells him at one point that he’s a bit too "churchy" for her, and Braun calls him a "square." He collects pornography, but for purely academic reasons. Even in his bedroom scene with another man comes across like a naive schoolboy awed by the star quarterback.

Condon makes no secret, though, of Kinsey’s social agenda — in fact he flaunts it. At one point, trying to secure funding, Kinsey says modestly, "I’m just a taxonomist, a measurer; I’m happy to leave the social policies to others" — but he says it with a literal wink. By the final act, he’s boldly proclaiming that "Sexual morality needs to be reformed."

One of the film’s most important lines comes in the following rationale by Kinsey of his work: "One of the aims of science is to simplify. The only way to study sex with any scientific accuracy is to strip away everything but the physiological." As a methodological approach to what can and can’t be measured in human behavior, this might be a defensible assessment. But Kinsey and his colleagues didn’t just try to "strip away everything but the physiological" analytically, but actually. They tried to live as if sex were nothing but physiological, and their published arguments assume the same point of view.

The sheer banality of this sad debauchery is nowhere more glaring than at a Kinsey party where one of the professor’s inner circle cavalierly excuses himself and a lover from the party with a cheerfully graphic remark about his state of arousal. So this is what Kinsey’s liberation means, besides degradation and perversity: the freedom to lack class. How utterly wearying.

Toward the end of the film is a much-noted scene in which a happy lesbian (Lynn Redgrave) in a committed relationship pronounces the film’s final benediction on Kinsey, assuring him what a better place the world has become thanks to him. Just prior to that, though, is another scene that caught my attention, in which Kinsey, reflecting on past failures, breaks down and murmurs, "I couldn’t help them…" The scene recalls, perhaps, a naggingly similar scene of emotional breakdown and self-recrimination at the end of another biopic starring Liam Neeson.

I’d like to think that the echo of Schindler’s List is inadvertent (I don’t want to believe bad things about Condon just because it suits my outlook). If not, it would be a tasteless touch in a film that may safely count tastelessness among the least of its offenses.

Biography, Cultures of Life and Death, Drama, Geisha Movie, Romance