Before Alfred Kinsey, the common beliefs were that masturbation could cause
blindness, homosexuality was a sign of insanity and intercourse should only
be practiced by married couples, only in the missionary position, and only
in an attempt at procreation. Well, perhaps beliefs is a strong word
for it, but that was the company line and the world stuck to it. Any
suggestion that sex was recreational or even for pleasure were derided as
evil, amoral, even communist.
Kinsey was an odd choice of fate to open our eyes to the diversity of sexual
behavior. Truth is, he started his groundbreaking studies precisely
because he was as confused as the rest of us. He was the son of an
extremely "moral" man, a fire and brimstone believer in proper living who
was completely intolerant of any personal vices. Alfred had been a
sickly child who spent much of his early years stuck in bed. He was
still a virgin when he married at 26, and at the time he started his studies
he had never had sex with anyone except for his wife. He was a zoology
professor by trade, not a psychology professor. His specialty was
entomology; he tirelessly studied and catalogued the gall wasp, an odd breed
that could not fly. He was fascinated by them because no two were
alike, in fact most were shockingly different from their relations.
movie biography looks at the turns of fate that led Kinsey from being a
quiet man chronicling bugs into the world's foremost sex expert. It
shows Kinsey (played to perfection by Liam Neeson) to be an imperfect man;
he was a complete workaholic, he was rather callous when it came to people's
feelings and he often overlooked the way that sex can be a sensitive subject
to people, particularly in the 1940s. He tried to be completely
detached from the findings of his studies. It was scientific research,
pure and simple. ("We are the recorders and reporters of facts - not
the judges of the behaviors we describe," he insisted.) This made him
a good interviewer, people could open up to him and know that he was not
looking down on them. On the other hand, it made him a bit off the
mark as well, he almost never considered the emotional aspect of the sex
often caused grief for his long-suffering wife (Laura Linney) and his
family. He also did not recognize the danger of allowing his three
assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell) and their
wives to become too involved in the studies. Kinsey's single-minded
devotion to his work led to the revolutionary 1948 book Sexual Behavior
in the Human Male which changed the way the world looked at sexuality
and even changed national policy. (Kinsey's findings are
greatly responsible for the removing of laws outlawing homosexuality.)
Other books he wrote were similarly groundbreaking, but starting with the
follow-up Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey's studies were
more and more attacked, leaving him open to charges of avarice,
smut-peddling, perversion and even communism as he was targeted by the
McCarthy hearings. He lost much of his support, both financial
and academic. As the world became more resistant to his findings, and
as a constant work schedule led him to barbiturate addiction and a
predilection for lecturing and hectoring anyone he met.
movie shows Kinsey for the flawed man that he was and makes him all the more
interesting for it. The acting here is at an all-star level, with
Neeson, Linney, Sarsgaard and the others all turning in spectacular work.
In the end, the movie realizes that Kinsey was a brave and driven man who
was willing to sacrifice anything to further science. This
single-mindedness may have made him difficult to live with, but it also made
him able to change the way the world thinks about their bodies and desires.
Kinsey's findings were surprisingly controversial; his critics acted as if
Kinsey created these sexual proclivities, not just reported on them.
It is probably not a coincidence that this film is coming out in the wake of
America's return to the quote-unquote new morality of the Bush years.
Not unexpectedly, almost fifty years after Kinsey's death (he died in 1956),
this film is inspiring an all-new attack from the religious right on
Kinsey's work. Which is strange, because more than anything, Alfred
Kinsey's studies were based on the premise that knowledge was far preferable
to ignorance. For better or worse -- for good, bad, or ugly -- human
behavior can't be understood if it is ignored. The movie Kinsey
shows that the world has come a long way since the repressed 40s and
50s of Kinsey's greatest notoriety; and yet in many ways things have not
changed much at all.
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December 24, 2004.