Humanist Perspectives: issue 153: Alfred C Kinsey

Alfred C Kinsey
by Shirley Goldberg

One of the least rewarding — if not the most dangerous — areas of scientific investigation seems to be human sexuality. The most shocking case is that of the Austrian psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and scientist Dr Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), who died of a heart attack at age 60 in a penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, after his experimental orgone energy accumulators had been hacked to pieces and his books, papers and periodicals burned by the Federal Drug Administration. Among the six tons of his medical and philosophical research that were unilaterally incinerated were such titles as The Murder of Christ, Character Analysis (a psychoanalytic text still used in medical schools today) and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The last is especially ironic since it had been banned in Nazi Germany in 1933, forcing him to flee the country in order to escape such book burning.

Kinsey’s work has been compared routinely to an atom bomb in its effect upon American society.

Of course, one can argue that Reich’s hypotheses about sexual energy ranged way outside of the box. He believed he had developed a grand, unified theory of mental and physical health. But what about his contemporary sexologist Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956), a left-brained, linear thinking, product of mid-Western Puritanism — a taxonomist who put his scientific faith in questionnaires and interviews which he catalogued as assiduously as he had previously classified four million gall wasps?

Kinsey’s work has been compared routinely to an atom bomb in its effect upon American society. He was called a pervert, vilified in his lifetime, linked to the international communist conspiracy and investigated by federal commissions when he refused to help J Edgar Hoover find gays in the State Department. Ultimately he lost his university support, as well as the grants from the Rockefeller Foundation that had funded his research. Since work was everything to him, depression and frustration over projects he could never finish no doubt contributed to his early death by heart attack at age 62.

Even now, a half-century — and a sexual revolution — later, a critically acclaimed, 2004 film Kinsey about his life languishes unmarketed and selectively exhibited because of a highly organized attack by Christian fundamentalists. To understand the warped nature of this assault, take a look at the heading of a Special Report from the Traditional Values Coalition: Homosexual Filmmaker Honours Sex Pervert: Bill Condon’s new film ‘Kinsey’ is a sanitized look at the life of a man who used pedophiles — including a Nazi — to molest children for his ‘sex research’.

“We are the recorders and reporters of facts — not the judges of the behaviour we describe.”

In the process of interviewing thousands of men about their sexual history, Kinsey and his team had catalogued a substantial number of victims of child abuse and victimizers as part of his inquiry into what constitutes ‘normal.’ He himself cautioned: “We are the recorders and reporters of facts — not the judges of the behaviour we describe.” Nevertheless, many groups, like Morality in Media and Concerned Women for America, hold Kinsey singularly responsible for AIDS, homosexuality, abortion and pornography.

In a brilliant central performance, Liam Neeson portrays Alfred Kinsey in all of his awkward, driven, charismatic complexity. Kinsey had grown up under a particularly dark cloud of heartland sexual taboos. It was a time and place in which children were taught that masturbation caused insanity and blindness and that widespread adultery caused earthquakes. Worst still, he had an unhappy relationship with his father (John Lithgow), a stern, neurotically repressed engineering instructor and part-time preacher whose doomsday sermon on the zipper, as a devilish device allowing “every man and boy speedy access to moral oblivion,” is one of the funniest moments of the film.

Escaping into the woods and the world of nature proved to be such a salvation to the young Kinsey that he chose to major in biology in defiance of his father’s wishes. Later in life, in a wholly fictitious scene, he records the sexual history of his father, during which he learns for the first time about the cruel chastity belt that his father had been forced to wear as a child to prevent him from touching himself. In that instant of understanding, Neeson’s expression flickers from mocking amusement to tears — one of many subtle, fleeting moments of insight that penetrate sharply into the human experience.

Kinsey graduated from Harvard with a PhD in Biology and accepted a position at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, a small, pristine college town — a most unlikely place to sow the seeds of a sexual revolution. There he met and married Clara Bracken McMillen, an exceptionally intelligent, freethinking student. As portrayed by Laura Linney in a nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance, she is a marvellous mix of warmth, wit and wisdom — qualities she clearly needed to stay by Alfred’s side for thirty-five years.

In Bloomington he spent twenty years building his first reputation by exploring the process of evolution through the rigorous collection and classification of four million gall wasps (the little critters that cause blisters on oaks and rose bushes). Out of this study he concluded that “diversity is life’s only irreducible fact” — a fundamental observation that he carried over into his later investigations about sex.

Kinsey first moved into the field of human sexuality because he saw in his own experience and the trauma of others how much personal and marital unhappiness is caused by sexual ignorance. More than that, he realized how deadly such ignorance can be. Despite an epidemic of venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies and dangerous illegal abortions, ‘abstinence only’ was being taught in the ‘marriage courses’ (euphemistic forerunners of sex-education) at the University. Today, over 60 years later, not much has changed. Despite an epidemic of STDs, teenage pregnancies and abortions, ‘abstinence only’ is once again the solitary bit of sex-ed advice in many a school program.

In one scene Kinsey visits a 1940s marriage class taught by a puritanical fellow instructor (Tim Curry, who played the Transylvanian transvestite in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and is appalled by his repetition of concepts that have no scientific basis. For example, Curry solemnly pontificates that abstinence is no problem for a young man because men come into their sexual prime around forty. Let’s face it: we have a problem. What to do? Like the Tim Curry character, all too often authority figures lie to the kids. The Bush Administration has proposed spending over $200 million next year to teach ‘abstinence only’ — also to peddle untrue horror stories about the failure rate of condoms, the ways people catch AIDS and the relationship between abortion and breast cancer. Hordes of impressionable teenagers are being brainwashed into making ‘sexual purity’ pledges. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical companies are working overtime creating new and better drugs to kick up the sexual urge for men in mid and later life, as well as testosterone patches for menopausal women.

Condon presents Kinsey as a complex, dedi­cated scientist who became a social reformer and a voice for tolerance as he sought to shed light in dark places.

Based to a considerable extent on Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s biography, Sex: the Measure of All Things — a Life of Alfred C Kinsey, the tight, well-written script of Kinsey spills over with ideas, moral issues and ambiguities. Condon presents Kinsey as a complex, dedi­cated scientist who became a social reformer and a voice for tolerance as he sought to shed light in dark places. He is neutral and deadpan in his research, but also compassionate and often moved to tears by people’s stories. Friends and associates have affirmed the essential accuracy of the portrayal. Neeson even looks like Kinsey with his unruly, upright hair.

At the time he shifted his attention from gall wasps to human sexuality, surprisingly little hard science existed. Psychology books were completely inadequate in regard to sexual arousal and intercourse. Even the standard Gray’s Anatomy was inaccurate in its depiction of the female sex organs. As a taxonomist, Kinsey automatically thought of people as bigger, more complicated gall wasps and decided to attack the problem with a wide-ranging survey, involving eventually a 350-item questionnaire, carefully coded to protect anonymity. It took an hour to administer and encompassed the subject’s complete sexual history. With a carefully selected three-man team, he interviewed 18,000 people across the nation and hoped to bring the total up to 100,000.

Using these questionnaires, combined with flashbacks, as a narrative device, director Condon opens the film with Kinsey answering his own questions as he screens and evaluates the technique of his team. He also uses the questionnaires randomly to convey the curious and sad and — in the case of a multiple pervert — horrendous range of responses they received. Kinsey is still much admired for his interview technique. A master at putting people at ease, he could draw them out and detect when they were lying or holding back. Gore Vidal, who was one of his interviewees, has praised Kinsey’s non-judgemental style, his absolute sincerity and his tricky way of asking the same question twice in different ways. Calling Kinsey’s work courageous, Vidal added that he was glad to have contributed to it.

Kinsey’s first ground-breaking book: Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) made him a household name, put his face on the cover of Time Magazine and became the biggest best-seller since Gone With the Wind. Not so with the second, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953), which aroused the anger, suspicion, vilification and federal investigations that eventually cut off his financial support. One of the heroes in this story is University President Herman B Wells (Oliver Platt) who wrote idealistically: “A university that bows to the wishes of a person, group, or segment of society is not free.” He supported Kinsey to the end — until he was unanimously overruled by the Board of Regents.

However, the forces were seriously arrayed. One factor was the emerging psychosis of the Cold War with its paranoia about Fifth Columnists working to undermine the moral underpinnings of the United States and soften it up for defeat. Another factor was public displeasure over what his survey reported about women. Readers who had been titillated to learn about male adultery, masturbation and gay sex found similar revelations about women unacceptable. His next study would have involved sex offenders in the prison system and would no doubt have been even more controversial.

He frankly admitted that love and emotion were scientifically unmeasurable.

As he became more liberated personally, he pushed the boundaries of his research beyond the questionnaires into more controversial areas. Although he always insisted on the principles of consent and no harm, his reductionist, scientific approach could not fully cope with the complexity of the experience he was studying. He frankly admitted that love and emotion were scientifically unmeasurable.

With his closest assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard in a deeply sympathetic, conflicted performance), he experimented with homosexual sex. He also encouraged his inner team and their wives to engage in various configurations of spouse-swapping — an experiment which did not work out well. Martin complained of feeling like a lab rat. Pushing on further into dubious terrain, Kinsey sought to better understand the body’s physical changes by photographing various types of intercourse in the attic of his home. Meanwhile, he had begun accumulating a collection of rare erotic art, literature and memorabilia, complicated by a seven-year legal battle with US Customs, which found many of the items “grossly obscene.” That collection is now a unique sex museum at the Kinsey Institute on the Bloomington campus. Included are photographs of all sorts of animals copulating — some with great difficulty. Those who catch the film in a theatre and don’t rush off when the credits start to roll will see some bizarrely comical examples.

Provocatively, he would tell his students that the only real abnormalities were “abstinence, celibacy, and delayed marriage.”

Kinsey’s research fundamentally challenged the conventional concepts of what is normal and in the process questioned the laws and the moral codes that were based on those concepts. Finding that masturbation, oral sex, adultery, premarital and homosexual sex and other variations were far more common than people ordinarily assumed, he concluded that none of those sexual behaviours could be called abnormal. They might be rare, but — as long as they happened between consenting adults and no one was harmed — they couldn’t be called abnormal. Provocatively, he would tell his students that the only real abnormalities were “abstinence, celibacy, and delayed marriage.”

His theoretical constructs have been particularly helpful in the understanding of homosexuality. Assigning every subject a position on a seven-point scale with zero representing total heterosexuality and six total homosexuality, he concluded that out of every ten men one will be actively homosexual for a period of his life, that 37% of all men will have at least a single homosexual experience and that 4% will be completely homosexual. Although Kinsey’s original data was skewed toward white middle-class men, subsequent, more broadly based research has only altered his conclusions slightly. According to the Kinsey Institute, all of his findings have held up well. Overall, his studies led to frankness about sex, to further research such as the work of Masters and Johnson, to the sexual revolution, to tolerance and to the rescinding of many cruel, archaic laws and bylaws.

When the biopic Kinsey first premiered — before the protests and demonstrations — it was heralded as one of the best films of the year, destined for several Academy Award nominations including best picture. It gains strength from a unifying sense of purpose. Director/writer Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and his superlative cast all believed in what they were doing — that this was a story that needed to be told in the current repressive, fundamentalist, USA climate. As Linney has said, “It’s because we all mind what Bush is doing to America. Kinsey has become not just a symbol of liberty in sex but an icon of a much saner way of looking at the world… So we are all doing this for much less money than we might be.” She went on to stress that Kinsey saw his work as a crusade and so did they in making the film.

Wilhelm Reich, the other crusader for sexual openness and tolerance, has also been commemorated on film — appropriately a bizarre, classic cult film, WR: The Mysteries of the Organism (1971) by the great Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev, with WR standing not just for Wilhelm Reich but also World Revolution. Originally a student of Freud, Reich went on to develop a fairly mystical concept of sex energy and the life force. He agreed with Kinsey that repression of sexual needs and desires caused a tremendous amount of unhappiness, guilt and intolerance in the world, but he pressed on more extravagantly to claim it also caused cancer and Fascism. The focus of Makavejev’s black, but humane, humour is divided almost equally between a hagiography of Reich, a discourse on Yugoslavia’s ‘Third Way’ and a fictional story about a handsome, virginal Russian figure skating champion who uses his ice skate to murder an incessantly ideological Yugoslavian beauty out of shame after she has seduced him.

Considering the intersection of physiology, psychology, sociology and religion, few medical/scientific fields offer a greater risk of misunderstanding than human sexuality — and perhaps also a greater risk of going astray. With Kinsey it has been a case of shooting the messenger. The ignorance he fought against was — and is — willed ignorance. His mechanistic approach had its limitations, as the film shows, but Reich’s holistic mode frightened people even more. Unfortunately, with the chastity forces on the loose again, Kinsey and Reich might not fare much better in the United States of 2005 than they did in the mid fifties.

Shirley Goldberg is a free-lance writer, film critic and film programmer. She is retired from teaching English and Film Studies at Malaspina University-College.