Nov 04

“Kinsey”: Human Sexuality Research Before Masters and Johnson

Before Masters and Johnson (see last week’s post on Masters of Sex) was sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who wrote both Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).

Although I can’t personally vouch for the new series now on Showtime, I can for Bill Condon‘s biopic Kinsey (2004), in which the famous sex researcher is played by Liam Neeson and wife/colleague Clara by Laura Linney. She’s “Mac” to him; he’s “Prok” to her.

Kinsey’s first line in the movie, “I’ve been reading up on gall wasps,” clues us in that he was an insect academic at Indiana University before veering into the study of human sexual practices. Why’d he make this transition? One reason is that he was bugged (pun intended) by what passed as sex education in those days.

Too, having been raised by a moralizing father (John Lithgow), Kinsey had no use for judgmentalism. David Edelstein, Slate: “The movie boils down, for me, to a single, endlessly reverberating phrase: ‘Morality disguised as fact,’ which is what Kinsey thinks of sex education in the late 1930s.”

So, from gall wasps to a course on sexuality in marriage he goes—and it’s a big hit with the students. The university president (Oliver Platt) then supports Kinsey in his plans to study men’s sexuality, which is aided by several male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, and Chris O’Donnell).

Below you can see the trailer:


As noted by critic Roger Ebert, in Kinsey’s era “it was more or less universally agreed that masturbation would make you go blind or insane, that homosexuality was an extremely rare deviation, that most sex was within marriage and most married couples limited themselves to the missionary position.” He continues: “Kinsey interviewed thousands of Americans over a period of years, and concluded: Just about everybody masturbates, 37 percent of men have had at least one homosexual experience, there is a lot of premarital and extramarital sex, and the techniques of many couples venture well beyond the traditional male-superior position.”


Roger“…Kinsey was an impossible man. He studied human behavior but knew almost nothing about human nature, and was often not aware that he was hurting feelings, offending people, making enemies or behaving strangely. He had tunnel vision, and it led him heedlessly toward his research goals without prudent regard for his image, his family and associates, and even the sources of his funding.”

Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “While he’s advocating freshness, freedom and sense in the public arena, Kinsey is mired in moral questions at home. He explores his homosexual side with one of his assistants, much to the shock of Clara, and he encourages sexual experimentation among his followers. Is he the liberated man he asks others to be? What exactly is liberation? Kinsey finds himself caught in the endless conundrum of life.”


Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “Ultimately, ‘Kinsey’ comes down to Prok and Mac, a prickly, not-always-likable but profoundly believable couple going through their own sexual revolution and living to tell the tale. In the end, they walk in the woods, still enthralled by the natural world that first drew them together. ‘It’s impossible to measure love,’ the man who helped America understand sex tells his wife. ‘When it comes to love, we’re all in the dark.'”


A.O. Scott, New York Times:

I can’t think of another movie that has dealt with sex so knowledgeably and, at the same time, made the pursuit of knowledge seem so sexy. There are some explicit images and provocative scenes, but it is your intellect that is most likely to be aroused…

In undertaking his sex research, Kinsey set out to document what was normal, and discovered a universe of variation. In publishing his findings, he horrified some readers and titillated others, but the implications of his work, as presented in this humane and serious film, go far beyond mammalian physiology or human behavior. Each of us is different, and none of us is alone.

Nov 01

“Masters of Sex”: Masters and Johnson

Based on a 2009 nonfiction book about William Masters and Virginia Johnson is a new Showtime series on Sundays called Masters of Sex, starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. From the publisher’s description of the book:

Highlighting interviews with the notoriously private Masters and the ambitious Johnson, critically acclaimed biographer Thomas Maier shows how this unusual team changed the way we all thought about, talked about, and engaged in sex while they simultaneously tried to make sense of their own relationship. Entertaining, revealing, and beautifully told, Masters of Sex sheds light on the eternal mysteries of desire, intimacy, and the American psyche.

The coupling and uncoupling of Masters and Johnson, in brief: In the 1950’s Johnson became a research assistant to the OB-GYN fertility specialist Masters. Although they eventually married, Masters divorced Johnson a couple decades later to be with someone else from his past.

According to many of the reviews, the show grows increasingly better with each episode. Thomas Maier, the book‘s author and a series consultant, has seen at least six of them. He tells Sharon Jayson, USA Today, “The show really reflects that vibrant, dynamic, combative, creative, lustful aspect of this extraordinary relationship between Masters and Johnson. Their relationship goes from a very uneven relationship — boss to low-level secretary filling out forms — to a more equal relationship.”

Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, indicates that not all is real in the show’s portrayal, however: “The show departs in several key ways from the true story, blurring chronology and conflating characters, and adding in one or two questionable twists for the sake of drama. In a few cases, it makes events less strange than they were in reality: in the actual experiments, anonymous couples mated with paper bags over their heads.”

Yes, the sex research—how does the show handle it?

Hank Stuever, Washington Post: “…(I)t’s easily the only show in the fall crop of series that makes me want to watch more, more, more, and not just because it’s got sex in it. Hoo-boy, does it have sex in it. It’s technically soft-core sex and narrative-appropriate, but there’s sex from the front, from the back, from the side, from the top, from the bottom — mattresses a-squeakin’ and EKG needles a-zippin’ back and forth.”

Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe: “It contains plenty of sexual content, when the pair monitor their subjects — most of them prostitutes and johns — during sexual activity; but it isn’t sexed-up so much as it is about sexuality. It’s also about science, primitive then compared with what it is now, and the cultural resistance at the time to talking openly about sex.”

Maureen Ryan, The Huffington Post: “‘Masters of Sex’ brings us sex workers (gay and straight), repressed St. Louis matrons, closeted white-collar workers, blue-collar moms and entitled, arrogant doctors, and it slowly peels back their layers and allows us to feel compassion for what they don’t know and haven’t been taught.”