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:

THE ERA

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.

THE MAN

Roger Ebertrogerebert.com:

…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.

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.

THE COUPLE

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.’

ONE CONCLUSION

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.