“Kinsey,” the movie, is a warts-and-all biopic, which while common for written biographies, is rare in motion pictures.
Alfred Kinsey chases fame, repeats his father’s harsh childrearing practices and, as his expertise grows, develops an agenda—helping persecuted sexual minorities. By the end of his life, this humane goal has become an all-consuming cause. In a delightful scene with his boss played by Oliver Platt, as the university president, Kinsey, portrayed by Liam Neeson, confronts his academic detractors and makes known the need to raise money in order to continue his research. He has one foot in realism and the other in idealism. It’s a nice combination.
Ultimately, Kinsey made a persuasive case that human beings had an active and varied sexual life outside of the legally sanctified boundary of sex within marriage.
Kinsey was a scientist trained by empiricists who combated error and corrected superstitions. At the beginning of his groundbreaking odyssey, Kinsey upset conventional wisdom and ended up battling religious fundamentalists and their conservative allies, his opponents to this day.
Pre-martial sex, adultery and same-sex intercourse were the topics that attracted the public’s attention to Kinsey’s books. He found that such behaviors were more common than many respectable groups were willing to admit; at one time in their lives, 37 percent of males and 13 percent of females had at least some overt homosexual experience that led to orgasm. His famous rating scale measuring homosexual and heterosexual extremes allowed many people to assign themselves to a bisexual mid-range. Zero was for a person exclusively hetero, and a 6 exclusively homo—as we used to say. In 1953, when I was 11, Kinsey was on the cover of Time magazine, and I can testify that his work had an enormous impact on the way we pre-teens talked and thought about sex. The impact on public attitudes devastated conservatives’ notions of Americans’ sexuality.
Kinsey affected attitudes in other ways. He taught the public that gay sex existed and debunked the notion that sex between two men was by one straight man and a queer. Kinsey said, there were two participants in the homosexual act, for example, the fellator and the fellatee. With this one truth, the number of men who had homosexual experiences increased to one-third.
The Kinsey reports were released as Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy energized conservatives and scared Americans about the threat of a communist takeover. The religious fundamentalists and conservative allies reacted with great fury toward Kinsey, forcing the Rockefeller Foundation to end its funding, and leading to a congressional hearing that condemned his work. In this respect, Kinsey is an American Galileo. His discoveries were denied, not because they were untrue, but because the new knowledge undermined moralistic constructs. In such a situation the right believed the facts must go.
Even today the hostility lingers. Alfred Kinsey’s harshest critics compare him to doctors who infected patients as human guinea pigs in order to study the progress of a disease and even to Nazi doctors. Legislation is pending in Congress that would prohibit the use of Kinsey’s methods.
The methodology made everyone pay attention. He used polling methods to select and interpret interviews of persons about their sexual history. Instead of finding out whom Americans supported for president, Kinsey’s researchers found out when an interviewee first orgasmed. The grim 19th-century battle against masturbation was vanquished with Kinsey’s finding that the pleasuring practice was universal. The number of ways that sexual repression harmed heterosexuals is remarkable, and the film’s director, Bill Condon, makes it clear that Kinsey promoted more than a gay revolution; he influenced child rearing and the sex lives of straight couples.
Kinsey biographers have discovered that he had an active bisexual life. Some commentators conclude that his promiscuity and sexual behavior rendered his research suspect, not unlike the suspicions raised about researchers who dabble in the hallucinogenic drugs they study.
Kinsey’s was one of the landmark movements in the nation’s acceptance of homosexuality. The movie makes it clear that Kinsey moved from trying to give his students honest information about sex, to gradually seeing the history of sexual regulation and control as a history of persecution, injustice and ignorance. Harry Hay started the Mattachine Society in the midst of the debate sparked by Kinsey’s studies.
Kinsey’s liberating candor is underscored with sudden intensity by the lesbian character played by Lynn Redgrave at the end of the movie.
This strength of character in the face of opposition is badly needed in contemporary politics. We have become convinced that the public is conservative and opposed to liberalism. All too often Democrats think they are advocating for an unpopular position. This fear does battle with the ideals and liberalism that progressives stand for. They dissemble rather than speak forthrightly. They resemble the student called before the principal rather than a person of strong beliefs and sound character.
The voters conclude that politicians lack the strength to be honest with them. Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College, predicts that when the analyses are complete, voters’ perceptions of truthfulness will be the major reason George Bush won. If John Kerry exhibits the dangers of hiding your thoughts, Sherrill says, Bella Abzug exhibited the benefits of speaking your mind. People would routinely say, “I don’t always agree with her, but at least she speaks her mind.”
Kinsey spoke his mind, and it’s a quality that should be cultivated by our political leaders.