Considering Kinsey Let's Think About Sex

Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ may have dominated movie headlines this year, but Fox Searchlight's Kinsey is probably the movie most likely to offend fans of both blockbusters—and possibly everyone else. With explicit sexuality, politics and religion, it was predictable that writer and director Bill Condon's biographically-themed picture about bow-tied biology professor Alfred Kinsey, regarded as a pervert by conservatives, would set talk radio tongues wagging with smears and rumors.

But Kinsey also dramatizes the idea that love and sex ought to be integrated, a notion that repudiates left-wing intellectuals' moral acceptance of promiscuity. The picture with the year's most passionate same sex kiss (Kinsey, not Alexander) also features the screen's most enduring romantic love affair—between man and woman as husband and wife.

Kinsey is the story of a lone intellectual, played in the movie by Liam Neeson, who sought to understand his own sexuality and enlightened the world with his discoveries, which were based on 18,000 interviews. Among the lasting effects of his work: a reversal of the near-universal condemnation of masturbation, basic recognition that homosexuals exist and new insights into the role of orgasm. While the scope of his work is astonishing, Kinsey's primary achievement may be that his findings challenged the notion that the purpose of sex is procreation. His work was taken as a rebuke of Puritanism.

Kinsey has his critics, then and now, and they are usually religious. In an August 1953 letter to Indiana University President Herman Wells (played by Oliver Platt in the movie), the state's division of the National Council of Catholic Women raised the alarm against Kinsey:

"How representative of Indiana University is the thinking of Dr. Alfred Kinsey? We have not, of course, read his latest book, but we have seen the sensational reports on it in magazines and newspapers, and these are frightening, indeed. Almost without exception, the writers, who have carefully studied Dr. Kinsey's book and have been thoroughly briefed by him, come to the conclusions that the Indiana professor considers our present sexual morals for the most part to be superstitious notions of an unenlightened and uncritical past. How dangerous such a teaching can be should be evident to you, Dr. Wells, as you know from many years of experience how difficult it is for youth to master themselves and learn to accept the demands that society imposes upon them."

Today, Kinsey's critics show up on popular cable news shows that cater to the faith-based, voicing unsubstantiated charges and blaming Kinsey for the spread of promiscuous sex. Religious activists organized campaigns against the movie and, according to Variety, one public broadcasting station in the United States, WNET in New York, rejected a Kinsey promotional spot for fear of a conservative backlash.

For a comprehensive examination of how the late Indiana University professor's research changed America, and how sex studies have fared since his first report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published in 1948, Box Office Mojo turned to the world's top scholars, who read Kinsey's reports, saw the movie and knew those who conducted the research.

Couples therapist Barry McCarthy, who teaches at American University in Washington, DC, and wrote Rekindling Desire: A Step-By-Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages and Coping With Erectile Dysfunction, drove to Philadelphia just to see the movie, which goes into national release on Jan. 7. He liked what he saw.

"It's a very honest portrayal of Kinsey's strengths and weaknesses," McCarthy says. "I like that he was portrayed as a scientist who just really wanted to know about sex, whose research was to understand and accept normal variations. That's one of the finest things about his research. But it also portrayed his weaknesses."

McCarthy, like others interviewed for this article, cautioned against dropping the context of Kinsey's time, when the knowledge about sex and how to conduct research was limited. As McCarthy says: "When you talk about Kinsey's flaws in research, you have to remember [that] he invented the field. You can't take 2004 and apply it to 1943."

Heather Hoffmann, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., agrees that the movie is both accurate and entertaining. "I liked it," she writes in an e-mail exchange. "There were some Hollywood-ish aspects that I did not care for but overall I would say that it is a good movie." Despite the advertising campaign's tag line, "Let's Talk About Sex," Hoffmann points out that Kinsey is not exclusively about sex: "It is about a life; a romance, a career, a dedication to science and to helping people better understand sexuality."

Hoffmann and McCarthy both peg Kinsey as a pioneer in studying sex. Hoffmann, who was a visiting scholar at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where Kinsey taught, credits Kinsey with lighting the way.

"My general research centers on how people acquire their erotic taste," she explains. "Such work may help people handle problems in sexual arousal (e.g., pedophilia, recovery from sexual trauma). Working at the Kinsey [Institute] provided me with a support network for my research."

McCarthy is more blunt: "Everyone in the sex field owes to Kinsey," he says. "The first time I read the Kinsey reports, I was a young assistant professor in 1970. There was no text book. There were no formal courses in human sexuality. Kinsey taught the first formal course in undergraduate [studies]."

Richard Crosby, Ph.D., who studies condom use, agrees. "Kinsey made us aware that there is tremendous variation in human sexual behavior and that we should be constantly vigilant about this variation," says Crosby, an associate professor of public health at the University of Kentucky. When asked to name Kinsey's top success, Crosby, McCarthy and Hoffmann agree that his findings on variation in sexual behavior are paramount.

"Kinsey brought sex out of the closet," Crosby says. "Though we have a vocal minority that actively campaigns against sexual language and sexual talk, the large majority has [the attitude that] the more we know, the better off we're going to be."

That also means learning about controversial sexual conduct, such as masturbation, oral-genital contact and homosexuality, subjects Kinsey explores. "His work showed masturbation as a universal phenomenon," clinical psychologist McCarthy says, "and his research said that people who engage in it do better in partner sex. That's something I talk to clients about."

Crosby, who is focused on prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, adds that Kinsey's work shows that there are many different ways to express sexual desire, including petting and mutual masturbation. Such varying outlets for one's sex drive, Crosby suggests, are advantages that are often overlooked by Kinsey's conservative detractors, who blame sex research for a rise in hedonism, evidenced everywhere from Oprah to sensational news reports.

"There's no question that kids have replaced penile-vaginal activities with oral-genital activities," Crosby notes. "Is that good or bad? HIV is much more difficult to transmit by oral-genital activity." McCarthy, a certified marriage and sex therapist who maintains a private practice counseling couples, emphasizes that Kinsey's sex research brought the field into the arena of objective science with a goal to record what happens in reality. McCarthy credits Kinsey with paving the way for prominent research conducted by William Masters and Virginia Johnson and a widely circulated study by the University of Chicago, Sex in America.

Each scholar admits that Kinsey's original reports were no guarantee of future results, let alone infallibility. McCarthy bemoans the trend of celebrity sex pundits and cautions against interpreting Kinsey's achievements as a blank check for every conceivable sexual act. "The trick in this field, and it's a very hard trick, is to find the people who really know the material," he says.

"[Popular sex pundit] Dr. Ruth [Westheimer] is not at all a researcher," McCarthy, whose clinical approach is cognitive-behavioral, points out. " The Hite Report [a bestselling sex book in the 1970s by Shere Hite] is the opposite of the Kinsey reports. In Kinsey's time, there was anti-sex BS. Now, there's just pro-sex BS. There is a lot in the sex field that he would probably applaud and there is a lot he would be disturbed and angry about. He would say we have to be honest about what we know and what we don't know. Kinsey believed that knowledge is power."

When presented with conservatives' argument that sex research rationalizes immoral behavior and sanctions indiscriminate sex, Crosby admits that the family as the cradle of sex education is ideal. "We need to provide kids with a lot more than mechanics," he says. "A good school-based program demystifies sex and, by not talking openly about sex and all the emotions that go with it, we're doing a disservice to our kids."

A spokeswoman for the Kinsey Institute, Stephanie Sanders, adds that Kinsey may have been an easy target when, during the late 1960s, the hippie philosophy—"If It Feels Good, Do It"—took hold of the culture.

"There is this view that sex research somehow opened this Pandora's box where anything goes," Sanders says in an interview from her office. " America went from Victorian conservatism to the Roaring Twenties, with the flappers. That was a sexual revolution, too. Sex research didn't open that box but it did remove the blindfold."

"Whether the media and popular culture have somehow usurped the science is an interesting question," says Sanders, who is associate director at the Kinsey Institute. "A lot of sex research is about relationships and problems people have related to sex. I've been in sex research for a long time and very few [researchers] would say anything goes." Sanders says she welcomes criticism of Kinsey's work—provided it is based on reality.

"Most of us are trained in science and scientists don't get trained in public relations," Sanders says, recognizing that Kinsey's opponents quickly mobilized against the movie. Referring to one particularly prevalent claim being disseminated among conservatives, that Kinsey experimented with children or approved the experimentation of sex acts with children, Sanders doesn't mince words: "It is not based on fact. He did not hire people to do experiments with children nor did he do experiments himself. The principle was that people have to be able to consent. Kids can't consent."

Sanders says religious fundamentalists are not the only ones to distort the data to suit an agenda. She says several left-wing groups, such as gay activist organizations, profess to accept alternative lifestyles while denigrating other lifestyles. Kenneth Gros Louis, chancellor of Indiana University from 1980 to 2001, concurs.

"We have scientists doing DNA research at our medical school that people are opposed to because the animals they use tend to be rats," says Professor Gros Louis, who came to Indiana University in 1964 and knew Mrs. Kinsey (played in the movie by Laura Linney) and Kinsey researcher Paul Gebhart (portrayed by Timothy Hutton). He adds that the most strident campus activism came from an anti-abortion group. Most students, he insists, take controversies in stride—and many have gained from Kinsey's findings.

"During the 1980s, students still dated," Gros Louis remembers, "and I noticed that students interacted so easily with one another and didn't feel that they had to have a date to do something. Students are getting married later, too. Now, it's six or eight years later. They seem to be in no rush." Many parents would be delighted by such an observation.

Indeed, since the movie was released, Kinsey Institute spokeswoman Sanders says reaction has been mostly positive, though negative views have also been voiced. "The stakes can be quite high because sexuality is tied to identity and morality," Sanders says. "This is an area where people make judgments. The question is in what ways should we make judgments. Often those moral judgments are based on religious viewpoints. We are living in a time not unlike the end of Kinsey's life and when people are fearful, they often close down, cut off inquiry and lose sight of fundamental [scientific] values."

Sometimes, the errors belonged to Professor Kinsey.

Commenting on Kinsey's flawed methodology, Heather Hoffmann agrees that Kinsey's interview samples were biased; he did not have a random sample of people from across America, a crucial part of generalizing research results. Yet, Hoffmann adds: "This does not invalidate his research. We simply need to look at Kinsey's reports with this in mind. Recent research, using better sampling techniques, replicates many aspects of Kinsey's work."

Everyone interviewed admits Kinsey made mistakes. "Now we know that people are likely to be more honest with female interviewers," McCarthy says. "Kinsey used himself and three male interviewers. The worst transgression is that he violated ethical rules of how to work with clients—you really need to keep clear boundaries—and he used his power in a way to manipulate his researchers. He didn't have today's rules of engagement." As Indiana University's Gros Louis puts it: "He went overboard on some things. Someone who's an expert gets fixated on something and he was."

Kinsey also trained his researchers to conduct interviews without taking notes, according to Crosby, which might be viewed as a brilliant means of gaining the subject's trust or as a scientifically irresponsible method. In any case, his passion for knowledge about a subject for which he was routinely scorned seems beyond reproach. "There's a role model in [the way he lived] his life," Crosby says. "He persisted in facing adversity. He faced individuals in public who said he was engaging the Devil's work and he was the first to go on with it and get the job done."

His influence spans the globe. Sociology scholar Aleksandar Stulhofer, who teaches at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and has studied sexual trafficking of women and children, answered a query by Box Office Mojo by e-mail about the measure of Kinsey's career. When he began studying at Indiana University in 1991, Stulhofer says he had only a vague idea of Kinsey.

"I did not even know that the Kinsey Institute was right under my nose," Stulhofer says. In 2000, Stulhofer spent part of a Fulbright fellowship at the Kinsey Institute primarily, he says, "to see the place famous for its history and quality of research." Though his studies were confined to sex education politics in America, during Stulhofer's visit, he developed a passionate interest in sex therapy and research, which he says culminated in the first epidemiological studies of male and female sexual problems—and the first training program in sex therapy—in Croatia.

"The impact of Kinsey's work on the sexual science, as well as on the social understanding, norms and politics of sexuality is beyond comparison," Stulhofer says, adding that he is looking forward to taking his class to see Kinsey and discuss the movie.

Stephanie Sanders, who served as interim director of the Kinsey Institute in the 1990s, measures Kinsey's achievements in personal terms: "It was very hard for my mom to talk about sex and, while I had pretty good sex education in high school, I am a lot better adjusted than I would have been. It's allowed me to be a happier person."

By most accounts, Alfred Kinsey would have liked knowing that. The movie that bears his name shows a man who relied on facts, not insinuation, who did not accept suffering as a burden, though he did suffer, and who held joy as the aim of his efforts. In a year when the most talked about movies were a pair of harsh polemics featuring an anti-war hippie and a selfless martyr, Kinsey, ironically, if not surprisingly, comes closest to a classic Hollywood happy ending.

Originally published December 30, 2004 by Box Office Mojo

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