Produced by American Zoetrope
Written and directed by Bill Condon
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Pervert. Although the word has been drummed out of polite conversation in recent years, pervert comes inevitably to mind when discussing Alfred C. Kinsey, the sex statistician and subject of Bill Condon’s new film, Kinsey. Pervert perfectly applies to the man who spent his life trying to erase this word from our vocabulary. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin per (thoroughly) and vert (turn). To be perverted, then, means to turn or be turned thoroughly away from the normal. This was Kinsey, a man who turned away from the normal in sexual relations and succeeded in turning his wife, his colleagues, and, eventually, a significant portion of America with him. He did so by claiming to demonstrate that there was no basis for classifying any sexual activity as abnormal, including but hardly limited to wife-sharing, hetero and homo group sex, voyeurism, sadomasochism, pedophilia, and—one of his own favorite pastimes—masturbating by means of urethral insertion, preferably using a toothbrush, bristle-end first.
Initially, Kinsey’s turning was not something he freely chose. It was forced upon him by his unusually contentious upbringing. Whatever else he was, Kinsey was an exceptionally strong-willed individual, so it is not surprising that, as a boy, he would clash with his father, a blinkered, 19th-century puritan whose entire life seems to have been a search-and-destroy mission waged against pleasure of all kinds, especially sexual. It was inevitable that Kinsey should rebel against his father’s warped moralism. Unfortunately, as can happen with strong personalities, his rebellion went too far. From a perverted, humorless Christianity, he vaulted into a perverted, humorless behaviorism.
In Condon’s biopic, we first meet the future sex statistician as a young boy. It is 1908, and he is listening to his father, Alfred Seguine (John Lithgow), harangue his Methodist congregation on the evils of the modern technologies that facilitate lust: cars, movies, and . . . zippers. Zippers? Yes, they afford “speedy access to moral oblivion,” fulminates Kinsey Senior. He fairly seethes with what we have been strenuously taught to recognize as an imperfectly repressed libido. His stifled urges have curdled into a miserable, raging prudery. Not long after this scene, we see Alfred C. 30 years later. He stands before an amphitheater, his face flushed red as he hectors 100 or so hormonally addled college students. It is not zipper speed that has him exercised, however. He is inveighing against the “scandalous delay in [American] sexual activity.” The tone of impassioned righteousness that resonates through the oratory of both father and son says it all. Junior may think he has thrown off Papa’s orthodoxy, but he has merely swapped it for another zealotry that is just as bullying in its own way and frequently a good deal more harmful. Later in the film, Alfred C.’s own son rebels against his father’s penchant for discussing genitalia with his daughters at mealtime. Having heard quite enough about labia and vulvas, the young man declares such talk is not normal at dinner. As he stalks from the room, he angrily informs his father, “My friends’ parents think you’re a menace.” Unfortunately, we never hear from this perceptive young man again.
This juxtaposition of puritanisms is the best part of Condon’s otherwise dishonest film. Elsewhere, he pretends to give us Kinsey, warts and all; in fact, he has carefully sanitized his subject preparatory to canonizing him. The real Kinsey was not at all like the film’s. Playing Kinsey, Liam Neeson has been directed to make the statistician seem a tormented but large-souled man dedicated to a scientifically disinterested inquiry into the facts of sexual activity in America. Not so, his sympathetic biographers reveal. In Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life, James H. Jones judges Kinsey to have been a clever manipulator who masterfully disguised his real intentions from both authorities and associates. “The man I came to know,” Jones writes, “bore no resemblance to the canonical Kinsey.” He was “a crypto-reformer who spent his every waking hour attempting to change the sexual mores of the United States.” In Sex: The Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy reports that Kinsey confided to one of his colleagues that “the most basic force behind his research was deeply personal.” So much for disinterested inquiry.
Entomologist-turned-sexologist, Kinsey made a point of referring to his own species under the rubric of “the human animal.” After a career studying the habits of gall wasps and cataloging nearly 500,000 specimens, he tired of the critter and changed course. He became determined to apply his scientific methods to Americans—you and me and our children. As warrant for doing so, he reasoned that “human beings are just larger, more complicated gall wasps” and assembled a staff at Indiana University to take the “sex histories” of thousands of men and women. The ever-progressive Rockefeller Foundation found his early results so promising that they decided to support his efforts lavishly. In 1948, Kinsey published his research in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed five years later by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The Kinsey Reports, as they came to be known, claimed their statistics demonstrated that 90 percent of American males and over 60 percent of females engaged, with varying degrees of frequency, in some kind of abnormal or illicit sex, officially defined. It followed, he told his supporters at Indiana and the Rockefeller Foundation but not the public at large, that, to cleanse society of sexual aberration, you would have to arrest just about everyone in the nation. “When it’s everybody’s sin, it’s nobody’s sin,” he sardonically quipped.
Seeming to authorize erotic indulgence, Kinsey’s books became best-sellers, an almost unprecedented phenomenon for putatively scholarly works. Time put Kinsey on its cover, noting that this mild-mannered Methodist from New Jersey was an “almost monotonously normal human being,” a dedicated family man and hardworking scientist whose painstaking research promised to liberate average Americans from the puritan prison of sexual ignorance. Following Time’s lead, the rest of the media joined in hailing him a new savior. The young Hugh Hefner (who, like Kinsey, came from an overbearing Methodist background) wrote an ecstatic article on Kinsey’s research for his college newspaper and, shortly after graduating, felt himself licensed to launch Playboy, enriching himself enormously by spreading the gospel of Kinsey-style sexual liberation to the immeasurable pleasure of adolescent men around the world.
And gospel it was. Kinsey had a reformer’s zeal, and, like most reformers, his motives were profoundly self-interested. He was seeking a new dispensation in order to accommodate his own peculiar proclivities. This is what stood behind his insistence that judgmental words, such as normal, abnormal, and perversion, have no relevance when discussing sex. To prove this, he deep-fried his evidence. For instance, he claimed his statistics demonstrated that homosexuals make up 10 percent of the population and, further, that 37 percent of all men had at least one homosexual experience ending in orgasm. To this day, these statistics are accepted as fact by many who are unaware that, of the 5,300 men Kinsey interviewed, 1,400 were doing time in prison, and many of them were sex offenders. What’s more, when interviewing homosexuals in less-restricted walks of life, he encouraged them to recruit their homosexual friends to participate in his project. Then, there is the matter of self-selecting volunteers. Even today, in the age of sexual bravado, most people are chary of revealing their intimate lives to strangers. Who, then, was agreeing to submit to these interviews in the buttoned-up 40’s? It was, after all, a time when news of an irregular sex life could cost a person his job. Kinsey’s interviewees were perforce a special group. Most were more than ordinarily preoccupied with sex and, therefore, more given to experiment. All this never appeared in the report and is barely mentioned in the film, and then only by one of Kinsey’s academic competitors, a pompous, jealous prig.
The reason Kinsey dwelt on homosexuality was that he was a bisexual whose switch-hitting predilections seem to have been more homo than hetero. There is also a good deal of evidence that he may have preferred voyeurism and onanism even more. His devotion to various wanking techniques included autoerotic asphyxia. For a real treat, he would hang himself from the rafters by a rope tied round his scrotum until he passed out. Then, there is the research that he recorded on film in his attic of his male staff sharing their wives, including his own. No wonder he so fiercely insisted that there are no normative boundaries to sexual expression.
Sadly, Kinsey felt compelled to study child sexuality, too. To conduct this research, he contacted several pedophiles and took their sex histories. His two principle sources were Rex King, a sexual omnivore if we are to believe his story, and former Nazi Fritz von Balluseck, whose career met an untimely end in 1956 when he was tried for the rape and murder of a ten-year-old girl. King, who claimed to have had relations with over 9,000 partners of both sexes, human and animal, was especially interested in boys and had molested children as young as two months. Kinsey not only took these gentlemen’s histories but maintained contact with them afterward, warmly thanking them for their help and inviting them to send more information on their exploits when they could. It never occurred to him to report them to authorities. To King, he wrote: “I rejoice at everything you send, for I am then assured that that much more of your material is saved for scientific publication.” How can this be read but as an encouragement to molest more children in the cause of science? As for Von Balluseck, the judge who tried him in Germany wrote the following regarding the miscreant’s diaries:
With cynicism and passion, he recorded his crimes against 100 children in the smallest detail. He sent the detail of his experiences regularly to the U.S. sex researcher, Kinsey. The latter was very interested and kept up a regular and lively correspondence with Von Balluseck.
Condon muffles these disquieting facts. He includes a brief scene in which a visibly dismayed Kinsey interviews King, making it seem a one-time contact. Needless to say, the former Nazi is kept entirely out of camera range.
Condon and his enthusiastic cast have labored to make Kinsey seem a humane man of science. He was not. He spoke of human beings as animals encoded with but one purpose: to reach orgasm as frequently as possible. Love, friendship, children, and family simply do not enter the picture. His was the male dream in its most insane form: sexual gratification with neither context nor responsibility. Kinsey seems never to have considered that the sex drive of the “human animal” is designed to foster procreation. This is why his fraudulent research has been so instrumental in visiting sexual chaos on America. Whenever sex is promoted from a means to an end in itself, havoc is likely to ensue. The wild increase in pornography, prostitution, disease, broken homes, abortions, and throwaway children can all be traced to the kind of demand Kinsey and others of his ilk have imposed upon the unwitting: Desire, however wayward, must be satisfied before all other considerations. A puritan to the end, Kinsey was grimly determined to transform his perversions into moral duties.
It might be worth mentioning something else that Condon left out of his film. While Kinsey and his crew of graduate students were stalking the perfect orgasm, America was at war with two totalitarian regimes that threatened to harness human energy to less pleasurable pursuits. Kinsey and his staff seem to have been content to leave this matter to the unenlightened.
The Kinsey Institute still flourishes on the campus of Indiana University, disseminating views that continue to be taken seriously by government officials and civic groups, including the North American Man/Boy Love Association. By the way, the Institute’s website currently features news of Condon’s film. They obviously think that it is a swell way to promote themselves.