Kinsey

Kinsey

I came away from the biopic Kinsey with a mostly favorable view of Alfred Kinsey, but I wouldn’t exactly call the film hagiography, as it’s honest enough to include a lot of ammunition for right wingers who would want to demonize him.

Kinsey is portrayed as an obsessively diligent hard worker, sincere, and passionate about doing scientific research he believes will make the world a better place. His libertarian ideas about sex for pleasure, his attitudes about women, and his rejection of religious-based sexual taboos would make him somewhat progressive today, and made him extremely (impressively) progressive for his time.

Like I say, the Religious Right would find plenty of reasons in this movie to despise him. He was bisexual, he and his wife at times had an open marriage where they each had sex with others, and he tolerated/encouraged a certain atmosphere of wife swapping and a very libertine sexual lifestyle amongst his core group of researchers. That’s more than enough ad hominem evidence for many people to dismiss any liberal conclusions he claimed to reach about sex as the biased ravings of a perverted degenerate.

And even beyond his personal life, in his research he did things like collect pornography from around the world, film people having sex, gather data in gay bars and amongst sex offenders in prison, and other things that would drive conservatives up the wall.

One thing I couldn’t help reflecting on when watching this movie is how hard it is to trust any surveys about a sensitive subject like sex. I’m sure since Kinsey’s time there have been major advances in polling and such, and people are better able to know how to adjust the raw data to get closer to the truth, but I would think it’s still hard to come up with anything beyond very, very rough approximations.

Because people are going to lie like crazy about this stuff. Plus the people willing to answer questions about their sex life in the first place constitute a self-selected group that is unlikely to be a representative sample of the general population. So there’s bound to be a lot of uncertainty and guesswork when it comes to interpreting the results and generalizing from them.

I thought it was interesting that Kinsey’s philosophy was that it was crucial to use face-to-face interviews rather than written questionnaires or something like that. I would have thought the opposite, that more people would participate and more people would be honest if they didn’t have to talk directly to another person. You know, the more anonymous it all feels, the more people will be comfortable enough to admit the truth. I’m pretty sure I’d be more willing to talk honestly and in detail about my sex life if it were something totally anonymous and indirect, than if it were in person with some doctor or researcher.

One point the movie did a good job of getting across is how much people care about being “normal,” and how hard it is to know if you are so in an area of life that it is taboo to talk about, and that has been the subject of little in the way of formal social science research.

So people wonder if they’re doing the same things in bed other people are, if they’re unusual in being attracted to this or that kind of person (or animal or whatever), if their penis is the typical size, if their cheating on their spouse puts them in a tiny weak-willed or immoral subset of the population, and so on. And Kinsey’s consistent message was that for the most part it doesn’t matter and you shouldn’t care so much about being “normal,” but that in fact you’re not alone and you’re probably more normal than you think. He believed his research revealed that for just about any preference, any fetish, any behavior that is frowned on as contrary to the prevailing sexual moral code, there are probably lots of other people doing the same stuff you’re doing or fantasize about doing.

There’s a particularly effective scene late in the movie of a woman thanking Kinsey for his work. She had been conflicted and ashamed and confused about her lesbian tendencies, and it was reading his work that helped her to accept herself and come out to the person she was attracted to, which led to their happily coming together as a couple. I don’t know to what extent that’s based on an actual incident, but certainly his work had to be reassuring and empowering for a lot of people.

Mostly I like his general attitude about sex. I mean, certainly it’s a thousand times better than the alternative of the dishonest, repressed, hateful, conservative religious set of positions (represented by his father in the movie). But I’ll admit on a visceral level I have misgivings about it.

The way he and his people are so obsessively open and communicative about every aspect of sex, the way they’re constantly reiterating how non-judgmental they are about pretty much any kind of sex that doesn’t directly and immediately and obviously harm someone, the insistence that it’s all a normal and positive part of life—that’s admirable on a certain level, but it’s not very sexy. It all has an antiseptic and politically correct (to use that phrase anachronistically) feel to it, to me.

I think I like my sex to retain a little bit of edginess, mystery, a taboo-breaking element, whatever. There’s a Woody Allen line where he’s asked if he thinks sex is dirty, and he says “It is if you’re doing it right.” For Kinsey and these folks with such exceedingly healthy and positive attitudes, sex isn’t dirty at all. So I retain just a little doubt that they’re doing it right.

Anyway, the movie held my interest reasonably well from start to finish. I think that’s largely because the subject matter is of considerable inherent interest to me. So in that sense, I appreciate that the movie didn’t screw that up by approaching it in some oddball, artsy way. It’s pretty much a mainstream, conventional movie, where things are mostly in chronological order and make sense. It’s understandable without being annoyingly simplistic.

Kinsey is good, solid, unspectacular moviemaking. It provokes thought about Kinsey, and sex, and sex research and the like, rather than about itself as a movie.

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