December 19, 2006

Let's Talk About Sex

I don't know whether I'll publish this. I watched Kinsey the other night, and I'm not yet convinced that I had any business sitting through it without spending some time reflecting and writing on the subject. The movie is a biopic about the life and work of Alfred Kinsey, one of the first scientists to conduct a large-scale, in-depth study of human sexual behavior.

His findings were published in two studies: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). His work was instrumental in such major changes as the American Psychological Association's decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in the 1970s. In short, for good or ill, Kinsey is an important 20th century figure.

Kinsey is, to my limited understanding, a figure very similar to Freud: a controversial pioneer in a socially-disreputable field whose findings are now suspect and possibly even obsolete, but who deserves a certain amount of recognition for the difficult task of beginning the necessary dialogue. Some people (i.e. some Christians) were and continue to be deeply threatened and offended by his ideas. Some embrace him as a champion of enlightenment in a dark time.

The film captured me during its opening hour, alienated me halfway through, and then proceeded to bounce me back and forth on a moment's notice for the duration. Reading (more-or-less) opposing reviews of it from Ebert and Focus on the Family's Plugged In didn't relieve my strong sense of ambiguity at all. This movie, much like the subject of its protagonist's studies, is not to be trifled with.

Let me try and quantify what I mean just a bit . . . and I think I shall proceed beneath the fold for good measure.

Christianity, of course, gets a pretty bad play throughout. Kinsey's father is a Methodist minister whose first scene involves a sermon on how electricity (leading to the picture show), cars ("parking" and "the joy ride"), telephones (unmarried men and women speaking to each other from their beds) and the zipper (uhhh . . .) are all modern inventions of Satan designed to lure humankind towards lustful pursuits. It is later revealed that Kinsey's father was fitted with a humiliating and painful leather strap at the age of 10 to keep him from masturbating.

One of Kinsey's fellow professors (played by the always-smarmy Tim Curry) insists on abstinence-only sex education taught as a sub-section of the university's general health course. The man is a pompous idiot and obviously unfit to teach the subject. His views and his stupidity are presumably (and unfairly) linked. There is no sympathetic opposition to Kinseyan ideas. On almost any issue you can find individuals on both sides who aren't mindless idiots, and only by addressing these can you truly strengthen your own position.

The implication in a few reviews I read was that a close-minded, silent approach to sex-ed is still the dominant Christian position. On the way to work this morning I flipped by a Christian radio program which was discussing the importance of parents being open and honest with their teens regarding sex.

Kinsey is inspired in conducting his study by two things: ignorance and misinformation. He becomes aware that people know next to nothing about sex, and a lot of what they do know is wrong. Both he and his wife are virgins when they are married, and (not to put too fine a point on it) they struggle a great deal at first in "making things work."

Kinsey eventually discovers that a lot of newly-wed couples have this problem, and he tries to help them with a college course defined by its frank and open dealing with the subject of how sex works (the course is open only to faculty, graduate students, married students, and seniors). With this unprecedented forum for discussion open before them, Kinsey's students are suddenly full of questions for which he has no answers: Does masturbation really cause blindness and insanity? Does oral sex cause problems during pregnancy?

Some of the issues raised, both here and at other points in the film, are scarcely creditable (but oddly believable). Did, for instance, turn-of-the-century scout handbooks really recommend reading the Sermon on the Mount, sitting with the testicles immersed in ice-cold water, and thinking of your mother's pure love as antidotes to masturbation? Was it truly taught that only the lower classes, and particularly Negros, had difficulty with abstinence?

Ebert points out in his review that oral sex between married heterosexuals is still nominally illegal in 9 states. Wikipedia notes that all such laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, but still . . . as recently as that?

The presence of these questions and the fact that no one has any answers to them bothers Kinsey a great deal, and he sets out to answer some of them. His method is simple: grab a few assistants and start compiling complete sexual histories of vast cross-sections of the population in an attempt to ascertain what constitutes "normal" sexual behavior. His shocking conclusion? If "normal" is defined as "something that a large percentage of people do," then pretty much anything is normal (and therefore, he adds, acceptable) when it comes to sex.

Along the way, he engages in behavior that may be in the interest of science, or may simply be fetishistic self-indulgence. He begins by cheating on his wife with a bi-sexual male assistant. She isn't shocked or horrified, but she is deeply saddened and hurt, and they have an excellent discussion about the reasons for confining sex to marriage. However, this admirable sequence is rendered as ambiguous as anything else in the film when Mrs. Kinsey ("Mac") sleeps with the same assistant a few minutes later. This is done with the full fore-knowledge and consent of Kinsey himself. It is vaguely implied that Mac is more interested in showing Kinsey how it feels than anything else, but if he notices anything, he doesn't let on and the entire line is more-or-less let alone.

In their studies regarding the sex act, Kinsey, his wife, his assistants, and their spouses are all prime test subjects. They are encouraged to essentially mix and match with each other, and often they are filmed and studied later by the group. It's all part of the job and they are all (in the words of Plugged In) "serial adulterers." This is not without consequences, however. Soon, a few marriages are on the rocks and Kinsey's assistants are at each other's throats. One rages at Kinsey for his casual view of sex (and I paraphrase):

"[Sex] isn't just something, it's the whole thing. [Sex] is a risky game, because if you're not careful, it will cut you wide open."

You won't find any mention of the stark portrayal of the consequences of adultery and the impassioned words spoken against it in the Plugged In review. They were far too determined to smear this movie to allow too much of its positive content to creep into their assessment. But I'll come back to them in a moment.

Kinsey was particularly interested in revising laws concerning sex offenders, and in one particular scene he rather vehemently defends them. I ultimately realized that this must be referring to any adult convicted for engaging in a sexual act with another consenting adult. Still, it disturbed me both with its lack of clarity and its lack of acknowledgement of the seriousness of sexual crime.

In what is certainly the film's most troubling sequence, Kinsey and his assistant Wardell Pomeroy visit a man whom Kinsey nonjudgmentally regards as a gold mine of information which he will not be able to acquire in any other way. The man, if he actually existed, would have to be among the most sexually active and deviant human beings in history. He is a deeply twisted and disturbed individual whose goal for decades seems to have been to engage in intercourse with as many people and things as possible and make detailed measurements and recordings of the results. He claims to have had sex with 22 different species of animal and over 9500 human beings, including about 800 pre-adolescents of both genders and 17 members of his own family and extended family from 7 different generations. I could go on, but you get the idea.

At some point during the interview, Pomeroy has had enough and storms from the room. Kinsey remains, commenting on the difficulty of remaining impartial. Does he have any personal opinion about this? Do the filmmakers? If so, they are keeping it entirely to themselves. Kinsey ends rather vaguely with Kinsey stating (in response to a question) that love is an important piece of the puzzle, but impossible to quantify scientifically.

I searched rather diligently for some Plugged In equivalent on what Bill O'Reilly would call the "secular-progressive" side. Not surprisingly, non-Christian film critics largely confined themselves to assessing Kinsey's success as a film. Novel idea, that. They certainly didn't engage in the rather vehement, slanted diatribe practiced by Plugged In's Tom Neven. The Focus on the Family review also includes a few links to related articles:

Let's NOT Talk About Sex
If Kinsey didn’t start the conversation about sex, as his movie’s slogan would have us believe, what did he do?

The Truth About Kinsey
The real Alfred Kinsey was not an objective scientist, and certainly not an emotionally well man. The informational links found here are designed to help you learn the truth about Kinsey, his fraud and his crimes, and what you can do combat his influence in your community.

The second link is broken. The first opens with "I’m not going to see Kinsey and I doubt any of my friends will, either. The movie is . . ." which really automatically makes it not worth my time. To petulantly decline viewing a film and in the same breath assess it is beyond dopey. It invites me to stop taking you seriously. The author, Sam Torode, goes on to assume that there is an ideological unity in Hollywood, with a focused agenda to push, and that this film is an attempt to somehow rescue the purportedly floundering sexual revolution . . . bla bla bla.

Torode then proceeds to make the laughable claim that sexual repression has never existed in American society, so Kinsey can hardly be credited for fighting it. For evidence it cites a number of so-called "sex books" written for married couples in the 1920s. In answer I would point out, first that the 1920s were a good sight more "liberated" in many areas of the United States than the 1950s, and second that Kinsey very pointedly acknowledges the existence of these books as sources of a great deal of misinformation; ideology disguised as instruction.

It goes on like that for a good while . . . I'm not so very interested in it, simply because it is belligerently not about the movie. I'm not as interested in the man himself as I am in what the movie about his life has to say. I wish PI were capable of that distinction. And speaking of their review, let me return briefly to it. I have already noted that it is not as complete in its cataloguing as I have known that publication to be in the past. Particularly, it glosses over or ignores many of the extremely positive statements made in Kinsey. If every negative sexual attitude in Kinsey deserves such scrupulous attention, how much more should its affirmations of fidelity be noted? If you can't play fair, don't show up for the game.

The "conclusion" section of the review is one of the longest I've seen on the site, comprising a good half of the text or more. A large portion of it amounts to bogus character assassination: "Kinsey’s legacy is that he played a role in unleashing epidemic levels of sexually transmitted diseases, rampant divorce, massive numbers of out-of-wedlock births, the breakdown of the family, abortion and the destruction of marriage."

After reading it over, I was a bit shocked at the difference between the Kinsey presented there and the Kinsey of the movie. Further research revealed that many of Neven's "facts" about Alfred Kinsey are probably about as credible as the rumored cause of Catherine the Great's death (and easily as sordid). And, of course, with no citations in the review, it is unclear where Neven got his information. Neven also makes this tangentially funny statement: "writer/director Bill Condon has long been known for his advocacy for homosexual rights." (Condon is a homosexual, so his history of advocacy is hardly surprising. It's like calling Tony Blair an Anglophile.)

There is also a rather infuriating cheap shot: "(Simply judging the craft of filmmaking, however, Kinsey is fairly pedestrian.)" It is my impression that, perhaps through no fault of their own, the good folks of Plugged In have long since ceased to have any idea of what constitutes good filmmaking. Kinsey employs a unique and engaging narrative device to drive the story in a way that keeps it interesting throughout. I was quite impressed with it from the beginning. Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are both superb in their roles, and Linney's Oscar nomination was well-deserved. Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, John Lithgow, and Oliver Platt round out a notably stellar cast. After railing on its ideology for several paragraphs, for Neven to finish up with "And besides, it's not even that great of a movie anyway" is simply childish and obviously unreliable.

Anyway, I'm not sure that I can recommend it either, in the end. Actually, I'm not sure that I have to. If, after reading all of this, you feel that it is something you should or would like to see, then it is likely that you should. If there is any doubt in your mind, steer clear. If you do see it, though, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

Ultimately I am left wondering whether I dislike Kinsey for its refusal to take a moral position (whatever that position might be), or whether I am in awe of its scrupulous adherence to the essential ambiguity surrounding any historical figure or period. There is a certain integrity in the filmmakers' refusal to inject any sort of conclusive judgment of the man and his methods. I watch Kinsey and I see neither the hero Plugged In claims he has been made into, nor the monster they claim that he actually was, but simply a man. That smells like artistic success to me.

Posted by Jared at December 19, 2006 07:48 PM | TrackBack