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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.

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~ by Jared on December 19, 2006.

9 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Sex”

  1. *sigh* good ol’ Plugged In. I remember the years when their opinions were law around my house. Do you remember the Plugged In parody you and Joe made a few years back? I wonder if he still has that file saved…

    As for the film, I like your comment that “There is a certain integrity in the filmmakers’ refusal to inject any sort of conclusive judgment of the man and his methods.” All too often it seems like movies have a specific agenda they are shamelessly attempting to push on the audience (whether “good” or “bad,” from a Christian perspective); the objective, ambiguous portrayal of an historical figure is rare in film, from my experience.

  2. I have three questions:
    1)Is “ambiguous portrayal of a historical figure” an objective befitting anystory, novel or film? Ambiguity is usually regarded as a fault of plot, scripting or in the case of a film…budget
    2)On what basis should a movie critic…in general…base a recomendation or “rating of a movie? Artistic success? Entertainment value? Courage? Historical accuracy? Completion of producer/director purpose? (I mean which of those gets “Unbreakable” a 93%, for instance)
    3)If as you say, various moral issues/dilemmas/conflict are introduced but are continuely or consistently or unsatisfactorly addressed, resolved or at least universalized/solidified as a continuing struggle for mankind, isn’t the work really a failure at it’s core? I can’t imagine Flannery O’conner or Graham Greene or some other careful stylist seeing the tale as successful. Based on your careful review, one would think that this is a movie that either got too big and storytelling suffered or those making the film lacked a cohesive purpose…such as being unable to decide if they were activists, biographers or entertainers.

  3. Such difficult questions. Lemme see . . .

    1) Ambiguity is probably the wrong word, in some sense. The idea I’m getting at is that no historical figure is perfectly good, but if someone considers them great enough to go to all the trouble to make a movie about them, they will be tempted to spend their screentime on good things and minimize or ignore anything negative. Either that, or they will resort to the tactics of a rather memorable documentary I once saw, “Stalin: The Monster Bathed in Blood” (I paraphrase the title, it was something like that). This film neither vilified nor glorified, but allowed the audience to judge, and I always appreciate that.

    2) <i>That</i> is an excellent question, and the answer depends on the audience, I suppose. From what I have observed, most film critics recommend movies based on entertainment value, with an eye towards all those other things (but any of the others can be listed, then dismissed, in the name of entertainment). My own recommendations have a great deal to do both with what I consider to be “artistic success” and “entertainment value” . . . the two are almost always linked. If I don’t consider a movie artistically successful on some level, I rarely enjoy it. All of the other things you mentioned factor into the entertainment value as well. In this particular case, I reserved recommendation on the grounds that I consider the movie to be completely unsuitable for casual viewing, and lacking in any real compelling reward to the more considered, responsible viewer.

    (<i>Unbreakable</i>, on a side note, I consider to be Shyamalan’s best movie artistically, and as I track his progress I very much doubt he will ever rise above it. That said, 93% is almost certainly overgenerous. It was done in a hurry, and should probably be reviewed. It amounts to much the same for my imdb ratings, however, as wouldn’t drop it below an 85%, which rounds to a 9 out of 10. Nevertheless, I like to get it right within that range of 85-94, and I’ll probably play with it a bit more when I get home from California.)

    3) I think there might be something to the idea that the filmmakers couldn’t decide what they were. What impressed me was the willingness of the filmmakers to acknowledge the very real and serious consequences of sexual “liberation” even as their primary focus seemed to be on the devastating effects of the repression that Kinsey hoped to “liberate” America from. I did not expect any kind of balance, and I wish that <i>Plugged In</i> had had the same maturity in their review, and had been willing to examine this film fairly. That said, the film’s ending was very week, and my rating of it was based on the strong performances of the actors, which were very compelling and enjoyable, and on the film’s original narrative structure, which was quite unique and excellent.

  4. Oh I’d be OK with 93% for Unbreakable but, given your recent conni-sewer-ness…just thought you needed to be challanged on that one…..especially since it sounded like Kinsey filmmakers did at least as disjunct a job of pulling of their movie as the Superman Returns folks did with theirs (and got creamed by you)…certainly they are completely different in tone purpose and value….but look at some of the excellent films that have received 935’s from you in the past (hmmm seems there is a correlation).

    Of course, I’ll probably never be competent to comment further on the movie as it seems unlikely I’ll see it for several reasons-

    1) Your review.
    2) I generally abstain from films where infidelity is too much at the center of things (unless the just desserts are particularly entertaining or interesting).
    3) the wife- she would definitely object. As we get older she has appears to be in better shape than me. Can’t outrun her…not sure I could take her if she caught me. This has tempered my decisions more than once.
    4) Being a teen in the 70’s, I think the sexual revolution caused a lot of kids as much or more greif and humiliation as any anti-jerking off device might have in Kinsey’s father’s time. Sadly enough, it seems that thereis always a negative backlash when it comes to our sexuality. It is not surprizing to me to hear that the recent popuylarity of “virginity contracts” has actually made many teens more promiscuoius…..they seem to be “hearing” that everything short of pre marital intercourse is now acceptable , OK or “not bad”.

    I guess happily married, openly loving, and free talking parents with a new testement understanding of the physical aspects of married life are better than impersonal contracts, culturally driven mores and physical/psychological repression…….Wow, who have thunk it?

    Maybe the idea will catch on. Perhaps we could make a multi media presentation, get LaHaye to narrate it, go to schools ……you know, where the problem is…..

  5. Aw, gee whiz. I was all tracking with you until you popped LaHaye in there . . . But anyway.

    I still think <i>Superman Returns</i> gets a good deal less street cred than <i>Kinsey</i>. I have never known a comic book superhero movie to drag its feet so . . . such an outrageously protracted runtime! And no one was having any fun! (With the exception of Kevin Spacey, who is always having fun, and that guy playing Jimmy Olsen, an abhorrent anachronism of a character with an annoyance level on par with the likes of Ruby Rhod and Jar Jar Binks.) I have never seen a group of actors so collectively bored and depressed with their material. I mean, <i>really</i> . . . in every scene lacking Lex Luthor I could almost the hear a pathetic, gasping sob <i>My dog is dead!</i> running through the minds of all present. Even Superman’s kid was totally wallowing in melancholia. After he pitched a piano at that guy I thought things might get good, but then he suddenly decided to spend the rest of the movie looking passively somber. C’mon, people! This is freaking <i>Superman!</i> Even the happy ending was a total downer. Well . . . before this turns into a full-fledged rant . . . I’ve never really cared for Superman anyway.

  6. Christopher Reeves’ Superman movies always ended happy. ;)

  7. ok….ditch Lahaye comment.. feeble attempt a sarcasm.

    I do think Spacey was a superior vilian. My biggest problem with the movie was the lack of innocent tension between Lois and SM makes it a drama instead of a comic. Who needs that in a superhero flick. But I did like the effects. especially, for once, a movie that made the weightlessness of space beleiveable (albeit significant pouting you referenced earlier definitely going on in those scenes)

  8. Hey jared something from the writer’s almanac you might find interesting (very loosely Superman related). Who knows where all your blogging might get you..

    It’s the birthday of Umberto Eco, (books by this author) born in the Piedmont region of Italy (1932). He started out as a philosopher and literary critic, and became one of the first intellectuals to study popular culture, writing serious essays about James Bond movies and Superman comics and other products of pop culture that had previously been ignored by literary critics.

    Then, one day, Eco decided to produce some popular culture himself. He got an idea for a murder mystery set in a monastery in the middle ages, and he called it The Name of the Rose. When it came out in 1980, The Name of the Rose sold 2 million copies. He’s continued writing novels since then, including Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Island of the Day Before (1995).

  9. Ah, yes. I am familiar in passing with Umberto Eco, but I had no idea he did anything like that. I actually started listening to a recorded version of <i>The Name of the Rose</i> a few months ago, but the voice of the narrator was so grating that I stopped. I want to read it one of these days, though. I believe I remember Wilson sampling Eco at some point . . .

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