Are you old enough to remember all the controversy in 1959 over the word used in the courtroom thriller Anatomy of a Murder? Some people were almost as aghast over its use as when Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler uttered the forbidden “d” word to Scarlett. The word was the hitherto forbidden word “rape.” Or can you recall the time when TV couples such as Lucy and Desi were shown as sleeping in twin beds, not in a double, with all of its sexual connotations? If you do, then you will appreciate director/writer Bill Condon’s Kinsey all the more. Better than any film that I have seen, it describes the overcoming of the vast chasm in sexual mores that separates today’s society from that of the Fifties and before. Liam Neeson as Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Clara Kinsey as Laura Linney bring this unusual couple to life in their warts-and-all portrayals.
John Lithgow as Kinsey’s Sunday School teacher father Alfred Seguine Kinsey is similar to the preacher-father he played in Footloose, except that this time he is far more rigid and filled with venom. In one lecture he castigates the invention of the automobile and the zipper as leading to sexual promiscuity. He is cold toward and unsupportive of his son, prodding him so that the two clash when the boy is in his teens. Taught that sex is dirty, not only by his father, but by his Scoutmaster as well, young Kinsey rebels, rejecting his church heritage by embracing an iconoclastic science. He obsessively studies the gall wasp, becoming through his vast collection of the insect and his book about them the foremost expert on the creature—but Dad is not impressed.
Kinsey is taken with Laura, a student whose scholarly zeal matches his, and they fall in love and marry. Their honeymoon attempt at lovemaking is as disastrous as that of so many others who had also remained chaste until marriage (one part of his religious heritage that the freethinking Kinsey had not given up), so the couple go to a doctor who soon shows them the way to solve what they had thought was a dilemma. This experience soon serves Kinsey well when students come to him for advice about their own sexual relationships. He finds that his Indiana University colleague teaching the health class is passing on the same old pseudo-science about sex that he had been taught as a boy—such as that masturbation would lead to blindness and other disorders, even death; and thus that no pure person would engage in it. He shows Laura the book used as a text Ideal Marriage (a book recommended to me, and which I read before, marriage), filled with absurdities and misconceptions about sex. The next thing he knows, Kinsey is teaching a class of a hundred students eager, and anxious, to learn about the subject long forbidden in their families and churches. His giving them a questionnaire to fill out concerning their sexual histories is the beginning of what becomes his life work, his massive study of the sexual lives of the American male and female.
As he engages in the project, succeeding in convincing the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation to underwrite the massive study, Kinsey’s own behavior, always bizarre, becomes even more so. Divorcing sex from religious morality and from romance, he preaches a detached, supposedly scientific approach. Drawn by his student assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), he describes himself as a “Three” on his sexuality scale of Zero (Heterosexual) to Six (Homosexual), and then kissing the young man, begins an open relationship with him. Laura is understandably not pleased when her husband tells her of this, but she stands by him, and even takes the bi-sexual Clyde to her own bed later on. Kinsey’s other staff members also indulge in free sex, which eventually leads to a period of strife, tears, and regret. (I said this is a “warts and all” biopicture!)
As the results from the thousands of interviews come in from across the country, Kinsey realizes how far the truth of peoples’ lives is from the assumptions and teachings of the guardians of the status quo. The question that many of the people ask “Am I normal” is answered in the affirmative, that most young males and females have masturbated at some time in their lives; that there are far more adulterous affairs than anyone thought, as well as a far larger percentage of the population who are homosexual. When the study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male is finally published in 1948, it is a bombshell, eliciting praise from some and harsh condemnation from others.
Five years later the storm surrounding Kinsey and his work increases to hurricane force when his study of the female is near completion, Kinsey even becoming accused of Communism and becoming the object of a Congressional investigation. During one of the televised hearings the head of the Rockefeller Foundation Alan Gregg (Dylan Baker), always uncomfortable with the unorthodox doctor, announces that Kinsey’s funds are being terminated. Kinsey does not help matters by his public comments upon the outmoded laws pertaining to sex, one of which implied that most sex offenders no more deserve to be in prison than the average person who commits similar but unpunished acts.
The stars are ably assisted by the supporting cast, one of them Oliver Platt, portraying Indiana University President Herman Wells, showing how fortunate the doctor was in having a circle of loyal admirers and supporters around him. When Kinsey loses his Foundation grant, Wells bravely asks at a College Trustees Board meeting that the University provide the funds for the publication of Kinsey’s report on females. Although the filmmakers, apparently intending to emphasize Kinsey’s isolation at the time, show the members sitting in silence, refusing to go along with their President, in reality the University did come up with the necessary funding. The filmmakers succeed admirably in conveying the context in which, and against which, Kinsey worked. Although its language and numerous frank portrayals of the human sex organs and documentary shots of lovemaking make this a difficult film to bring to a Sunday Class discussion, a young adult group will find much to explore and discuss about sexuality and the perceptions of it by church and society.
1) How effective do you think is the device of showing Kinsey being interviewed by his students—in regard to bringing out his past? What effect do you think his father had on his development? Do you think that your parents prepared you well for dealing with sex—or were they like so many, avoiding it, or sending you to a book or a “proper” person, such as a doctor or nurse?
2) What do you think of the portrayal of Christianity in the film? A typical Hollywood approach, or were there really church leaders like the father? If you had been raised in such a church would you have rebelled? Think about the comment (made by a theologian whose name I cannot recall) that the church itself by its rigidity and intolerance has created more atheists than any other cause. How has the church changed since then? And how have many Christians stayed the same?
3) How is sex still regarded as “dirty” in some quarters? How is this more of a New Testament concept (through the lens of St. Augustine’s interpretation of the writings of the apostle Paul)? Is this consistent with the stories of Creation in Genesis or the imagery in Song of Songs?
4) In my first pastorate we took the youth on a retreat to study sexuality as portrayed in the media and the Bible. A nurse was part of the leadership, and we used a copy of Playboy Magazine, as well as popular and teen magazines and an excellent short text published by the press of the WMCA. When one student took the book to school, a teacher scolded her because the title had “Sex” in the title—”Why are you reading that dirty book?” she was asked. Have you and your church dealt with the subject of sex and sexuality with youth, and have there been similar reactions to doing so?
5) From what you hear from various interviewees how might you say that Kinsey’s report brought a sense of liberation to many people? What do you think he means by his observation, “Everyone is different [but] most people want to be the same.” How is this born out by the oft repeated question, “Am I normal?”? What were your feelings after the testimony by the lesbian woman played by Lynn Redgrave? How did his Report save her life?
6) Even today some people regard Kinsey’s two Reports as causing a general breakdown in social sexual mores. What was his response to this charge? With which side would you agree? What do you think has been gained, and what has been lost since Kinsey’s work in this field?
7) Comment/reflect upon the exchange between an interviewer and Kinsey: In all your cases you haven’t mentioned love.” Kinsey, “That’s because you can’t measure love. When it comes to love we are all in the dark.” Do you think that the Scriptures could throw any light on this for Kinsey? Which passages?
8) What do you think the filmmaker means to say in the final scene amidst the giant sequoia trees? How are roots important to each of us?