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Kinsey movie a welcome breath of fresh air
Let's talk about sex

Review by Sherry Wolf | December 10, 2004 | Page 9

Kinsey, written and directed by Bill Condon, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

FIFTY-SIX years after publishing his groundbreaking study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey is still attacked by the right wing. Conservatives despise him for validating abortion, promoting homosexuality as normal and soothing people's anxieties about their unorthodox sexual habits and desires.

The new movie Kinsey is a refreshing breeze in the stultifying air of the right wing's current "moral" crusade.

Liam Neeson portrays Kinsey as the "churchy" entomologist with a fascination for gall wasps who becomes a pioneer in the study of human sexuality when he's faced with his Indiana University students' profound ignorance about sex.

Watching scenes of a professor of hygiene peddling myths against masturbation and college students asking the most basic questions about their own bodies, you have to wonder whether these scenes will become tragically familiar again in this era of abstinence-only education in the public schools.

Kinsey's own sexual awakening to his attraction for other men, despite his marriage, and the radical free-love environment he cultivated among his colleagues were used to vilify him during the puritanical 1950s. "Taken together, Kinsey's statistics pointed to a vast hidden world of sexual experience sharply at odds with publicly espoused norms," writes historian John D'Emilio.

Kinsey's published results--which exposed widespread homosexual practices, among other unanticipated outcomes--inspired the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee to attack him as a communist and hold hearings to intimidate his funding sources.

Some of the movie's best scenes are stories from some of the 18,000 sexual histories that Kinsey and his team gathered through personal interviews. A gay man in a Chicago bar describes being beaten and branded like cattle in a stable by his own brothers when they discovered him having sex with another boy. A woman who had her first orgasm at 40 discovers that her clitoris is the organ responsible for sexual stimulation, not the vagina.

Lynn Redgrave has a bit role as an older woman nearly driven to suicide by her sexual arousal by a female friend, until she reads Kinsey's 1953 study Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The discovery that there are others like her saved her life and opened up a new world for her as a lesbian.

The biggest drawback of the film is how little of the actual results of the study are revealed. For example, nudity during sex only became commonplace during the 1920s. Kinsey found that most husbands and wives had no idea women were capable of having an orgasm, and most women rarely--and some, never--had one in an era before oral sex and experimentation beyond the "missionary" position.

Class background also had an impact on sexual behavior. Kinsey's study reported that working-class men tended to avoid extended foreplay and few engaged in oral sex. Kinsey's personal preferences and class bias did influence the study, and he dismissed working-class marriages as sexually inadequate due to the lack of varied sexual practices.

Aside from the widespread experience of both premarital and extramarital sex, the most shocking revelations of Kinsey's reports were about homosexuality. Fifty percent of men surveyed admitted erotic feelings toward other men; 37 percent had had sex with men; 4 percent claimed to be gay. Of the women surveyed, 28 percent admitted erotic feelings toward other women; 13 percent said they'd had sex with women; about 2 percent said they were lesbians. Lesbians, he discovered, were more likely to achieve orgasm than heterosexual women.

An entire industry has risen to discredit Kinsey and his work. Judith Reisman, author of Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences, writes that Kinsey's "legacy is one of massive venereal disease, of broken hearts and broken souls."

In fact, Kinsey's methods, especially given the sensitivity of his material and the Victorian atmosphere, have been shown to be exemplary. One researcher at the Institute for Sex Research "cleaned" Kinsey's data of contributions from inmates and others who could be easily discredited and found largely the same results in 1979.

The Religious Right--for whom sexual diversity and pleasure are the roads to ruin--have a stake in attacking the sexology of Kinsey. As the architects of abstinence-only education are all too aware, knowledge about this fundamental human behavior can and has aided a sexual revolution in the past.

The film slams conformity and takes on sexual ignorance. It will make a useful classroom aid when it's out on DVD.

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