Always Sex, All the Time
Bill Condon (writer and director). Kinsey. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.
T. Coraghessan Boyle. The Inner Circle. New York: Viking,2004.
Barak Goodman (writer, director) and John Maggiol (director). “Kinsey.” In American Experience. United States: Public Broadcasting System, 2005.
Reumann, M. G. American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
Normally I’ m interested in sex. I write and speak about healthy sexuality and am nearly always energized by the work. Absorbing films and books about Alfred Kinsey , however ,< has left me in need of a break. When it comes to Kinsey , it ’ s always sex , all the time. Though his work is challenging for Christians , Kinsey ’ s science and social activism has shaped American sexual culture profoundly and is well worth understanding as we seek to be salt and light in our world.
A spate of Kinsey-related productions has been released in the last few years. The Fox Searchlight film Kinsey earned Laura Linney an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Kinsey’s wife Clara. The Inner Circle, a novel by T. C. Boyle, fictionalizes the lives of Kinsey and his associates. PBS aired an American Experience documentary titled “Kinsey” on 24 October 2005. American Sexual Character, an academic book, examines Kinsey’s impact on post-World War II America. These productions track roughly with the fifty-year anniversaries of the publications of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), referred to colloquially as the Kinsey report(s) (Kinsey et al 1948 and 1953).
The Inner Circle and Kinsey (Fox) are both popular media products and, as such, are more salacious than the more academic treatments. The film uses a typical American hero narrative in which Kinsey struggles against oppressive social and religious forces to discover and tell the truth about American sexuality. Using numerous flashbacks, the film connects Kinsey’s sexually frustrated adolescence and his sexual struggles in early marriage to his eventual research interests in human sexuality. Even more than his broad personal interests in sexual experimentation, the film emphasizes Kinsey’s desire to teach engaged and married students about human sexuality in ways that would benefit their lives.
In one scene, a married student couple comes to his office to ask about oral sex because they’d heard it leads to infertility. Kinsey believes it doesn’t, but the students are unpersuaded, and Kinsey is dismayed by the lack of scientific data available on such matters. An incredibly rigorous researcher, he is disgusted with the “morality disguised as fact” that is used to regulate the sexual behaviors of the young. Throughout his career, Kinsey argued that sexual choices should not be regulated by morality but by the drive for orgasm as understood from an objectivist scientific perspective.
In the film, as in real life, Kinsey looked for opportunities to debase the Judeo-Christian morality that he saw as harmful in his life and in society. Projecting from his own adolescence and early marriage, Kinsey believed individuals and marriages would be healthier if adolescents had sex earlier and more often, bringing more knowledge and ability into adulthood. The film wastes time speculating about the psychology of his relationship with his Methodist pastor father, and the childhood origins of his father’s moralized sexual aversions. It also too easily dismisses with humor the Judeo-Christian ethics that plagued Kinsey’s conscience and shaped the tone of his scientific writing throughout his life.
Kinsey once said, “diversity is life’s one irreducible fact. To see it, you need only open your eyes.” The biological research that predated his sex studies focused on flightless creatures called gall wasps, and Kinsey saw humans as but “more complicated gall wasps.” He expected, and found, great sexual diversity and individual uniqueness across the human species. Kinsey’s powerfully nonjudgmental interviewing and observational techniques were rooted, in large part, in his rejection of morality and his belief that the behaviors of the human animal were value-neutral, like behaviors of any other animal. Unfortunately, neither the film nor the novel acknowledge that such “neutrality” is, in fact, an ethical stance. Notably, in real life, Kinsey’s philosophy found subjective limits in his heart. He rejected non-consensual sexual practices as well as those that caused emotional pain and initially expressed disdain for adult-child sex (Gathorne-Hardy).
Accordingly, the most shocking part of the first Kinsey report, even more than what American men actually do, is the framework Kinsey used to categorize sexual acts. Marital intercourse is fifth in a list of nine ways men reach orgasm, not given priority or distinction from masturbation, adultery, or sex with animals. He found that marital sex, in fact, provides only 85 percent of total orgasms for married men (Kinsey et al 1948, 281). His methodology did not attempt to measure the emotions, relationships, or after-effects that provide context and meaning for the orgasm experience. Kinsey (Fox) problematizes neither this extreme behaviorism nor most of the more troubling aspects of Kinsey’s research methods, including possible pedophilia, refusal to protect children from known pedophiles, and spurious statistical methods, nor aspects of his own sexual life which included risky, painful, and adulterous behaviors that increased in intensity over time.
A humane critique of behaviorism, if ever so brief, is perhaps the only redeemable aspect of The Inner Circle. The well-researched novel dramatizing events that receive terse description in biographies of Kinsey. Boyle bases his main character, John Milk, mostly on Kinsey’s research associate Clyde Martin but takes license to amalgamate experiences of other associates into Milk’s life. The book follows Milk’s sex life from college virgin to pre-marital experimenter to marriage partner to homosexual experimenter to adulterer to voyeur to sex researcher, with plenty of masturbation and descriptions of research subjects’ files along the way. By the end, the reader has been a voyeur to most of Kinsey’s nine paths to male orgasm through this character.
The novel is just a sexy book that uses the research career of an historical figure for a plotline. Perhaps predictably, character development is more about experimentation with increasingly risky and esoteric sexual behaviors and less about the cultivation of virtue, vice, or relationships. In the end, however, Milk decides to stay with his son and his wife, Iris, who has been troubled by her husband’s affairs and eventually refuses further participation in sexual liaisons among research associates and their wives arranged by Kinsey. The novel ends with Kinsey describing Milk’s wife as “sex shy,” and Milk, who begins to weep, saying that he loves her. Milk defends the behaviorism of the research to the end but gives in to his desire “to protect her, save her, comfort her, and I… took her in my arms…and held the embrace as if there were nothing more to life” (Boyle, 364). Something entangled, romantic, and potentially exclusive emerges from sex, even when people ignore it. This is a good lesson but hardly worth the 418 pages it took to get there.
“Kinsey” (PBS) and American Sexual Character are more staid treatments of Kinsey’s life and legacy. In reporting on Kinsey’s work, the documentary uses period photographs and film, data from biographies, and interviews with students, research associates, biographers, and family members. In contrast to the social reformer of the film and the charismatic authoritarian of the novel, Kinsey emerges as a curious, socially awkward scientist, whose personal sexual struggles inspired his research. Gaining confidence over time, he tried to create his utopia—a sexual world with total freedom and no guilt—with his research associates and their wives. The documentary is descriptive and accurate with detail about what Kinsey did. It does not explore his legacy or controversies surrounding his work, except to mention that data on children’s sexuality came mostly from one notorious pedophile.
M. G. Reumann’s American Sexual Character considers Kinsey’s legacy more extensively in a well-researched but poorly subtitled book. The book is not about Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. It hardly discusses the Kinsey reports or Kinsey himself. Instead, it uses the reports “as a Rorschach test for postwar Americans: Kinsey’s statistics were and are capable of many interpretations.” In Reu-
mann’s interpretation, Americans’ reactions to the Kinsey reports coalesced around discussions of American national identity, family and gender roles, consumerism, individualism, and racial politics. She argues that after World War II, Americans viewed sexuality as a source of moral weakness and social decay and viewed traditional domestic life as a linchpin for holding together the nation. Sexuality was a lens through which Americans saw larger issues of moral character, civic roles, and politics. The Kinsey reports provided primary data from which Americans could interpret their own sexual lives, and their hopes and fears for society.
This time period is an interesting sandwich middle, between the 1940s, during which Kinsey said Americans were underexposed to sex and faced pressure to repress, and the 1960s, in which Americans were arguably overexposed to sex, facing pressure to express and explore their sexuality. This is the era in which contemporary notions of sexual identity coalesced—the notion that sexuality, like spirituality, is a core part of human identity that is ignored and/or repressed at our peril. Readers may find the book helpful in imagining a world in which sexuality is something more than just potentially immoral behavior but something less than constitutive of the self.
The recent burst of media products about Kinsey may spark new interest among younger Americans who may not be familiar with him. Conservative activist Christians never lost interest, however, blaming Kinsey for everything from values-neutral sex education to legal reforms enacted decades after his death to mint-flavored condoms. Some even launch posthumous personal attacks against Kinsey that are mean-spirited and speculative, if not fraudulent. Biographer Gathorne-Hardy comments, “It seems that the religious Right in America attributes all the liberal development of the last fifty-odd years, which it so hates, to Kinsey and thinks that if it can destroy Kinsey everything it hates will vanish” (Gathorne-Hardy, 223).
Predictably, Christian reviews of Kinsey (Fox) have been uniformly negative, complaining in large part about the sexual content of the film. One claims that Kinsey has been “discredited because of his debauched lifestyle and the misinformation he spread about sex,” though this simply isn’t true (www.christiananswers.net). Another summarizes the film as an “abhorrent humanist movie that attacks traditional Christian values, flaunts a libertine sexual worldview, and revises history to promulgate a radical, politically correct social and political philosophy,” and complains about portrayals of homosexual kissing and female nudity (www.nationalcoalition.org). Perhaps also predictably, Christians seem mostly to have ignored “Kinsey” (PBS), The Inner Circle, and American Sexual Character, their eyes drawn instead to the Hollywood products they frequently despise. I wasn’t alarmed by the frank sexual content and the social vision of licentiousness in the novel, film, and documentary because I expected even worse. If it’s about Kinsey, it’s about sex. Launching one more sharp-tongued critique against these sorts of things, bad as they may be, is just pouring a thimble of water into the sea.
There is much to critique and question about Kinsey but also several strong points from which Christians may learn. One is Kinsey’s ability to engage and understand other people’s lives without judgment. I was raised in the judgmental borderland between fundamentalism and evangelicalism and became a cultural anthropologist in part because of the discipline’s relativism. While this relativism can be taken to extremes, secular anthropology offered me a philosophy and techniques for exploring the world without a ubiquitous filter of moral judgment. Kinsey’s interviews were effective and personally impactful for many subjects, for this reason. He listened without judgment to everyday Americans, rapists, and pedophiles and learned valuable information about American culture and criminal justice. He suggested, for example, that castration is not necessarily an effective deterrent against sex crime recidivism because sex crimes are driven by anger, rage, and power, not just a desire for intercourse. He also advocated the decriminalization of sex crimes such as oral sex, premarital sex, and homosexuality.
The Fox film begins with Kinsey training a research associate in how to ask questions and listen without appearing to be shocked or judging. Later on, a research subject describes giving a sex history as therapeutic. Confession, even to a secular priest, carries a measure of healing. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male describes Kinsey’s interviewing technique in detail, and his technique still provides qualitative researchers a model for ethical, humane treatment of research subjects around sensitive and potentially shameful topics. For Christians, it poses a challenge to engage even the sinful parts of our world with eyes wide open, and with compassion and transforming love, forces more powerful than Kinsey’s tolerance and supposed neutrality.
The matter of pedophilia, of course, is one of the most controversial aspects of Kinsey’s work. He took sex histories from active pedophiles and did not report their illegal activities, a choice still debated by researchers today. He believed, however, that adult-child sex only harmed children a small fraction of the time. In his view, harm is caused by adults overhyping the issue because of Judeo-Christian morality and legal codes. This seems odd to me because Sexual Behavior in the Human Male describes children reacting to sexual contact with convulsive movements and tears. This matter is treated seriously in each of Kinsey’s biographies but is ignored in film, novel, and documentary. (Reumann ignores it, too, but it is outside the scope of her topic.) Subsequent research, and common sense itself, have shown Kinsey to be very wrong about the liberatory potential of adult-child sex, but he was not wrong to have explored the possibility, to the extent that explorations were guided by scientific ethical codes. Important debates continue about how to best protect children’s nascent sexuality. Being wrong, even terribly wrong, is part of the scientific process.
For Christians, this issue offers reason for more engagement in the scientific process. Christian biologists, psychologists, and others working in the area of pedophilia and pre-adult sexuality can contribute reasoned arguments and evidenced studies to counter contemporary arguments about lowering age of consent laws, responses to pedophilia in society and church, or the content of sexual education curricula, and so contribute to the emergence of truth through the scientific process.
Kinsey hated Christianity, but the reasons behind the hatred remain challenging for Christians. He saw Christians as coercing people into behavioral morality through misinformation and threats of divine punishment. In the Fox film, for example, we see his father preaching wild invectives against sexual dangers including the zipper, which speeds sexual access in comparison to the button-fly. Indeed, Christians still place tremendous pressure on people to repress, misrepresent, or regulate their sexuality in order to avoid judgment or expulsion from the ranks of the good, or even the saved. I recently heard a Christian radio psychologist state, in a superior tone of voice and with no evidence, that people who have sex before marriage live like animals, and that such people are much more likely to face sexual difficulties in marriage. In 2004, a federal report charged a number of abstinence-only sex education curricula, used in twenty-five states, with spreading misinformation about reproductive health, gender traits, and human development. Consistent with Christian-friendly abstinence-only objectives are “facts” including that a forty-three-day-old fetus is a “thinking person,” that HIV is spread via sweat and tears, and that up to 10 percent of women who have abortions become sterile. (Recent research puts the number around 3–5 percent.) The prophetic challenge to believers is the same today as in Kinsey’s day: to talk about sex honestly and truthfully, and to make sexual choices in communities marked by both holiness and grace.
Instead of posthumous potshots, a better critique of Kinsey and his legacy will, like the best of prophetic critique, implicate the prophet as well as the sinners, to spur redemptive change. These new examinations of Kinsey offer a fresh opportunity to consider how Christians may approach his legacy and to evaluate how we have responded to, and been influenced by, sex in contemporary American culture. Kinsey focused mostly on one quantifiable question: how often, and in what ways, do people achieve orgasm? His social vision, however, raises richer questions. How are humans like and unlike animals? How ought humans to express sexuality and pursue sexual pleasure? What sexual practices make for healthy selves, relationships, and societies? Ought sex to be regulated, and by whom? The most persuasive answers to these questions should be lived, not merely researched, legislated, or preached. Each of our sexual histories is complicated by sin, and each may be redeemed by grace. With God’s help, healthy sexuality—including both the benefits of our wise choices and our healing from poor ones—may be seen in the lives of God’s followers.
Jenell Williams Paris is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1998.
Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia : W. B. Saunders, 1948.
Kinsey, A. C., W. B. Pomeroy, C. W. Martin, and P. H. Gebhard. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia, W. B. Saunders, 1953.
www.christiananswers.net. “Kinsey (2004)/ A Review and/or Comments from Christian Spotlight on the Movies.” (http://www.christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2004/kinsey2004.html). Accessed on 30 October 2008.
www.nationalcoalition.org. “Kinsey Review.” (http://www.nationalcoalition.org/kinsey/kinseymgreview.html). Accessed via www.archive.com on 30 October 2008.