Alfred Kinsey (1894 – 1956) was a zoologist at Indiana University. In the course of his teaching he realized that there was great ignorance among his students about human sexuality. He found that no one had ever studied the sexual behavior of the human animal, so he did. He began to research by conducting sex interviews. When he published his studies (a volume about men and another about women), it caused a great controversy because it challenged constructed social mores, cultural convention, religious teaching and objective moral norms as well. That he couldn’t understand or see was the necessity to recognize all of these aspects in relation to sexual behavior. This resulted in him being an expert on what people do, not why they do it or what the consequences of such activity might be.
The film, written and directed by Bill Condon, is not what I expected. I had decided not to see it but a Protestant minister friend did and suggested that it might be a good one to look at for pastoral reasons.
The movie starts out showing that Al Kinsey (Liam Neeson) loved nature, tried to be a good pious boy but he could never please his father, who was a Methodist preacher. He refused to study engineering as his father wanted and got his degree in biology instead. His life’s work for many years was studying gall wasps. He met his wife, Mac (Laura Linney) at Indiana University where he was teaching. They married and had three children. He began his sex studies when he realized how little the students knew about sexuality. He trained three researchers played by Chris O’Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard and Timothy Hutton. Sarsgaard is Clyde and Al has an affair with him. When Al tells Mac about their first encounter, she is horrified because they have marriage vows. Later, however, she, too, sleeps with Clyde.
Most of the movie is about Al’s life as a researcher of the sexual behavior of the human animal, how he carried out his interviews, the results of the research, the impact of the published research on people, his need for funding, etc. and his own personal sexual journey. He finally learns to empathize with his cold and overbearing father, Alfred (John Lithgow), when Al (or Prok as he was nicknamed by his students) interviews him after his mother has died. Alfred admits that he was forced to wear a leather chastity belt as a child and he breaks down and cries because no one would talk to him about what he was feeling and what his body was doing, and masturbation (which Kinsey discoverd most of the population engages in at one time or another, males more than females.)
The film is very well crafted and uses Kinsey’s interview style to frame the story, and some of the verbal and visual descriptions are explicit. Though an effort is made to be somewhat clinical, this wasn't always successful.
The most important issue to keep in mind here is that Kinsey’s concept of the human person is not an integrated one. To him, we are human animals, thus his research does not take into consideration anything transcendent like love, freedom and responsibility. Guilt, remorse, and other consequences are not of interest to him, except that they should be done away with because sexual behavior, no matter its expression, is normal. Lots of women have abortions, but what of the aftermath of such an experience, the long-term effect on the mother, the father, never mind that a baby is dead? What is the cumulative effect of abortion on society? If Kinsey had any concern, the film never shows this. Concepts like love came to him only late in life. He could not understand why there was conflict between two of his researchers when one had sex with the other’s wife. He was upset because it interfered with the research, not because a bond and promise had been broken. His only “moral” standard was that no one ever be hurt.
Kinsey did some things right: he forced people to name body parts properly in social discourse, he named sexual behavior for what it was: masturbation, homosexuality, pre-marital intercourse, extra-marital intercourse, etc. This alone disturbed many people, even the ones who engaged in such behavior. He helped lower people’s anxiety about sexuality by destroying false myths about it. But he created an even bigger myth: that sexual behavior of any kind is normal as long as no one gets hurt.
What Kinsey failed to take into consideration, according to the film, is the essential difference between human beings and animals: the soul, conscience, morality, ethics. He always proclaimed that he was a scientist, not a moralist. His view was that because everyone was doing it, it was normal, and therefore OK. He pretty much gave people permission to do it, too, whatever it was.
Another problem with Kinsey for me, as presented in the film, is his lack of integration as a human person. For all his intelligence, he refused (or could not) to recognize that this is one of the things that made him and us different from the animal world. Kinsey was interested in the physical, certainly, but that only included the genitals, not the brain. He ridiculed chastity and the belief that procreation is the purpose of intercourse within marriage.
Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is just as ground-breaking as Kinsey’s research, though it appraises sexuality from a completely different perspective, the first of which is a respect for chastity, and then philosophy. This theology, a way to find and study God and ourselves through the body, respects the dignity and integrity of the human person. It reminds us that because of who we are as human beings, we are called to live in freedom and responsibility for self and others.
This is difficult news in today’s society that often thinks the only moral norm is that everything is ok so long as no one gets hurt. This is the dilemma at the core of TV shows like Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me. The characters know that transcendence is part of who they are as persons, that there is more to life than sexual behavior. They know that freedom is balanced in the universe and in their souls by responsibility. Because they are struggling with needs, wants, freedom and responsibility, and because they often make choices that are selfish rather than life-affirming, they are unhappy (hence the drama that keeps audiences coming back and using the TV situations for moral laboratories). The characters are searching for meaning and intimacy, and slowly discovering that sexual activity alone does not provide it. They are living according to Kinsey's research conclusions (whether they know it or not), but it's not making them happy.
Kinsey never discovered or decided to deal with these issues. Because he isolated sexual behavior from responsibility, he seems to have left more chaos than understanding, depending on your point of view, or your beliefs. By normalizing everything, everything became acceptable. No one wants to go back to old wives tales or chastity belts or hell fire to scare people into conformity or to control them, but neither is everything right just because it is possible to do it. There is always an effect, a consequence to our choices and our omissions.
From a pastoral perspective, however, what we see how people struggle with their sexuality and their gender orientation and how these very strong drives often conflict with morality, cultural and religious expectations, etc. Thus we can learn empathy, because everyone is human.
Kinsey is another film that will launch a million conversations. My sense is that what you bring to this film is what you will get out of it.