Alfred C. Kinsey pried open Pandora's Box and we are still feeling the repercussions
In 1948, publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a sober study of American erotic practices, brought instant infamy to its author, a Hoosier academic named Alfred Kinsey. In Bill Condon's sympathetic biopic, Kinsey is accosted by a horde of reporters eager to pursue the naughty news that a scientist has dared investigate the varieties of libidinous experience. "Any thoughts on a Hollywood film?" asks one. "I can't think of anything more pointless," replies the fusty professor.
In 2004, "moral values," defined almost exclusively in terms of homosexuality, abortion, and Janet Jackson's breast, dominate political conversation, and the point of a film about the pioneer sexologist is sharp enough to puncture the premise that ignorance facilitates bliss. Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson, is a professor of zoology who specializes in gall wasps. He is induced to extend his research to wingless bipeds of his own species when, asked by a flustered student couple for marital advice, he realizes that what they do not know does hurt them.
"We know so little about what people actually do," says Professor Kinsey, known around Indiana University as "Prok," and he sets out to remedy that. Assembling a staff of devoted assistants, he crisscrosses the continent collecting data on what people say they do with others and themselves. "I hear America singing," proclaimed Walt Whitman; Kinsey heard America coming, or at least talking about it. In the film, a multitude of moving mouths superimposed over a map of the United States conveys a sense of the poetry in Kinsey's epic task. By the time his second book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, appeared, three years before his death in 1956, Kinsey had interviewed more than 18,000 informants.
However, candor cannot even now claim unconditional victory. The film has become the target of an organized boycott. Generation Life, a national youth organization that is dedicated to chastity and claims to consist of "virgins and renewed virgins," has picketed screenings. Even before the film opened, Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute of a group that calls itself Concerned Women for America, excoriated Kinsey as "the godfather of the homosexual activist movement, the campaign to mainstream pornography, and even the campaign to strike down abortion laws." Though other current films offer more flesh, it is Kinsey that most offends the religious right because it is a sympathetic account of how Dionysus supplanted Victoria as monarch of American culture.
A taxonomist at heart, Prok extends his method of classifying insects to homo sapiens. "Human beings are just bigger, slightly more complicated than gall wasps," he observes. For all his erudition about genital stimulation, Prok is naïve about worldly matters, inept at inducing philanthropists to part with their funds and at keeping politicians from pillorying him. Performing an experiment in masochistic pleasure, he cuts his own foreskin. "I wanted to try to understand," he explains to Mac when she finds him in the bathroom, bleeding and embarrassed.
If Condon's Kinsey is a wide-eyed innocent uncorrupted by the bars, prisons, and brothels that he visits for his work, Boyle's is a cunning impresario. The Inner Circle is narrated by John Milk, a student in Prok's controversial college course in conjugal relations whom he recruits as a
Though the narrator tries to remember Prok as "one of the great original geniuses of the 20th century," John Milk's caustic wife, Iris, does not let him forget the damage her husband's mentor caused their marriage. The Inner Circle is more disturbing than Kinsey, but both novel and film offer variations on the book of Genesis, where toxic fruit grows on the Tree of Knowledge. For Kinsey, the quest for forbidden knowledge was the ultimate in eroticism. •