Last edited: November 19, 2004

Repeat Offender

Alfred Kinsey is back, and so is the ‘Red’ scare

Boston Phoenix, November 19-25, 2004

By Peter Keough

BLAME IT ALL on Alfred Kinsey, who fired the opening shot in the sexual revolution.

The right wing and the righteous sure have, ever since Kinsey exposed what was really going on in bedrooms and barnyards across America with his two bombshell studies, 1948’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and 1953’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. The self-appointed protectors of decency hope to crush Kinsey anew, along with all the demons his work supposedly spawned, evils such as gay rights and marriage, feminism, abortion, secular humanism, genuine science, presidential blowjobs, and Janet Jackson’s exposed-for-prime-time breast. Validated by the triumph of the “Red” state of mind that gave the Bush administration a second term and a new “mandate,” they hope to crush Kinsey and the sexual reality he helped define.

They have plenty to get indignant about these days—a recent novel, a new film, and an upcoming television show all feature the pioneering sex researcher. T.C. Boyle’s The Inner Circle came out in September, Bill Condon’s Kinsey gets a wide release today, and a Kinsey documentary by local filmmakers Barak Goodman and John Maggio will be broadcast on PBS’s American Experience in February 2005.

The troops are already marching against Condon’s film. Right-wing-fundamentalist groups, spearheaded by self-proclaimed researcher Judith Reisman, have charged Kinsey with complicity in crimes such as child rape. Groups such as Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family have rallied their forces against the film and all it stands for. Vigils marked the film’s limited opening last week in New York, Los Angeles, and other locations. One group, Generation Youth, an association of “virgins and renewed virgins,” picketed theaters. Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America claims that it celebrates a person “whose proper place is with Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele.” He adds that Kinsey “was the godfather of the activist homosexual movement, the campaign to mainstream pornography, and even the campaign to strike down abortion laws.”

No doubt Kinsey and his work embody the struggle among political, artistic, and sexual expression and repression that underlies American politics and culture. And as reviled as he is by some, others equally and perhaps unfairly idolize him. But was he indeed responsible for the sweeping changes ascribed to him? More likely he was more of a catalyst and figurehead in a movement that was already stirring.

In 1943, while Kinsey was still conducting his research, Jane Russell’s breasts caused a Janet Jackson–like stir when she flaunted them in The Outlaw. Director Howard Hughes battled with the Hays Office, the MPAA ratings board of its day, to save most of the cleavage. This was the beginning of the steady decline of that office’s restrictive powers in an era already colored by the cynicism and seaminess of the film-noir movement. And 10 years earlier, in 1933, federal judge John M. Woolsey had ruled that James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses was not obscene and could be published—a landmark decision against censorship that no doubt allowed for the publication of Kinsey’s more provocative, if perhaps lesser-read, volumes.

Moreover, when his studies came out, a receptive and enthusiastic audience awaited them. Kinsey had tapped into a culture of sexual and artistic liberation that was already thriving. Among the thousands Kinsey interviewed for the male volume were the then-unknown William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, founders of the Beat movement that would transform American literature. In 1949-’50, he took interviews from the Broadway casts of A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams, the painter Paul Cadmus, the experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, the writer Gore Vidal, and many other progressive cultural figures of the day or of the future were his friends, supporters, and subjects. In the end, however, these famous figures were incidental to Kinsey’s work, which largely took as its subject anonymous average Americans.

Kinsey is perhaps a convenient symbol for a particular crisis in tensions between repression and liberation, religious fundamentalism and secular humanism, superstition and reality. When Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published, in 1948, the Cold War, a perpetual, seemingly unwinnable conflict against a relentless, evil enemy, had just begun. Just months before, the House Un-American Activities Committee had come down on the Hollywood 10, and the studios initiated what would become the blacklist. It was a crisis not unlike the situation we’re facing today, with our own war on terror, the constitutional encroachments of the Patriot Act, censorship in the name of decency by the FCC, and the cowardice and greed of studio and media heads who have collaborated with politicians to stifle free expression.

The icicles of chilled expression are all around. On Veterans’ Day last week, ABC canceled a broadcast of Saving Private Ryan, fearful that the FCC would fine the network for suggesting that GIs get killed in action or use the F-word. That fear may not have been unfounded, given the FCC’s past actions against Howard Stern and against the MTV Awards live broadcast that allowed U2 lead singer Bono to utter an expletive. Underlying that threat, of course, was the power of the religious right, eager to capitalize on its contribution to the president’s re-election. The Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association had filed complaints with the FCC against the two previous network broadcasts of the film. His organization failed then, but its threats to file complaints with the FCC this time apparently intimidated ABC.

Not only do Oscar-winning movies face the wrath of these moral watchdogs, so too do classic children’s books. Outraged religious groups have mobilized to ban Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Medal–winning novel Bridge to Terabithia, published 25 years ago. Their objections? Words like “Lord,” “damn,” and “hell” and a realistic examination of children’s spiritual crises. In a November 13 interview in the Boston Globe, Paterson recalled how one Christian schoolteacher responded to the book by writing, “From now on, I’m going to teach literature from the Bible alone.” Commented Paterson, herself a Presbyterian elder, “I hope she doesn’t use the Book of Judges.”

These signs of right-wing ascendancy notwithstanding, Kinsey and the movement he represented did make a difference, even though the backlash against him might have undone some of the progress achieved. After all, 60 years ago, people were still being imprisoned for engaging in oral sex with a spouse. Today, television remains free to air the smarmiest and most titillating programming as long as the bad words are bleeped and the naughtiest bits obscured—as fans of Wife Swap and The Bachelor, both programs of the easily intimidated ABC, well know.

Furthermore, no one gets excited about nudity on stage anymore. No one takes exception when Elfriede Jelinek, whose novel The Piano Teacher (later a movie), a celebration of sadomasochism, wins a Nobel Prize, or when Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, filled with eloquent, unabashed descriptions of gay sex, wins Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize. Nor does Hollywood show any signs of toning down. This year has seen a surge in sexually explicit, NC-17, and otherwise provocative films (see “Sexual Behavior in the Hollywood Movie,” this page). Video, DVDs, the Internet—there’s no end to the supply of sexual material simply because, as Kinsey demonstrated, there’s no end to the demand.

BILL CONDON, director of Kinsey, and T.C. Boyle, author of The Inner Circle, both agree that our sexual, artistic, and political freedoms seem intact. But they do have reservations.

Condon, for example, whose previous film, the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, dramatized the life of closeted gay film director James Whale, is wary of the more sinister similarities between the current era and Kinsey’s time, particularly 1953, when Sexual Behavior in the Human Female came out.” That was the time of Eisenhower and an all-Republican Congress,” he says. “It was the time of the McCarthy hearings and all that. Seeing everything through the prism of the Cold War, many saw a book on female sexuality as an attack on American mothers and pro-socialist somehow and anti-capitalist somehow, and against the family. Now I think we see everything through the prism of terrorism. With the current Congress and political climate, morality is making its way into science.... I think if you look at the stem-cell-research debate today, it’s identical to what Kinsey went through. The idea of pure science being almost impossible in the context of this political culture that imposes morality on every discussion.”

Supporting Condon’s fear that ideology is hijacking science is the story “Long After Kinsey, Only the Brave Study Sex” in the November 9 New York Times. It notes that despite a pop-culture environment that offers TV commercials with Bob Dole promoting Viagra and programming awash with mostly titillating sexual content, scientists today are less willing to risk sexual research for fear of condemnation than they might have been in Kinsey’s time. Despite—or because of—the pedophile scandal among Catholic priests, religious groups are more likely to hound such a study. Says Dr. Gilbert Herdt, the director of human-sexuality studies at San Francisco State University: “I have been in this field for 30 years, and the level of fear and intimidation is higher now than I can ever remember. With the recent election, there will be even more intrusion of ideology into science.”

But the question of scientific objectivity hovers over Kinsey’s work as well. Detractors have long claimed that a personal agenda may have shaped Kinsey’s science. Though married for 35 years and the father of four children, Kinsey would have scored fairly high on his own seven-point heterosexual-to-homosexual rating scale. He engaged in several homosexual relationships, including some with his staff members, and developed an interest in masochistic practices. Indeed, purportedly in the interests of science, Kinsey encouraged intermarital relationships among his staff, filmed sexual acts between staff members and study subjects, and established what might today be described as a polyamorous lifestyle in his research institute. It’s likely that Kinsey’s desire to investigate human sexuality was driven by an urge to understand his own inclinations. But critics go further, insisting that Kinsey shaped his findings to fit his own predilections.

Another criticism commonly made by detractors was that Kinsey either condoned or committed acts of pedophilia. Some of the statistics in his male volume include specifics on the sexual responses of minors that could have been obtained only by firsthand observation. That data, apparently, was procured from one prolific subject, Kenneth Braun, who meticulously recorded his thousands of sexual experiences with adults, family members, 22 species of animals, and male and female children as young as infants.

Condon, whose film is based on two recent biographies—Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s mostly adulatory Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey (University of Indiana Press, 2000) and James H. Jones’s more critical Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (Norton, 1997)—dutifully covers these aspects of Kinsey’s life, if with some cinematic license. “I couldn’t leave out some of the bigger things that people have had problems with,” he says. “At the same time, I did leave out some of the things that I think a more-traditional movie would have included, like the death of his first child, which was a tragedy for him and his wife.” And he does depict a Kinsey interview with Braun in his film (though he deviates from the truth when he has Kinsey’s assistant Wardell Pomeroy, played by Chris O’Donnell, leave the interview in disgust). Condon sighs when asked about whether the pedophilia charge, and Kinsey’s own personal kinks, tainted Kinsey’s research.

“It was what the whole discussion was about last time when all these books came out,” he says. “It becomes half of every article written on the subject.” He points out that Braun died shortly after his interview with Kinsey. “It wasn’t as if any action Kinsey might have taken would have protected another child. At the heart of this was the trust between Kinsey and his subjects. The idea that somebody tells a researcher something and he goes and gets him arrested is a very contemporary one.... But [raising the pedophilia issue is] a common tactic.”

Expect more of the same now that the film has been released. Reisman for example, has dismissed Condon as a “gay activist.” Condon is bemused by that characterization. “It’s funny, because I’ve never been an activist. My only activism is that I’m openly gay. But for [Reisman], that’s the same thing.”

ANTI-KINSEY ACTIVISTS might be more sympathetic to the unquestionably heterosexual T.C. Boyle’s recent novel, The Inner Circle, which presents Kinsey in a less-approving light than does Condon’s film. Told from the point of view of a fictitious Kinsey associate based loosely on Clyde Martin, the novel at times seems more about power than about sex. The protagonist, John Milk, compelled by idealism and Kinsey’s zeal and charm, becomes the scientist’s first acolyte. As their bond intensifies, professionally, personally, and sexually, he allows Kinsey to subvert his individuality, dominating his family life and his ethical judgment. Whatever Kinsey’s charismatic powers, however, Boyle seems unwilling to absolve his followers of responsibility.

“[Milk is] a type, the type of the disciple, the type of the follower,” he says. “I’m always suspicious of that; I always wonder what’s the psychology of the follower? And what is the certain self-rationalization the follower goes through? On the other hand, who is the leader and how charismatic must that leader be? And how autocratic and how powerful?... Had [Milk] not been so attractive to Kinsey, had he not met Kinsey, he probably would have been some guy working in his hometown, married, and never known the difference.”

Whatever the truth about the man who inspired his novel, Boyle has no intention of offering comfort either to pro- or anti-Kinsey groups. Instead, he created a work of art dramatizing themes that occur in much of his other fiction, such as the novels Riven Rock, The Road to Wellville (also a movie), and Drop City. “[The Inner Circle is] not a roman ŕ clef,” he says, “and yet I am using some features of the actual inner circle. But I made them my own fictional creations with different aspects of their lives and different biographies.... I’m using Kinsey to work out something about notions of our animal nature, our non-spiritual nature, whatever you want to call it, and notions of what a relationship is, what marriage is, and so on.”

But doesn’t he see the subject as a lightning rod for the religious right, moral conservatives, and ...

“Dr. Judith Reisman? She’s attacking Condon, trying to, because she hates Kinsey and thinks he’s a pedophile,” he says. “I have had no contact with her, I don’t know whether she’ll read my book or care, but of course people like this don’t really read the books. I don’t think the ayatollah really read The Satanic Verses before he put the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.”

Indeed, Boyle sees Kinsey’s case as an example of the link between sexual and political repression. “Of course, Kinsey was accused of being a Communist by certain senators, because he was undermining the great family values of America,” he says. “Simply by presenting our sexual habits. For telling the truth. And so there was a real scandal with the first book, but it was a real titillating scandal—he sold lots of copies. And after all, everyone suspected that men were dogs anyway. Twenty percent of Kinsey’s respondents said that they had had sex with animals, a wonderful statistic. But even more wonderful is that 60 percent of that 20 percent had had sex with cattle, but 80 percent had sex with swine. That’s where it gets really interesting.

“And as you know, the female volume sold plenty, even more. But with the female volume people drew back because they didn’t want to know about their sister and their daughter and their mother having had sex with a German shepherd, they didn’t want to know about this and they were offended by it. They didn’t want to know the facts. And yes, he was accused of being a Communist on several occasions, by the right wing.”

Of course, the conflict between repressors and the repressed is never-ending, Boyle suggests, with the current anti-Kinsey furor just another phase in the process. “Sexual repression is political repression: someone is imposing their morality on you,” he says. “It was primarily church-based in Kinsey’s time. And I think it still is, at least in a hypocritical way it is, because the first thing the right wing reaches for is God. How can you argue with our president? God tells him what to do. There are always right-wing nuts trying to curtail what you want to do and curtail your free expression and censor whatever you’re doing, that’s been going on forever.”

Still, The Inner Circle was not designed as a salvo in that struggle. “I have stood opposed to Bush in a very fanatical way since he emerged on the political scene, and maybe the book will help with that,” Boyle says. “[But] I don’t think it’s a political book. You have to understand that I don’t plan my books far in advance or have an agenda; I just let it flow and see what happens. What I learned from writing this book is that sex is good. I kind of suspected it beforehand, but now I know.”

Alfred Kinsey would surely agree.

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