I was pleasantly surprised by the movie Kinsey. I had expected a hagiography, but instead found a remarkable, relatively balanced portrait of the famed sex researcher, a movie which lends itself well to good conversation. And, I believe, an important movie for gay men and lesbians.
WARNING--this post contains spoilers, so if you have not seen the movie and don't want to know how it turns out, read no further.
The movie shows Kinsey emerging from his own sexual inhibitions to become almost a crusader for sex without inhibitions, but shows, through the drama of his story, the consequences of unrestrained sex. A virgin when he married, Liam Neeson's Kinsey takes up (after he has been married) with a fetching research assistant, played by the always-brilliant Peter Sarsgaard while on a research trip to Chicago. He tells his wife, played by the ever-amazing Laura Linney. While he inveighs against sexual restraint -- seeking a society free of all his inhibitions, she notes that "those restraints are there to keep us from hurting one another." As she has been hurt by his dalliance -- and will he be hurt by her dalliance with the same man.
Kinsey defends his research in the name of science, but his wife wonders if he is using science to justify infidelity. Linney's words (well, actually the words are those of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bill Condon, but she speaks them) and Neeson's acting really help show the tension between the ideology of uninhibited sex and our emotional make-up. Waiting on the stairs for his wife to finish up with the sexy Sarsgaard, Neeson's Kinsey is trying to pretend that he is not affected by her infidelity, but his face (and the tone of his voice) shows that he is. Each spouse is hurt by the other's infidelity.
This sequence alone prevents the movie from being a hagiography and shows that no matter how much scientists and philosophers try to rationalize uninhibited sex, the human heart has impulses which science cannot measure. Indeed, writer/director Condon addresses this in the concluding sequence, where, in a mock interview with Kinsey, one of his researchers asks him why he doesn't deal with love. Neeson's Kinsey replies that he is a man of science and science involves measurement, but you can't measure love.
While acknowledging the accusations of Kinsey's flawed methodology, the movie does not delve into their specifics. His biographers, including James H. Jones in Alfred C. Kinsey: A Life and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy in Kinsey: Sex The Measure Of All Things note how Kinsey oversampled prison inmates and single people while attempting to exclude those with strong religious views. In his chapter ("Science!") in Intellectual Morons, despite some overheated rhetoric, Daniel J. Flynn addresses some of flaws in Kinsey's research (as well as some unusual aspects of the scientist's private life).
Despite the flaws in his research, the movie makes the case that Kinsey did some good in moving us away from that limited view of sexuality that dominated American society (indeed, dominated most societies) up until the middle of the last century. In a touching monologue by the brilliant Lynn Redgrave (playing a lesbian), the film shows the meaning of our move away from the narrow view of sexuality. After reading his book, this woman realized that her feelings for a female co-worker were not unusual. That book helped give her the courage to approach that co-worker -- and learn that the feelings were reciprocated. A loving relationship resulted.
It is that story which helps make the movie worthwhile even as it undermines one aspect of the real ideology of Alfred C. Kinsey--his zeal to root out all sexual inhibitions. The story of Lynn Redgrave's character is not of a woman seeking wanton sexual relationships with a great variety of women, but of a woman finding an intimate relationship with one particular woman.
Kinsey has helped moved our society away from a narrow view of sexuality where we only condoned sexual relations in married couples. But, his zeal to create a society free of sexual inhibitions created the kind of emotional entanglements he and his wife experienced when each had an affair with the same man. In short, Kinsey attempted to throw out the baby with the bath water. We see the results of his ideology throughout the gay community where too many of us seek sex without strings. Where it is all too easy to get laid, but much more difficult to find love. Where we attempt to explain away the emotional emptiness that often follows a "hook up."
While we, as gay people, should be grateful (as is Ms. Redgrave's character), for Kinsey's research showing how normal our sexuality is, we need to be wary of his ideology. Sex cannot be reduced to mere science, as Kinsey would have liked. I believe our sex drive an aspect of the true erotic (and by erotic, I refer to the Greek Eros, the son of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love), that human longing for connection.
We all need to find a balance between our sexual drives and our emotional needs. This movie does a good job of showing the limitations of Kinsey's reliance on science as a tool to understand sexuality. Other authors have wisely quoted poetry in their studies of sexuality. It is one thing to throw off the inhibitions of the past. It is quite another to deny their meaning altogether. We, as gay people, need to understand that acceptance of our sexual difference does not mean abandonment of all sexual mores. We need to find a way to keep our sexuality attached to its emotional roots. To discover that our sexuality does not merely mean physical attraction to those of our gender, but also involves an emotional longing for a real human connection.