Three years had passed since our graduation, and I sat with two of my Yale classmates over Cosmos talking sex. A topic not far from my mind—since one of them, Monica, was among the loveliest women I'd ever seen. Her green eyes flashed under jet black hair, which she coiled thoughtlessly around a finger, its skin the stark white of Xerox paper. Think Jennifer Connelly. Think Morticia Adams. It's a wonder I could think at all.
Monica hailed from Manhattan's Upper West Side, where her father worked as a classical Freudian analyst—a dinosaur, practicing not far from the Museum of Natural History. Across from her sat Eric, an affable, articulate law student from Long Island who reminded everyone of Richard Dreyfus.
I forget how the subject came up, but we were discussing how we first learned "the facts of life." Their stories were typically modern, and made little impression on me. Eric had taken careful notes during a very thorough fifth-grade sex ed class, while Monica's doctor father had briefed her well before puberty, and gave her supplementary reading. They shared the details without embarrassment, as if we'd been recalling how each of us had prepped for the SATs. Then my turn came around. I finished my drink and called for another.
“When I was 12, I asked my parents where babies came from, and they claimed not to know.”
"When I was 12, I asked my parents where babies came from, and they claimed not to know. I almost believed them. I had a vague idea about sperm and eggs, but I couldn't figure out how one got anywhere near the other. How did the sperm jump bodies? I hypothesized about hypodermic needles—but why were some pregnancies called 'accidents'? Were people being careless with those needles? Anyway, what did the cave men do? Scratch that theory. So I studied some medical books, but the charts and graphs were cross-sections, and the language was so technical I couldn't figure it out. It took one of my friends getting hold of a dirty magazine for me to get a graphic notion of how things worked. I wish I'd grown up on a farm...."
"Didn't you have sisters?" Monica wondered.
"Two. A lot older. I remember watching ads for feminine hygiene products on TV. I figured out that women seemed to need these things—whatever they were. But I never saw any in the house. Anywhere. So I theorized that there was either something wrong with my sisters, or something special about them. I couldn't guess which."
"Didn't you ask anyone?" said Monica, whose bright eyes now were wide.
"Once I asked my father, 'What's menstruation?'—a word I'd come across somewhere. He said, 'Woman stuff. None of your business.' Sometimes my mother would yell at my sister for going out of the house without a bra. I asked my sister why, and she told me it was illegal. That frightened me. So whenever my mother tried to buy a halter dress—no shoulders, so I couldn't see how she'd wear a bra—I'd throw a tantrum, to keep her out of prison."
Eric shook his head. "Irish, right?"
"Half," I said, tipping back the drink. "The dominant half."
Monica was briefly speechless. Then she said, with a kind of awe: "You're like one of Freud's original patients. There hasn't been a case of primal repression like this since 1918. My father would love to meet you... he could get a journal article out of this!"
"Any time," I said, flirtatiously.
And that, I would like to say, is how I met my wife.
No, it isn't true. I haven't seen Monica since, and whatever insights her father might have extracted from my uptight Catholic upbringing must remain a loss to science. But I remembered this little talk when I saw ads for the current film Kinsey.
It was to an audience of Americans like my parents that Alfred Kinsey came in 1948 and 1953 with his unprecedented studies of Americans' sexual behavior. And since I grew up in their rather too-chaste household, you'd think—certainly Monica and Eric would think—that I'd find Kinsey a sympathetic figure. It was to free folks like me from the superstitions and repressions of people like my parents that Kinsey strove in all his work. Or so goes the official story—which the movie repeats, skillfully.
The movie portrays Kinsey as a prophetic, even messianic figure who suffers.
The current biopic, starring the gifted Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, depicts the life of this shy entomologist as a gospel of enlightenment and liberation. The poster for this movie says of Kinsey: "Where there was darkness, he brought light"—a pretty obvious allusion to both Matthew 4:16, "The people living in darkness have seen a great light," and John 1:5, "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."
This bold coupling of Kinsey and Christ sets the movie's tone; it portrays Kinsey as a prophetic, even messianic figure who suffers at the hands of hypocrites, in selfless pursuit of the simple truth which will set men free. It doesn't hurt that the actor Neeson has already been sainted in the public mind by past roles playing the martyred Irish rebel Michael Collins, and the famous rescuer of Jews Oskar Schindler. Neeson competes with Tom Hanks and James Cavaziel for the distinction of having Hollywood's most "redemptive" face.
Kinsey's passion begins in the film's first frames, as he recalls a brutal upbringing by a puritanical father, who preached a stern fundamentalism to a church full of Indiana bluenoses. Throughout the story, no one representing traditional values or religion appears as anything but a buffoon or a sadist—or both. (The chief moralist is also depicted as a racist, just to grind your face in the point.) Now that may be how Alfred Kinsey viewed those who carried on the Christianity of his youth; but presenting the conflict this way is manipulative to the point of propaganda, and hardly lives up to the scientific "objectivity" the film holds up as Kinsey's ideal. The murderous Nazi played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List is a more complex and sympathetic figure than any of the "guardians of chastity" in Kinsey.
The film portrays Kinsey as a solitary, emotionally repressed researcher, the classic "man in the white jacket" heroically devoted to knowledge, not personal advancement. The work of his life's first half is collecting gall wasps on pins and classifying them in dusty tomes. When he meets his young and extremely understanding wife (Laura Linney), they encounter a sexual difficulty which sets Kinsey thinking; when two young newlyweds come to him for advice, and display their astounding erotic naiveté, Kinsey awakens to the fact that human sexual behavior had never been studied as comprehensively and dispassionately as, well, gall wasps. And he conceives a research project to peel back this area of ignorance.
Another student of human nature was also investigating eros, love, and marriage—Karol Wojtyla—the future Pope John Paul II.
At around the same time, it's interesting to note, another student of human nature was investigating eros, love, and marriage. The young bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla—the future Pope John Paul II—spent much of the 1950s drawing on his extensive experience counseling young couples to write , a philosophical attempt to ground sexual morality in human dignity and mutual respect.
Combined with the work of those who promote , the insights Wojtyla pursued have flowered into what the pope calls the "Theology of the Body," which explores without squeamishness or false modesty the physical and psychological intricacies of marital love. Whatever excesses Catholics might have gone to in the past to protect modesty and preserve innocence, the Church is now exploring the realities of erotic life, without sacrificing its moral and interpersonal dimensions. Kinsey might have been interested to know that Wojtyla wrote explicitly about the different sexual responses of men and women, and counseled men to "slow down the rhythm of their arousal" to accommodate and ensure the sexual gratification of their wives.
Then again, maybe he wouldn't have been so interested. It seems that Kinsey had by age 17 rejected Christianity as so much fear-mongering mumbo-jumbo—which perhaps, in his father's version, it was. But childhood experience had become by then a lifelong prejudice, one that could hide quite comfortably behind the mask of biological science, employed to downplay or erase the differences between human beings and other, lower animals.
In the film, Kinsey collects a band of idealistic young followers who renounce their previous academic interests to serve as his research team in a mammoth project: to compile and document the sexual habits of a representative sample of American men and women. A clever montage sequence, done in a campy "retro" style reminiscent of 1950s print ads, shows Kinsey's subjects as a sea of talking heads, morphing from one face to another, spread out across a vintage map of the U.S. But for all its humor, this very montage points to the sadness at the heart of Kinsey's enterprise: The faces transform from one to another, talking mutely into the camera, drowned out by a snappy commercial ditty. (Later, the soundtrack featured Cole Porter's tribute song to Kinsey, "Too Darned Hot.") As this happened on screen, I felt the laughter die and a sinking in my stomach. These people were to Kinsey nothing more than sources for statistics. As they went on to him and his team about the most intimate, traumatic, or wondrous moments of their lives, they appeared to the Kinsey team as interchangeable, and individually insignificant as gall-wasps.
Attempting to strip the erotic of all its mystery, modesty, emotional content—even its shame—is self-defeating, in the end.
The studies, when they appeared, seemed to document an enormous, appalling hypocrisy among Americans; in a nation where pornography, sodomy, and even adultery were still illegal, half of men and 40 percent of women admitted to cheating on their spouses, and "10 percent" of men were actually homosexual or bisexual. Pedophilia, bestiality, you name it—each was dispassionately recounted, and proved surprisingly widespread. These explosive findings confirmed thousands of Americans in their secret vices—and spurred millions more to "experiment," preparing the ground for the Sexual Revolution, all under the rubric of cool, unassailable "modern science."
Check out Lavalife or another secular Internet dating site some time—and see how many married men are seeking another woman to join their wife in bed, how many normal-looking girls from Iowa and Indiana are looking for "bondage," "threesomes," and "voyeurism"—to fulfill desires they might never have even conceived, were the media not swimming in them, from Cosmopolitan magazine to the Fox Network.
As scientists now realize, to observe something is to change it—and Kinsey's successful attempt to normalize each and every sexual activity sparked in many a morbid curiosity, and rendered others jaded, in need of ever-more intricate perversions to reignite erotic desire. If "in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking," nowadays five seconds with Google will yield the "TOP 10 ANIMAL SEX SITES ON THE NET." To those men susceptible to pornography (i.e. the ones who can see) the Internet can serve as a spigot for hot and cold running heroin. Meanwhile, ever more men under 50 are resorting to Viagra and Levitra, risking "painful four-hour erections" to counter the effects of too much visual stimulation, too many varieties, too little love, all of which have calloused the soul.
I won't spend much space here going into the many scientific flaws which marred both of Kinsey's studies. (Learn all about them .) It's true that Kinsey derived his famous "10 percent" statistic by interviewing large numbers of prisoners and convicted sex offenders—and even then, counting a single adolescent "experimentation" as indicative of a lifelong homo- or bi-sexual inclination. It was true also that Kinsey included prostitutes and any woman who'd lived with a man for at least a year among "married" women—rendering his conclusions about the "average" American wife completely invalid.
More disturbingly, Kinsey and his researchers engaged in a series of sexual liaisons. The movie accurately portrays him having sex with a young male assistant—who then sleeps with Mrs. Kinsey so she can even the score. (This sequence, which begins with an emotionally honest exploration of the devastating effects of adultery, quickly descends into the humor of bedroom farce.) It also shows how Kinsey's own researchers destroyed their marriages by swapping spouses, having sex with strangers, and turning their cocktail conversation into crass, depressing cross-talk about their various sexual conjunctions. Oh yes, and they filmed their exploits as part of Kinsey's "research." (These stag films still sit in locked vaults at Kinsey's Institute for Sex Research in Indiana, unavailable to researchers; so much for science.)
The Church is now exploring the realities of erotic life, without sacrificing its moral and interpersonal dimensions.
The film leaves out the fact that after this single affair, both Dr. and Mrs. Kinsey became serial adulterers, using their image as a happily married couple as little more than a public relations ploy to help Kinsey's conclusions gain broader acceptance. The film also omits Kinsey's lifelong obsession with erotic self-torture—which he carried out for decades by sticking a toothbrush... into one of those places where you wouldn't think it could fit. But the film does hint at Kinsey's bizarre stunt of circumcising himself at home in the bathtub. (Did I mention that it's not an ideal date movie?)
Kinsey does include an encounter between Kinsey and a particularly creepy sex addict and pedophile, who relates with lip-smacking glee his molestation of babies—and provides Kinsey with information about infantile ejaculation which the researcher duly publishes. (Other researchers might have refused to use data collected by a criminal on unwitting victims—as they even today leave untouched the results of grisly Nazi experiments. But not the intrepid Kinsey.) The movie leaves out the fact that Kinsey corresponded with this pedophile for more than a decade, derived large portions of his data from the sex criminal's confessions, and never troubled to report the deviant's ongoing crimes to the authorities. (Doctor/patient confidentiality does not cover child abuse.) All of which is to say that Kinsey was at best an enabler of pedophilia—more culpable than the universally vilified Cardinal Law. By the way, there's now a Broadway play depicting Law's negligent handling of pedophile priests; ironic that it's running at the same time as this hagiography of Kinsey. Try to imagine things the other way around—an exposé of Kinsey, and a soft-focus, inspirational biopic about Law. Kind of hard to picture, isn't it?
But Kinsey reaches a climax (if you'll pardon the expression) when Kinsey confronts his aged father, now a miserable shell of a man, and convinces him to take part in one of Kinsey's sexual interviews. In its course, the old man confesses that he had by age 10 developed a habit of compulsive masturbation—which his parents "cured" by locking him in a primitive chastity belt. At this, Kinsey quails for the first time, and finally reveals some compassion for the man he has always hated; the wicked father is revealed at last as one more victim of sexual repression. "Oh Dad, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he whispers.
The film ends with Kinsey and his wife amidst the majestic sequoia trees of California, with the scientist confessing that he has always envied the trees—who live without feeling, consciousness, or doubt. The scientist who has tried to remain abstracted from life's realities—standing aside from moral, emotional and spiritual concerns like a bloodless, observing angel—finds himself jealous of the beasts and bugs and plants of the field. The one condition he could not abide—and could not accurately record—was the human.
So I guess I'm not envious of the candor Eric and Monica encountered in their families—as well-intended and "enlightened" as it was. Watching Kinsey was not just unsexy—it was anti-sexy, like Madonna's old picture book Sex, which might more accurately have been called Gynecology. Attempting to strip the erotic of all its mystery, modesty, emotional content—even its shame—is self-defeating, in the end. Looking at men and women as merely animals renders human flesh finally meat, and replaces the tender touch of one lover's hand upon another with the scalpel of a doctor doing the autopsy on Cupid's cadaver.