A few years ago I was browsing in a thrift shop and came across a curious volume titled Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique. What’s that got to do with Kinsey, the new film about sex researcher Alfred Kinsey? We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s look this specimen over merely in terms of its cinematic qualities, and set aside the sexual content. If this was a biography of any research scientist, we’d surely give it a solid A for visuals: costumes, lighting, props, cinematography, all contribute to a rich sense of environment and mood. A special gold star for makeup, which renders the players refreshingly real and un-made-up. The score is just about as good–let’s say an A-, with supple, rolling piano and violin lines that support a tender and poignant mood. Acting, well, we may be getting down to a B+ here, because although the leads are exceptionally gifted actors (Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey, Laura Linney as his wife Mac), they occasionally lapse into announcing their lines, a flaw probably attributable to the director’s skills rather than their own.
And that leads us to the script, which was written by the director. Bill Condon has previously given us horror and murder mysteries, and more notably Gods and Monsters (1998), which explored the last days of the director of Frankenstein and his complex erotic relationship with his muscle-bound gardener. The script for Kinsey, however, can’t earn more than a C+. Again, setting aside the sexual content and imagining that this is about any researcher, we’d still have to say, Gee, Bill, could you be a little more subtle here? We know he’s a great guy, but you’re hitting us with a hammer. We’ve got scenes where the good doctor stands framed in a doorway, white-washed by the setting sun, while his nasty father snarls at him from the couch. Down the camera goes to the miserable, twisted dad; up to the heroic researcher, proclaiming his noble mission. Laid on a bit thick, don’t you think? While Condon allows that Kinsey has a few flaws–he’s overly clinical and emotionally dry–as far as nobility of character goes he’s the next thing to Mother Teresa.
In order to highlight Kinsey’s spotlessness, his opponents are presented as the most benighted fools that imagination can supply. While Kinsey does everything but walk on water, his dad is humiliating his wife at the dinner table, shaming his daughter and younger son at the wife’s funeral, and in general exhibiting a bitterness of soul so extreme that it strains belief. We’re eventually told that it’s all because he was prevented from masturbating as a child. Sorry, but Condon has made the dad too evil to be comprehended by such a brisk totalizing theory. It’s like the old sexual superstitions in reverse, and is applied with the same hysterical force that preachers once brought against sexual mischief.
But, come to think of it, what do we really know about such preachers? Do we ever look up their own words, or consult what they actually said? No, we’re in too much of a rush to have authority figures wag their fingers at us, so we can have the thrill of defying them. Condon litters the film with plenty of stupid moralizers, and he’s made up marvelously stupid things for them to say. For example, Kinsey’s dad proclaims an ice-cream parlor a venue of lust, and calls the zipper “the most scandalous invention of them all.” Lines like these ring distractingly false, in their overeager attempts to render the era’s views frightening. And then we see Kinsey showing Mac a book titled Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique. He opens it and reads a few sentences, which convey prissy objections to two common items of foreplay. Kinsey is enraged and says, “It’s morality disguised as fact!”
You want to talk about facts? First published in 1926, Ideal Marriage was written by a Dutch gynecologist, Theodoor Van de Velde, and may be the best-selling sex manual of all time. Over half a million copies were sold in the United States alone, and it enjoyed equal success in Europe. On pages 169-171 of the 1930 Random House edition, Van de Velde takes up one of the items above, and describes technique at length. But rather than condemn it, he pronounces this activity “absolutely unobjectionable and legitimate, ethically, aesthetically, and hygienically” (italics his). The other is treated on pages 164-168, in much more explicit detail than anything the screen Kinsey tells his students. Van de Velde instructs husbands that if ministrations such as these are not sufficiently effective, it would be “both stupid and grossly selfish of the husband” to proceed to intercourse (his italics, again). This is not a prude’s book. Young couples who grab a used copy off the Internet may have even as much fun with it as their great-grandparents did.
So why did Condon pretend that Ideal Marriage says the opposite of what it really says? Because Boomers have structured our identities around the idea that we invented sex. We’re addicted to the thrill of liberation, and it doesn’t work unless there’s someone to be liberated from. So we want entertainment that shows us stuffy old moralizers and marches them around, and puts in their mouths the thrilling things we wish they said. If we listened to what they really said, we’d have to be a little more humble about our role in sexual history.
In fact, we have plenty of reasons to be humble about our role in sexual history. Van de Velde didn’t invent sex either–I believe scientists now suspect it’s been going on for a few centuries, at least. But his book was enthusiastically received because couples found there a warm and eloquent expression of the secret, common joys of the marriage bed. It took Kinsey to drag it onto the steel tables of a laboratory. And whatever is studied begins to change.
Over 60 years we have changed into a people who are exceedingly self-conscious about sex. Once people did what came naturally, experimenting and discovering each other and keeping things, as they say, intimate. Today intimacy is blasted; we are compelled to talk about sex incessantly, to hear about it endlessly, and it becomes ever more artificial. Overexposure has turned sex into another bleached and packaged commodity. We are estranged from our sex lives, from our own bodies, from each other, and there is no end to judging ourselves, our appearance and performance. No end to being judged, either; as Huw Richardson wrote in a poignant post, “Hell is a ‘Pride Parade’ where no one looks at you, where no one returns your compliments, where no one bothers to notice you–on a day when egos are supposed to be full and fluffy, hell is having one’s ego bashed.” The sexual revolution has created a whole new galaxy of ways for people, even gay people, to be rejected.
Sex is imagined to be “empowering:” we exercise power when we unveil our stunning bodies and reduce another person to slavish lust. But very few of us have such bodies; for most of us, sex doesn’t mean power, but vulnerability. It means trusting another to be kind toward imperfections and scars and sags; trusting that they will be kind because they love you, because they said so, because they sealed it with a ring. This is why marriage is where sex is most exuberantly free, and why it’s no surprise that married conservative and Christian women keep topping the surveys of sexual satisfaction. Kinsey depicts the confusion the researcher encountered due to his dullness at understanding the emotional and relational aspects of sex, but not the outcome of his blundering opacity. He did not expand our knowledge, but contracted it, reducing an experience that had been private, holistic, and rich into solitary or mutual mechanics. There’s a lot of wisdom we’ve lost, whole generations of it. But when we finally admit we’re not having fun, we can begin to discover it again.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.