I am Dr Kinsey from Indiana University, and I’m making a study of sex behaviour. Can I buy you a drink?

In a simple attic room, with only a mattress on the pine floor, two people would have sex in a cone of light. Sometimes the director would disappear into the shadows so that the performers would forget he was there; at other times, according to one biographer, he would observe the action ‘inches removed from the couple’s genitals, close enough to smell body odours and hear the squish of juices’. He would whisper instructions to his cameraman, and offer subtle direction to his actors (‘If you would just come now,’ he once said calmly when a camera was threatening to overheat). Often he would star in his productions himself.

Alfred Kinsey’s cinematic oeuvre first came to light in 1972 when Wardell Pomeroy, who worked for Kinsey and had taken down 8000 of the 18,000 sex histories Kinsey amassed, mentioned the films in a biography of his former boss.1 Until then they had been kept under lock and key in a fireproof safe in Kinsey’s archive and only a select few had been allowed to watch them. One of the chosen few was Hugh Hefner, who was inspired to launch Playboy in 1953 after reading the Kinsey reports. He acquired copies of all Kinsey’s home movies after his death in 1956, along with 8000 other erotic films in Kinsey’s collection, in return for a generous grant to the Institute for Sex Research which was foundering without its leader.

Now the scientist cum film-maker is the subject of a new biopic, Kinsey, directed by Bill Condon.2 Liam Neeson plays the bow-tied, gall-wasp collecting scientist as a forceful, lonely, socially awkward stickler for detail with a disarming smile. There is a scene in which he and his three helpers – Pomeroy, the psychologist, Paul Gebhard, an anthropologist, and the statistician Clyde Martin – assemble in the attic studio to make a film. Kinsey briefs them about the next subject who, he tells them, can have 15 to 20 orgasms in 20 minutes, the first one two to five seconds after entry. His colleagues jostle for position until she appears, very wrinkly, from behind a curtain like a vanitas image (she is described in the screenplay as a ‘typical grandmother’).

We cut to the sex researchers watching the footage of the multiorgasmic granny having intercourse with Pomeroy, played by Chris O’Donnell. The woman in question is Dr Alice Spears, a gynaecologist who had her first orgasm aged 40; Kinsey shot a number of films in which she featured; he and Paul Gebhard also slept with her (the latter apparently found her machine-like response distracting). The film within a film is studiedly unerotic (Kinsey is rated ‘R’, the equivalent of a 15): a re-creation of a scene which one first-hand observer described as ‘Wardell going like crazy but far, far behind his partner and her effortless flow of orgasms’, and apart from a post-credit sequence of copulating porcupines, chimps and farm animals (original footage from the Institute’s archive), it is the only reference to Kinsey’s home movies.

The release of Kinsey has reignited an old controversy in the US. Conservative Christian groups are denouncing the film as a Hollywood whitewash which elevates a man they consider responsible for everything from Aids to child abuse into a hero. Following a carefully orchestrated campaign of complaints, some TV stations have refused to show trailers for it. Although a Gallup poll conducted at the time found that three-quarters of the public approved of Kinsey’s work, the Kinsey report was compared to the atom bomb when it came out; one abstinence-education organisation has recently compared its original publication to 9/11, accusing it of ushering in ‘fifty years of cultural terrorism’.

In researching a book about the intellectual origins of the sexual revolution, a phrase coined by the Viennese psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1920s, I found that Kinsey and Reich had corresponded. Kinsey had started investigating American sexuality the year before Reich arrived in the country, and ideas about liberation which fermented in Europe took on a new aspect. The American establishment (notably the Rockefeller Foundation) started off by generously funding the seeds of the sexual revolution – on the grounds that if you knew the facts you could control them – and sponsored Kinsey’s research. But the avalanche of sexual confession he provoked overwhelmed them (the American Medical Association accused him of creating a ‘wave of sex hysteria’), and the 1950s ended in a series of paranoid initiatives to contain it. Both Kinsey and Reich were investigated by the FBI, itself, according to Kinsey’s biographer James Jones, ‘possibly the only American Institution more obsessed with sex than the Institute for Sex Research’. What does it say about our own times that a mainstream Hollywood movie about Kinsey – a man who died almost fifty years ago – can still be found troubling?

Social conservatives have had it in for Kinsey (who was himself a Republican) ever since he showed that premarital sex, masturbation and homosexuality weren’t minority pursuits, and that 90 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women could in theory be sent to prison for sexual malpractice (as it were). Washington Confidential used Kinsey’s national averages to infer that 21 congressmen were gay and 192 other politicians were ‘bad behaviour risks’, which was perhaps what stirred Congressman B. Carroll Reece to attack the Rockefeller Foundation for funding Kinsey’s ‘Communist-inspired’ efforts at ‘weakening American morality’. (The foundation withdrew its generous funding and gave the money to a theological seminary instead.) In July 2003, in a flashback to that era, Congress threatened to shut down several sex studies, including one of emotion and sexual arousal by a psychologist at the Kinsey Institute.

The central figure behind the current anti-Kinsey campaign is Dr Judith Reisman, a 69-year-old former songwriter for the children’s TV programme Captain Kangaroo, who served as Reagan’s porn tsar in the 1980s (she received a $734,000 grant from the Justice Department to evaluate the images of children in Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse cartoons). Reisman leads an influential movement called Restoring Social Virtue and Purity to America, specifically aimed at discrediting Kinsey; she is also the author of Kinsey, Sex and Fraud (co-written with Edward Eichel, a Manhattan psychotherapist) and Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences. In these books she equates Kinsey with Josef Mengele, accusing him of skewing his statistics to legitimise all sorts of perversions, of kidnapping and drugging young boys in order to conduct secret sexual experiments on them, of soliciting paedophiles to record their exploits for him, and of making and collecting child pornography.

In 1966, at the height of the sexual revolution that Reisman is trying to roll back, her ten-year-old daughter was sexually molested by a neighbour’s 13-year-old boy. Reisman felt he had been prematurely sexualised by repeated exposure to his father’s collection of Playboy magazines, and when people began to assure her that children were sexual beings from birth, she wondered where that idea had come from and lighted on Kinsey. Reisman’s case against the scientist centres on one of his key informants known as Mr X, a paedophile who collected much of the material for the chapter on early sexual activity in Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. Using Mr X, Reisman sought to preserve the purity of childhood by recasting all Kinsey’s writing about childhood sexuality as abuse.

Pomeroy described Mr X as ‘63 years old, quiet, soft-spoken, self-effacing – a rather unobtrusive fellow’. He lost his virginity to his grandmother, had his first homosexual experience with his father (of 33 family members he’d slept with 17), and seduced 600 pre-adolescent males and 200 pre-adolescent females, fondling children as young as two months old and timing the frequency of their orgasms with a stopwatch. His appetite was so voracious and all-encompassing – he claimed to have had sex with animals ‘of many species’ – that his history took an exhausting 17 hours to take down, compared to the standard one and a half.

Condon’s film shows Mr X demonstrating his amazing facility for orgasm to an astonished Kinsey and Pomeroy. (Kinsey had collected footage of 1000 others masturbating – he paid $3 a pop – but this was definitely a record.) However, when Mr X gets out his fat black book – ‘I record everything too,’ he explains – and starts giving an account of his exploits, Pomeroy, voicing Reisman-like disgust, storms out of the room. In reality, Kinsey and his circle were obsessed with Mr X. They travelled 3141 miles from Indiana to the South-West to visit this man they considered a unique specimen (as if he were a new strain of gall wasp), and, Pomeroy records in his biography, they ‘felt that it had been worth every mile’.

In an attempt to give his story a moral backbone Condon presents Kinsey as haunted by conventional ‘demons’, his father especially: so strict he preaches even against the invention of the zip, which offers ‘speedy access to moral oblivion’. When Kinsey senior consents to impart his sexual history to his son in a final rapprochement it turns out that he himself was made to wear an anti-masturbation device as a child. It is an entirely fictional epiphany, an all too convenient explanation of the Victorian values against which Kinsey is rebelling, and scenes such as these make the film, despite everything, disappointingly conventional.

A frequent accusation levelled against Kinsey by, among others, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger, was that he studied sexual behaviour and not love. The film chooses this as its moral and it ends with Kinsey having a Damascus moment, parking his car to run around a forest with his wife, hugging trees and chasing deer to the sound of heart-plucking music, as he comes to understand the importance of love. ‘Now they want us to consider love,’ he once told Pomeroy with characteristic dryness: ‘If we started in on that, we’d never finish.’

In The Road to Wellville (1993), the novelist T.C. Boyle imagined life in a sanatorium run by the eccentric Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame. Kellogg preaches strict abstinence with the kind of evangelical zeal which has taken on a new life in the US today. (The Bush administration has pledged $170 million next year to fund groups that teach abstinence.) ‘We have no room in the University of Health for satyrs and fleshpots, libertines and sybarites,’ Kellogg says in the novel to an audience of vegetarians, ‘even a single discharge of seminal fluids could be fatal.’ But however many sinusoidal baths, milk-only diets, enemas and sessions in the physiologic chair his inmates have, they can’t repress their sexual urges. What follows is a French farce.

In The Inner Circle, Boyle’s new novel, he tackles Dr Sex, who taught the exact opposite in what was quaintly called the ‘marriage course’ at Indiana University.3 ‘Why, masturbation is the most natural and harmless outlet the species has acquired for release of sexual tension,’ Boyle has Kinsey advise a student. ‘It is purely positive, a veritable benefit to the species and to the society at large, and any minister worth his salt should be delivering sermons on that subject, believe me.’

The Inner Circle is written in the first person, unlike Boyle’s earlier book; its narrator is John Milk, a character based closely on Clyde Martin, Kinsey’s first employee at the nascent Institute for Sex Research. According to Paul Gebhard, quoted in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s biography of Kinsey, Martin was also the last person Kinsey fell in love with. He was a student at Indiana, and met Kinsey when he was working part-time as a librarian in the zoology department. They sheltered from a rainstorm on the same library steps, and Martin teased the professor about his ridiculous hat, a bright yellow whaler. Kinsey invited him to help with his garden, and Martin soon worked his way up to become his lab assistant, researcher, and in 1941 a full-time member of staff. He also became involved in a ménage à trois with the Kinseys. ‘He told me he thought I was educable because I hadn’t made my mind up about things,’ Martin later told Pomeroy.

Boyle charts the mutable Milk’s corruption, more Fanny Hill than Rake’s Progress. He admits to being sexually naive, ‘eager but inexperienced’, but under Kinsey’s tutelage, and determined not to be ‘sex shy’, he soon knows everything there is to know about the subject, riding the wave of Kinsey’s fame and all the while falling deeper into the Kinsey cult. As Jones puts it in his definitive biography, ‘within the inner circle of his senior staff members and their spouses, Kinsey endeavoured to create his own sexual utopia.’

Kinsey often said that he wanted to collect 100,000 sex histories, but he only allowed himself a few helpers – never enough of them for him to have completed the task. Those few he did invite to help he trusted to be open-minded and above all discreet. (He insisted on his researchers being married, which he thought gave them a necessary respectability, and he also insisted that they and their partner give an account of their own sexual histories.) In Boyle’s novel Kinsey is an obsessive megalomaniac, who exercises a guru-like power over those he allows near him. ‘Kinsey exercised a kind of benevolent repression over us,’ explained Pomeroy, who claimed to have spent more time with Kinsey than anyone apart from his wife. The story ends with the disintegration of Milk’s marriage and Kinsey’s addiction to tranquillisers and self-mutilation (Condon’s film portrays Kinsey as a religious martyr; he punctures his own foreskin with a knife, dripping blood onto the bathroom floor, almost as if his wounds were stigmata).

Kinsey’s cherry-picked group criss-crossed America, sleeping with each other as they recorded the nation’s sex-lives in a secret code which could even distinguish tonal inflection – YES, Yes, Yes and Y-e-e-e-s. ‘My last history liked Z better than Cm, although Go in Cx madder him very er,’ Pomeroy said to Kinsey in a crowded elevator, which translated as: ‘My last history liked intercourse with animals better than with his wife, but mouth-genital contact with an extramarital partner was very arousing.’ It was one big happy family. ‘At the conclusion of many a filming session,’ Gebhard remembered, ‘Mac’ – Clara Kinsey – ‘would suddenly appear with persimmon pudding or milk and cookies or something.’

On one research trip, the house detectives at the Astor Hotel in New York objected to the prostitutes, pimps and drug addicts who were piling into the lobby from Times Square to catch the elevator up to Kinsey’s room so as to earn the dollar he would give them for recounting their sexual histories. The manager wanted him out (he’d already been ejected from another hotel). ‘Nobody’s going to undress in our hotel room,’ Kinsey assured him. ‘Yes,’ the manager replied insistently, ‘but you’re undressing their minds.’

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