Intimate Truths

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Judith Orr takes on the right wing moralisers - review of 'Kinsey', director Bill Condon

There are websites set up expressly to challenge it, letter writing campaigns to the press to denounce it, and the person on which it's based is blamed for the degeneration of US society. Kinsey has sent the Christian right in the US into apoplexy.

They clearly feel affronted that anyone had the nerve to make a movie about a man who has been their enemy number one since his first studies of sexual behaviour in the late 1940s. What galls the bigots most is that the movie shows very clearly and sympathetically Alfred Kinsey's achievement in blowing apart some long enduring myths about sexuality, myths that are still encouraged today, over five decades later.

Kinsey is in fact quite a mainstream and understated biopic of Alfred Kinsey with Liam Neeson excellent in the lead. It tells the story of his life through the structure of a sexual history interview with him, a technique he pioneered.

Kinsey got into the study of human sexual behaviour (after years of research into the evolution of gall wasps) when he experienced the impact of ignorance about sex first hand - both he and his wife were virgins when they married. He started a 'marriage course' at Indiana University. It was a sensation. The movie shows that as word spread that his lectures were frank, informative and open, young people crammed into the lecture theatre, some pretending to be engaged, desperate for the most basic information about sex. One student tells him she thought that women gave birth through their belly button, so when Kinsey spelt out the biology of women's sexual pleasure it was a revelation to the 18 year olds in the room!

His wider research flowed from these lectures as he realised so little was known about people's sexual habits. He is portrayed as a man with a mission, embarking on a mass study with his unique method of interviewing with codes to keep the histories confidential. His staff were trained to draw people out, to use words they were comfortable with, to control their reactions to people's intimate revelations so that they were seen as non-judgemental and unshockable. These interviews filmed full face to camera are powerful and give a feel of just how much Kinsey and his team were breaking new ground.

The results of the studies - they did 18,000 in the end - were explosive. Kinsey published the instantly famous statistic that 10 percent of the population were gay. He also announced that '37 percent of all men had had a homosexual experience, nearly 50 percent of women were engaged in premarital sex, 62 percent of women masturbated, 49 percent of men had had oral sex within marriage,' and so it went on. In fact Kinsey wouldn't put people in 'boxes' according to their sexuality. Instead his approach was revolutionary for its time - he described sexuality as a continuum with someone who was totally gay or straight on either end, with many people, including himself, falling somewhere in between.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of an analysis which denied there was such a thing as 'normal' sexual behaviour. Kinsey said there was only 'common' or 'rare' behaviour. The liberating effect of the whole experience is reflected in the look and colour of the movie as the black and white and gloom of the early days is gradually lightened and coloured. But although many say that Kinsey laid the foundations for the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and indeed Kinsey and his team practised a form of 'free love' and sexual experimentation in their own relationships, the 1950s were still characterised by sexual repression and taboo. The establishment saw his writing as a challenge to their authority and Kinsey is shown being hauled in front of the Un-American Activities Committee accused of Communist-inspired plots to weaken American values (but only after he refused Hoover's request to 'root out homosexuals' in the State Department).

The movie gives you a real sense of the personal anguish caused by enforced ignorance about sex. The revival of campaigns encouraging abstinence in teenagers in the US today is an attempt to put the clock back to such days and is being funded by the Bush administration which has pledged $170 million this year. Today only 14 out of 50 states require that the issue of contraception be covered in schools at all, and abstinence educators can only discuss contraception in order to emphasise its limitations.

The religious right in the form of the revolting 'Concerned Women of America' organisation are clear about the threat that this movie poses to their reactionary campaigns. They complain that 'Kinsey's work has been instrumental in advancing acceptance of pornography, homosexuality, abortion, and condom-based sex education'!

Despite such hysteria the reality is that much has changed since Kinsey's time. The fact that this very affecting movie can still be seen as a danger to our morals today shows, however, that true sexual liberation is still some way off.

Kinsey
Director Bill Condon
Kinsey is released nationwide on 4 March.