Friday, November 19, 2004

Kinsey, the movie

Now playing in many theaters is the film "Kinsey," directed by Bill Condon and featuring Liam Neeson in the title role. This film accomplishes two things. First, it details the aims and techniques of Kinsey’s sex research, set against the somewhat improbable background of Indiana University in Bloomington. Then the movie tells a series of stories, the overarching one being that of Kinsey’s marriage to Clara McMillen.

An an entomologist, Kinsey (1894-1956) specialized in gall wasps, a subject he pursued with monumental determination, showing a capacity for total commitment that was to serve him well in his main career, which turned out to be sex research. "Prok" (as Kinsey was known on campus: Professor Kinsey) entered this field when in 1938 he began giving a popular marriage course at the University. While he was shortly obliged to give this course up, it led to the start of his project to collect as many sex histories as possible, with a view toward producing a comprehensive study. He was also genuinely concerned about the way that young people were harmed in those days by sexual mythology and ignorance. The 0-6 scale, with complete heterosexuality as zero and complete homosexuality as six, duly appears.

The film shows how careful Kinsey was to put his subjects at ease through body language. The interviewers recorded the data on coded charts, enabling an extraordinary condensation, while assuring confidentiality. The “trip wires,” devices for spotting whether a subject was not being truthful are noted, though not illustrated. I believe these safeguards to have been effective, so that the individual profiles Kinsey collected from his sex histories are remarkably reliable. Not so, I fear, are his statistical methods of integrating the data. This jury is still out on the matter.

As James H. Jones has noted, Kinsey "looked for subjects in places that would determine what he found. Kinsey did a great deal of interviewing in prisons, where the incidence of homosexuality was higher than in the general population." Moreover, outside of prisons "Kinsey targeted gay people, becoming the first scientist to study in depth the nascent gay communities in large urban areas and elsewhere. In city after city he tapped into gay networks, using the contacts he made with gay subjects to generate introductions to their partners, lovers, and friends. This practice enabled Kinsey to collect a large number of gay histories, but, in conjunction with his prison interviews, it also skewed his data in the direction of overestimating the percentage of gay people in the American population."

Inevitably, the issue of Prok’s personal homosexuality raises questions. His youthful disciple Clyde Martin (ostensibly a true bisexual) is shown seducing Kinsey, when it must have been other way around. This produces the interesting paradox of the teacher taught—yet I doubt that it happened that way. From the start the professor had the pupil in his sights. And he took action: he saw, he conquered, he came. In fact Clyde seems to have had reservations about the matter from the beginning, and only cooperated to please his boss. Later Kinsey encouraged Clyde, ever charming but horny, to have sex (quite a bit of it) with his wife Clara. All three seemed to have viewed this perfect triad as a way of controlling the other two.

After Clyde Prok never had another grand passion. But had a good deal of homosexual experience. In fact this “outlet” (in his curious jargon) became exclusive in Kinsey’s later years. This transformation the film does not show. It ends with a sentimental walk in the woods with Clara, implying that the gay part of his life was just a parenthesis. So this film is a kind of aba symphony in three movements: het, homo, het. In reality the researcher’s life was a grand march to the status of Kinsey 6: het, homo, HOMO.

The movie claims that Clyde Martin was a Kinsey 3—as much homosexual as heterosexual--when the sexual relationship with Kinsey began. I wonder if this was so. The reason for this assertion, I fear, is to preserve a bedrock of heterosexuality in Kinsey (especially as personified by the manly Liam Neeson). To be sure, the movie concedes that Kinsey desired men. But it implies that if it weren’t for the advances of the young, lustful Clyde quite possibly he would never have done anything about his proclivities. In reality Kinsey was the one in charge.

When he produced the male volume half a century ago, Kinsey did not understand the dynamic of penetration among straight-identified males, especially those of the "lower socio-economic strata." In that era (and still today in our prisons) as long as these men did the penetrating, they did not regard their masculinity as compromised. In one terminology the “catcher” is the pervert, the “pitcher” is normal. Not infrequently, though, the catcher does not ejaculate, but simply services his partner.

The problem is this. Kinsey’s term "outlet" tends to count the penetrator as having had a homosexual experience, the partner possibly not. Culturally, this is not right for the period, where the opposite conceptualization was dominant. The formula may also have distorted the figures for the incidence, or at least the personalization, of homosexual contacts.

The term outlet encapsulates two problems with Kinsey’s method. The first is the obsession with counting. Love can’t be counted, so it doesn’t figure in Kinsey’s universe (a point the film makes). The second issue has to do with the behavioristic reduction of human conduct to simple mechanisms.

Some of Kinsey’s followers assume that his findings are universally valid—across time, across cultures. Yet he tacitly admitted that, as presented, they are not even entirely valid for American society in the middle of the 20th century. After collecting a good many sex histories from African Americans, he decided to omit them from his Reports. The Reports deal only with Caucasian Americans. He left out the African Americans because his findings indicated that their sexual proficiency was greater than that of whites. Since he expected (and received) attacks for “exaggerating” the prevalence of sex and sexual anomaly, he did not wish to attract further attention by, in effect, telling it like it is. Some years after his death, the African American data was published, but it received little notice.

I did not know Alfred C. Kinsey. Yet beginning in the 1980s I was mentored by one of his closest collaborators, the New York psychologist C.A. Tripp. Not completely in synch with the other associates, Tripp held that the Kinsey heirs in Bloomington had downplayed the more controversial findings of the Institute after the Founder’s death. Possibly this shift in emphasis was intended to secure funding, which was uncertain at best. Tripp even alleged that they had thrown out valuable primary material, including personal letters with homosexual content.

While I learned much about Kinsey and his findings, Tripp (who died last year) kept to the understanding among the associates not to reveal Kinsey’s sexual anomalies. This news would, they believed, undermine the acceptance of his scientific contribution. Most of us learned of the full extent of Prok’s foibles only from the controversial James H. Jones monograph of 1996. By then, it seemed, it was too late for the revelations to undermine Kinsey’s work. Setting aside the occasional moralism, Jones’ information is basically correct. Jones deals not only with Kinsey’s increasingly exclusive homosexuality as he grew older, but with his autoerotic practices, such as puncturing his foreskin and inserting a toothbrush into the urethra. Nonetheless, there is no justification at all for today's scurrilous campaign claiming that Alfred Kinsey was a pedophile. If anything, in his later years he became more and more interested in o l d e r men.

Coming out in 1948, Kinsey’s blockbuster cut through miasma of American sexual hypocrisy. Together with the female volume (1951) it was perhaps the most remarkable body of work ever produced by an American social scientist.

The operative word is “American.” In this light some comments by my other guru, the late Warren Johansson are appropriate. I conclude by summarizing his observations from some years back. "Kinsey had become accustomed to a mid-Western ethos that was distrustful of 'fancy' Eastern intellectuals (often Jewish and European). Like Henry Ford, Kinsey believed in facts and numbers. Once he was satisfied with a case history, it became a simple fact, one of the many bricks he used to build his edifice. In its more intellectual version this approach is known as pragmatism. Kinsey was probably not interested in exploring such theoretical foundations. His was a can-do approach.

"Moreover, Kinsey downplayed his debt to his Central European predecessors, going back to Richard von Kraff-Ebing (1840-1902), who (though he clung to the normal-abnormal dichotomy) pointed the way to exploring vast realms of sexual behavior that human beings actually engaged in. In Berlin Magnus Hirschfeld accumulated a monumental collection of case histories.

"The Europeans employed a cosmopolitan approach, grounded in thorough familiarity with the Greek and Latin classics. Although Kinsey arranged to have some of this material translated, he did not know how to make use of it. In the end, the Indiana sage was like most of us: bound by the imperatives of his place and time."


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