Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Science of Sex

Alfred (Liam Neeson): When it comes to love, we are all in the dark.

I have often wondered if the life of sexologist Alfred Kinsey inspired the story that was told in 1989's "sex, lies and videotape." After all, didn't James Spader's character do almost precisely what Kinsey did?

Well, not exactly, I suppose. Spader just switched on the video camera and let the women start talking. He did ask them questions as they went along, but the women introduced the topics, and it was entirely up to them how explicit they were.

Kinsey, on the other hand, asked a lot of specific questions. For his research, questions needed to be asked of many women to get an idea of how common certain sexual behaviors were. (The account of his life was provided in the movie "Kinsey," which premiered 10 years ago today.)

And, of course, Kinsey did not video tape his subjects. The technology didn't exist until near the end of his life. (He may have made audio tapes, though.)

Beyond that, Kinsey was raised by a sexually repressive father (John Lithgow), from whom he apparently received little useful instruction. That could well account for his curiosity about sex. I don't recall ever hearing anything about Spader's character's upbringing, only that he was sexually dysfunctional.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

Kinsey began his professional life as a professor of biology, which evolved into sexology, largely from personal experience — or lack thereof. There was a shortage of scholarly research on sexuality, you see.

"The staggering truth," wrote historian William Manchester, "was that men and women knew more about gall wasps [which had been Kinsey's previous field of study] than each other. Human beings were even uninformed about the erotic behavior of members of their own sex, and therefore had no way of knowing whether or not they were normal."

Kinsey (Liam Neeson) fell in love with and married one of his students (Laura Linney, in an Oscar–nominated performance). Neither was sexually experienced before marriage, and their physical relationship suffered initially, but they worked it out, as I gather spouses had to do at that time; they had to find the solution to their problem almost entirely on their own through a kind of trial–and–error method.

As I say, there were few sex resources to which people could turn for answers, and most of the conventional wisdom was based on myths and old wives' tales. Thus, Kinsey's academic specialty was born.

I don't know a lot about Kinsey's life and work, but the movie seemed to have the ring of truth to it. My generation's teachers probably were students of people from Kinsey's generation — once or twice removed, perhaps — and many of them perpetuated the same sexual myths that were almost universally accepted in Kinsey's day.

That's kinda how it is with misinformation.

The findings from Kinsey's interviews informed people that nearly everything they had been told about sex was not true, and it changed a lot of things. In fact, my guess is that, were it not for Kinsey's research establishing that homosexuality was not a rare deviation but was actually much more common than had been believed, the subject of gay marriage would not be as prevalent as it has become in recent years.

Kinsey himself was bisexual and had a relationship with one of his male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard in the movie) — who then went on to have a relationship with Kinsey's wife.

It was that kind of marriage. The Kinseys had their own definition of love, and Kinsey acknowledged in the movie that love was the one thing that couldn't be measured scientifically.

As I say, I don't know much about Kinsey's life, but I got the sense that he treated his sex research with the same clinical detachment he brought to his voluminous studies of the gall wasp. Film critic Roger Ebert confirmed that.

"The film's director, Bill Condon, who is homosexual, regards Kinsey's bisexuality with the kind of objectivity that Kinsey would have approved," wrote Ebert. "[T]he film, like Kinsey, is more interested in what people do than why."

The acting was great. Linney, as I mentioned, was nominated for an Oscar — for Best Supporting Actress. She lost to Cate Blanchett.

Neeson and Sarsgaard deserved to be nominated but weren't. Neither was Oliver Platt, who played the university president who tried, unsuccessfully, to get Neeson to consider the P.R. ramifications of his activities.

I guess "Kinsey" was the kind of historical movie I like best — one in which I have little knowledge going in and can readily confirm what I learned from watching it. If such a movie has been unnecessarily embellished or the facts have been altered, its credibility with me goes way down.

Ten years later, "Kinsey" remains a highly credible story in my book.