Gary Wood: review

March 11, 2005

"The enforcers of chastity are amassing once again," rasps pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in one of this remarkable biopic's final scenes.

Prophetic words as the timely release of a film about one man's scientific crusade against sexual ignorance take us full circle. Half a century on, what has changed? We are once again faced with the same issues that Kinsey sought to address. Ignorance and abstinence are still offered as the "new way backwards" for our collective societal "problem" with sex.

We can't live without it but seem unable to talk about it, at least not in a rational way. All the while, evidence shows a shocking incidence of sexually transmitted infections among young people who enter into abstinence programmes and end up taking risks with their sexual health.

At the heart of this story is a mild-mannered academic who began his career studying gall wasps yet would ultimately be credited with starting the sexual revolution and destabilising American moral values.

While it is difficult to imagine the somewhat heroic Liam Neeson playing this slightly pompous Eleanor Roosevelt in a bow tie look-alike, the portrayal is wonderful. Within seconds, Kinsey is established as an intense but likeable man filled with a passion for science, compassion for people and a strong sense of integrity.

It is notable that Kinsey's refusal to assist the morally bankrupt J. Edgar Hoover in a homosexual witch-hunt in part led to his downfall. It is equally notable that the film has been the subject of a vicious campaign, sponsored by the religious Right, that has slandered just about anyone involved with the production. Kinsey himself has once again come in for harsh criticism.

The film beautifully conveys the immensity of Kinsey's project to catalogue the full range of sexual behaviours of the American people. In the 1940s, research on human sexuality was virtually non-existent, and the main source of information on sexual health came from pseudo-scientific tracts espousing myths such as masturbatory insanity.

Kinsey was driven by the belief that we cannot know what is "the norm" unless we know what people are doing. His opponents believed that this kind of non-judgmental approach was amoral.

Kinsey's work was among the first things I read that made sense of my need to challenge narrow black-and-white categories of sexual behaviour.

Unfortunately, many of his fiercest critics have a vested interest in the good versus evil model of the universe.

The film is occasionally disjointed and somewhat detached, but it is at times cinematically breathtaking. It has moments of passion, humour and tenderness and some incredibly powerful scenes such as the interview with a sexual predator (William Sadler).

Towards the end, two scenes contrive to sum up the importance of Kinsey's work. One, featuring Kinsey and his fundamentalist father (John Lithgow), reminds us of the rigid doctrine from which we are still struggling to escape. The other, of Kinsey and one of his interviewees (Lynn Redgrave), shows how education can save lives.

In sum, the film is a wonderful postcard from the past that proclaims that blinkered ignorance is never a substitute for evidenced-based education.

That is reason enough to see the movie.

Gary Wood is programme co-ordinator for psychological studies at the Centre of Lifelong Learning, Birmingham University, and author of Sex, Lies and Stereotypes: Challenging Views of Women, Men and Relationships (New Holland, £7.99).

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