Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Joy of Sexology: Does It Matter That Alfred Kinsey Enjoyed His Work More Than He Let On?

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Joy of Sexology: Does It Matter That Alfred Kinsey Enjoyed His Work More Than He Let On?

Article excerpt

In September, Fox Searchlight, a film studio known for such offbeat sleeper-hits as Thirteen and Bend It Like Beckham, arranged one of the first screenings of its upcoming movie, Kinsey, which stars a tweed-clad Liam Neeson as 1940s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Movie previews are often glittering affairs, staged in posh Los Angeles or New York venues, attended by impeccably dressed actors, film critics, and publicists. But the Kinsey screening was different. It was held in a small theater in Washington D.C, and afterwards the guests--a motley crew of bloggers, political reporters, and think-tank denizens--hovered around the director, Bill Condon, lobbing high-minded questions about academic freedoms and rewiring societies. These are not the sort of people, that is, who can ensure a film's financial success.

The event didn't make The Washington Post's gossip column the next morning, but its purpose was different: to win articulate friends. Both the studio and the director knew it needed them. Months earlier, conservative activists had launched an onslaught against the film. Radio host Laura Schlessinger and Judith Reisman, author of a book titled Kinsey, Sex, and Fraud, tried to place ads in a Hollywood trade publication alleging Kinsey was a pervert and a pedophile. (Their ads were declined as obscene.) Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America, two social conservative organizations, later bombarded newspaper film critics with mailers impugning Kinsey's character and research. When Kinsey opened to the public, the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a network for chastity educators, organized foot soldiers to picket theaters and hand out pamphlets tided "Casualties of Kinsey" The group's director, Leslee Unruh, explained that "Kinsey should be looked upon in the history books as Hider, as Saddam Hussein."

Other 20th century avatars of sexual open-mindedness don't draw comparisons to perpetrators of mass genocide, including those who came earlier and yelped louder than Kinsey. After all, there was Sigmund Freud, who first popularized talk of sex, including deviant sex, beginning in the early 1900s; Margaret Sanger, who advocated birth control to enable women to separate sex from pregnancy in the 1910s and 1920s; Gore Vidal who lionized gay men in literary fiction in the 1940s; Hugh Hefner, who introduced American men to the Playboy fantasy in the 1950s; Mary Calderone, who promoted sex education and founded SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) in the 1960s--the list goes on.

While conservative pitchforks have been raised at each of these harbingers of the sexual revolution, the anger directed at Kinsey even today, a half century after his death, is unique. For decades, every member of Congress who has tried to choke the spigot of federal funding for sexuality or AIDS studies has hurled invectives at both Kinsey and the University of Indiana research center that bears his name. When the 50th anniversary of his books arrived, conservatives marked the occasion by founding new anti-Kinsey advocacy organizations, such as Restoring Social Virtue and Purity (RSVP). Each year, the Abstinence Clearinghouse devotes two hours of its annual conference to debunking a man whose fame and influence peaked generations ago.

Why does Kinsey hold such a distinct place in conservative crosshairs? The answer is the same reason that his studies of American sexual behavior were so influential when they first appeared. Unlike Freud, whose theories were debated by the educated classes, Kinsey published books that everybody read--or read about. And unlike Henry Miller, Bob Guccione, or Xaviera "the Happy Hooker" Hollander, Kinsey didn't present himself as an advocate of sexual license, but as an objective scientist describing the sexual profligacy and heterogeneity that already existed in American culture. It was the apparent impartiality of his data that so shook America's settled notions of sexuality, as deeply as Darwin's theory of natural selection did the literalist Biblical notions of creation. …

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