Sex, lies and videotape?

Almost 50 years after he exploded into America's national consciousness, deceased sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey is once again the subject of considerable public debate thanks to the new film "Kinsey," which is now playing in Milwaukee.

In 1948, the publication of the first of his two historically significant studies on human sexual behavior propelled Kinsey to a nationwide recognition that can be classified as neither fame nor infamy. While bookstores scrambled to keep his reports in stock and presses worked overtime churning out articles about him, some members of society recoiled from his work. Editorial pages in many major newspapers swarmed with letters from incensed readers, and sermons against him rang out over Sunday congregations from pulpits nationwide.

"Never before in the history of publishing has a book received so good a press, or so bad a one."

-Author Donald Porter Geddes, on "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male"

A lover of irises and collector of drink recipes in his personal life, Kinsey was an assistant zoology professor at Indiana University specializing in the study of a type of wasp when he began teaching a course for married or engaged couples. According to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, which Kinsey founded in 1947, the class made him realize how little scientific data existed on human sexual behavior. And so, he began to collect his own data by compiling the sexual histories of people, many of them his students. These surveys were not, as the name would imply, limited to the number of partners the subject had had, but also inquired after the subject's experiences with masturbation, homosexual activities, bestiality and premarital and extramarital sex.

"No aspect of sex, however seemingly frivolous, was a matter of disdain as far as Kinsey was concerned," wrote Wardell Pomeroy, one of Kinsey's research assistants, in his book "Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research."

The content of these interviews was studied and analyzed for Kinsey's two most famous books, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,"published in 1948, and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," published in 1953.

"Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" was not expected to do well, according to Daniel Porter Geddes' "An Analysis of the Kinsey Reports on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Female", but ended up becoming a bestseller. "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female"followed suit.

The 1950s were a time when "marital relations were rarely discussed and frank reporting about sex was greeted with a collective anxiety verging on horror," New York Times reporter Benedict Carey wrote in an article on Kinsey published last month.

The books shocked a post-war nation not used to discussing sex, according to theology professor and sexual ethics scholar Dan Maguire.

Kinsey's research "broke through a number of Puritan taboos which kept sex from being discussed," Maguire said, adding that society's almost Victorian values at the time prevented "frank and earnest discussion" and limited sex education.

The books may have flown off the shelves, but the reactions to them were far from all praise. Members of the clergy called his reports "statistical filth," according to Geddes, and the dismissal of the "Human Female" report by the editor of the now-defunct newspaper New Jersey Journal as "arrogant bunk" is indicative of its mixed reception in the public arena.

Nonetheless, Kinsey was the hot topic du jour after his reports were published. Newsweek, Time, Life, and Collier's all ran cover pieces on "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," and Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Ladies' Home Journal all ran features on it, according to Geddes. Kinsey's work was immortalized in New Yorker cartoons of the day and has become the topic of literally hundreds of books.

"Kinsey," though, is the first major non-documentary studio release of his life and work.

"He's somebody who's socially maladroit, he's obsessive, he's a scientist, he's clinical, he's shut off in so many ways. Kinsey as the center of a movie was a big question mark."

-Bill Condon, Director of "Kinsey"

"Kinsey" stars two Academy Award-nominated actors, Liam Neeson as Kinsey and Laura Linney as his wife, Clara. It is directed by Bill Condon, who won the 1999 Academy Award for his screenplay for the film "Gods and Monsters."

"Kinsey" was an official selection at many film festivals, including the Chicago and Toronto International Film Festivals, before it opened in Los Angeles and New York Nov. 12. Now playing in Milwaukee, "Kinsey" has won widespread critical acclaim. The film was one of the National Board of Review's Top Ten Films, and Linney won the Board's Best Supporting Actress award for her performance. The board's awards are regarded by film professionals as the unofficial kickoff to the Oscar race.

"Sin is still sin! It is impossible to estimate the damage this book ("Sexual Behavior in the Human Female") will do to the already deteriorating morals of America."

-Billy Graham, Evangelist, on the release of the "Human Female" report

Although critically praised, the film, which is rated R, has received considerable criticism from Christian and politically conservative groups not especially because of its sexual content, but because of its subject matter: Kinsey.

"The reason we don't like Kinsey is that he was a child abuser and a scientific fraud," said Karl Maurer, vice president and treasurer of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, referring to some experiments on children that his organization believes Kinsey performed.

Maurer said Kinsey's research, which he called "fraudulent" and "a colossal disaster for American culture," was responsible for the overturning of many "reasonable state laws to protect women and children" and helped cause the Sexual Revolution of the 1960's, which resulted in increased promiscuity and a nationwide trend of marriage failure.

Maurer, who has not seen the film and said he has "no intention" to, believes "Kinsey" was created by profit-seekers who "whitewashed" Kinsey's scientific record in order to cast him in a more attractive light.

"Anytime you glamorize and gloss over the truth, you're a fraud." Maurer said. "Hollywood has produced many great movies — I don't fault Hollywood. This (film) was made by a group of people with an agenda."

Maurer said Kinsey was selected to be the subject of the film for shock value, which the filmmakers hoped could attract viewers and make a profit.

Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for Focus on the Family's Kinsey Impact Project, expressed similar views.

"The movie is a piece of Hollywood fiction," she said. "The film makes it out as though he drew his strength from marriage and devoted his life to science. That is not true.

"His research was made up of him trying to validate his own views and preferences," Hamrick said. She also referred to Kinsey's research as "fraudulent" and said it is not scientifically sound because he used prostitutes, pedophiles and sex offenders in his volunteer polls while refusing to survey more average subjects. Hamrick said Kinsey did not keep any records of refusal rates when conducting his polls and used this as evidence that Kinsey actively sought out sexual deviants to skew his results.

"He embraced that mindset and said to America, 'You think like these people. You act like these people. You are these people,'" Hamrick said. "He was devoted to trying to change society, but that's not science, that's a personal agenda."

"I think he's a man to be ignored. I haven't any time for him. I'm more interested in trying to solve complex problems than the ones this Kinsey ballyhoos. In my opinion, he's a silly exhibitionist."

-Lottie O'Neill, Illinois' first female senator, responding to a reporter's asking for her thoughts on Kinsey and his reports

But Jennifer Bass, a spokeswoman for the Kinsey Institute, defends Kinsey's methodology, research and personal life.

Bass denied the allegation that Kinsey used only sexual deviants in his survey. For his reports, Kinsey used a diverse cross-section of society that included garden clubs, nursing groups and YMCA clubs, she said.

"We don't ever claim that it was a representation of America in 1950, but it was a window," Bass said.

Bass also denied that Kinsey ever abused or violated children in his research.

"There is no evidence for that. It's just a rumor," she said. "Child abuse is a horrible thing. What Kinsey did was document that it happened — he didn't commit it, and neither did anyone else who worked for him."

The extent of Kinsey's research concerning children was limited to asking subjects about their childhood and interviewing children with their parents present, according to Bass. He did not perform any experiments on children, she said.

Furthermore, Bass denied that Kinsey was responsible for any of the moral degradation — such as the increase in divorce rate and promiscuity — that some accuse him of causing.

"He had a long and happy marriage and raised three children," Bass said. "It's just nonsense to think that any one person had anything to do with the divorce rate. He was very devoted to his wife."

Bass said she has seen and liked the film. The Kinsey Institute held a benefit screening of "Kinsey" on Nov. 13, she said, and 1,300 people attended.

Sex "is a difficult subject, but it's treated with dignity and respect in the film," she said. "I think (the film) is a wonderful opportunity for us to start a conversation about sex, about what has changed in the past 50 years and what hasn't."

"Depending on your view of current mores, (Kinsey) was either a Promethean figure, liberating Americans from ignorance, superstition and hypocrisy, or a Pandora opening up a box of permissiveness and perversion."

-New York Times reporter A.O. Scott, in a November article on "Kinsey"

Kinsey died in 1956, three years after the publication of the "Human Female" report. At the time of his death, his relevance to the academic sex field had not yet been determined. Even today, as critics such as Dr. Judith Reisman, author of "Kinsey, Sex and Fraud" question his methods and results, it has still not cemented.

But, as "Kinsey" proves, Kinsey — for good or ill — changed the way America thinks and talks about sex.

"He can be agreed with, he can be disagreed with," Maguire said, "but he cannot be ignored."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Dec. 7 2004.