Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey scale of truth: Real-life facts vs. ‘Kinsey’ biopic ‘dramatic liberties’
Controversial U.S. sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) – perhaps best remembered for the Kinsey Scale measuring sexual orientation – is the subject of the 2004 movie biopic Kinsey, written and directed by Bill Condon.
Condon has had some previous experience in the off-the-sexual-mainstream “biopic” genre. In early 1999, he took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar statuette for Gods and Monsters, which presents a fictionalized portrayal of gay Hollywood filmmaker James Whale (Frankenstein, Waterloo Bridge), as played by Best Actor nominee Ian McKellen.
Unlike Gods and Monsters, however, Kinsey, starring Northern Ireland-born performer Liam Neeson (Best Actor Academy Award nominee for Schindler’s List, 1993), is supposed to be a straightforward biopic. For that reason, the generally well-regarded film has been challenged in some quarters for, at least occasionally, bypassing the facts when they failed to fit into Condon’s thematic purpose. (In The Guardian, historian Alex von Tunzelman gives the movie a solid A- “history grade,” while adding that it offers “a very forgiving take” on its subject.)
Below are several examples of when the filmmaker – and/or the project’s backers – decided either that fiction would be more dramatically compelling than the truth, or that the facts weren’t gripping enough to warrant any screen time.
Alfred Kinsey & Clyde Martin gay seduction scene
Clyde Martin: Have you ever done anything about it [Kinsey’s sexual attraction to men as well as women]?
Alfred Kinsey shakes his head.
Clyde Martin: Would you like to?
And off to their latest experiment they go.
Yet according to Kinsey’s biographers, the researcher was the one pursuing the much younger Martin (1918–2014), who eventually became his somewhat reluctant sex partner.
However unhistorical (and unethical), the decision to shift the roles around makes perfect dramatic sense. Portraying the iconoclastic sexologist as what is now routinely referred to as a “sexual predator” would undoubtedly have made the film’s unusual hero quite a bit less sympathetic to the (in their own view) “more enlightened” 21st-century audiences.
And in all fairness, the Alfred Kinsey-Clyde Martin relationship could hardly be reduced to a case of predator vs. prey: together, they – along with fellow researcher Wardell B. Pomeroy – would author the epoch-making 1948 tome Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.
The Kinsey family
Alfred Kinsey and his wife, née Clara Bracken McMillen (1898–1982), had four children following their marriage in 1921. Only three are shown in Kinsey. The couple’s firstborn, Don, died from diabetes-related complications shortly before his fifth birthday.
Another family-related fact-to-fiction change involves Kinsey’s hardcore Christian father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey. In Bill Condon’s film, Kinsey is shown at his father’s home after the death of his mother; in reality, the sex researcher never saw his father again after his parents were divorced.
Laura Linney (Best Actress Oscar nominee for You Can Count on Me, 2000) plays Clara in Kinsey. She would become the film’s sole Academy Award nominee, in the Best Supporting Actress category. Linney would lose to Cate Blanchett, who plays another real-life character, eventual four-time Best Actress Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn, in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.
Two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee John Lithgow (The World According to Garp, 1982; Terms of Endearment, 1983) plays Kinsey’s vociferously Christian – plus sexual-hang-up-plagued and borderline insane – father in the movie.
Veronica Cartwright (Alien, The Witches of Eastwick) is briefly seen as the mother, Sara.
Immediately below is the film’s trailer, also featuring, among others, Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People, 1980), Chris O’Donnell, and, briefly, John Krasinski.
Censorship woes + ‘little faith in ignorance’
In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Alfred Kinsey founded the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction – The Kinsey Institute for short – at Indiana University, in Bloomington.
The following year, the revolutionary – and hugely successful – Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published. The research for the book had been largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, through its National Research Council’s Committee for Research in the Problems of Sex, which, by 1947, was providing Kinsey with $40,000 a year.
Following the contentious publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, the Rockefeller Foundation was attacked by right-wing and religious leaders at a time when the United States was in the grip of endemic anti-Red hysteria. Kinsey and his work were perceived as a clear and present danger to American morality – and thus a useful tool for communists and the Soviet Union.
The Rockefeller Foundation ceased its support for Kinsey’s sexuality research in 1954.
In Kinsey, the Kinsey Institute sues U.S. Customs after the Indianapolis customs collector confiscates sexually related materials in 1950. Although not seen in Bill Condon’s film, the Institute ultimately won the legal battle in Federal District Court in 1957. By that time, the researcher had been dead for a year.
During that troubled period, Indiana University was a rare voice offering public support for the Institute. Subsequent to the release of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the university’s president, Herman B. Wells, declared:
“Indiana University stands today, as it has for 15 years, firmly in support of the scientific research project that has been undertaken and is being carried out by one of its eminent biological scientists, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey. The University believes that the human race has been able to make progress because individuals have been free to investigate all aspects of life. It further believes that only through scientific knowledge so gained can we find the cures for the emotional and social maladies in our society. … I agree in saying that we have large faith in the values of knowledge, little faith in ignorance.”
Accusations of pedophilia
According to Kinsey Institute Senior Research Fellow and former director John Bancroft, politically motivated anti-Kinsey factions have focused on the subject of child-adult sexual contact to discredit the researcher.
In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Bancroft wrote that since the late 1980s various allegations that Kinsey had been involved in the sexual abuse of children have “persisted as the main plank in the case of those on the Religious Right who seek to discredit Kinsey. In recent years, when there has been anxiety bordering on hysteria about child sexual abuse, often resulting in circumstances where the accused is regarded as guilty until proved innocent, what better way to discredit someone?
The Kinsey Institute has publicly denied accusations that Alfred Kinsey conducted experiments with children.
Bill Condon’s film touches on the subject only once, when we see the sexologist explaining to a pedophile that he doesn’t condone forced sex.
The Kinsey Scale: Accurate despite criticisms?
Though barely mentioned in the movie, the Alfred Kinsey scale and methodology have been much criticized because of the samples used in his studies. One crucial problem is that the survey group – which eventually led to the results found in the Kinsey Scale – was mostly composed of volunteer subjects (as opposed to random samples): about 25 percent of them were or had been prison inmates, and 5 percent were sex workers.
Prominent psychologists warned Kinsey about the unreliability of data based on information originating mainly from volunteers, but the researcher refused to consider the criticism. In addition, Kinsey’s statistical methodologies and incomplete demographic data have been put into question.
Yet despite these flaws, Kinsey’s research may ultimately be no more inaccurate or tendentious than modern studies on human sexuality. In his review of James H. Jones’ Alfred Kinsey biography Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, Dr. Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, wrote in The Nation:
“Paul Gebhard (one of Kinsey’s co-authors and his successor as director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research – he retired in 1982), himself reacting to criticism leveled against the two volumes [Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female], spent years ‘cleaning’ the Kinsey data of its purported contaminants – removing, for example, all material derived from prison populations in the basic sample. In 1979, Gebhard, with Alan Johnson, published The Kinsey Data, and – to his own surprise – found that Kinsey’s original estimates held: Instead of Kinsey’s 37 percent, Gebhard and Johnson came up with 36.4 percent; the 10 percent figure [for homosexual behavior / orientation] (with prison inmates excluded) came to 9.9 percent for white, college-educated males and 12.7 percent for those with less education. And as for the call for a ‘random sample,’ a team of independent statisticians studying Kinsey’s procedures had concluded as far back as 1953 that the unique problems inherent in sex research precluded the possibility of obtaining a true random sample, and that Kinsey’s interviewing technique had been ‘extraordinarily skillful.’ They characterized Kinsey’s work overall as ‘a monumental endeavor.’”
Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey in Bill Condon’s Kinsey movie: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
“Alfred Kinsey Scale of Facts vs. Fiction: Well-Regarded Bill Condon Movie vs. Contentious Reality” last updated in October 2019.