Let’s talk about sexual diversity

There are two lectures at the intellectual heart of this intelligent biopic of Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher who dared to turn a scientific eye onto our sex lives. These reveal the two most important parts of Kinsey’s professional persona: His need to catalogue and collect and his desire to disseminate and educate.

The first lecture, given as a 30-year-old zoologist, was about the gall wasp. In describing his continuing obsession with collecting and cataloguing these insects, he demonstrates their infinite variety. In doing so, he prefigures his future findings on human sexual diversity.

Years later, after Kinsey marries and his interests have spread beyond gall wasps, he is giving a lecture on human sexuality – called a ‘marriage class’ to mollify prudish attitudes of the day. He asks a seemingly loaded question of a quivering undergraduate.

“Which part of the human body is able to increase in size by a factor of ten?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” the shocked young woman replies.

Kinsey quickly puts her out of her misery, supplying the answer – the iris – as well as the warning that she may be in for some considerable disappointment in future.

While the second example may well involve some artistic licence, it is characteristic of the warmth and humour with which this frequently shocking movie is infused. And shocking it is. Despite the passage of some fifty years since the publishing of Kinsey’s reports into human sexual behaviour we seem to have become much more knowledgeable about human sexuality, but perhaps no wiser. Much of the information that Kinsey gathered is now relatively common knowledge, but many of Kinsey’s methodologies would still be frowned upon.

Kinsey has been endlessly profiled in the build up to the release of this movies. Some of these are obsessed with addressing whether Kinsey was, in some sense, a hypocrite. The objective scientist is set up in opposition to the moral bankrupt. This is a nice juicy dichotomy for the writing of a feature article but relatively unimportant compared to what the film highlights; Kinsey’s impressive determination to scientifically catalogue human sexual behaviour, a genuine compassion for his participants and a single-minded determination to take us out of the sexual dark ages.

Whatever Kinsey’s faults – and a person is inevitably not perfect in every aspect of their lives or work – he should be judged on his best work. It’s always easy to criticise, to pick holes and knock things down. Having the strength to build a project of this magnitude from scratch and having the vision and courage to follow it through, that is something we can all aspire to.

Read a summary of Kinsey’s findings

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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