"Kinsey": All Bonobos and No Chimps

Behold the bonobo, Dr. Kinsey tells his enraptured students. They're our closest relatives, and they have sex all the time, with as many partners as possible, while living together in peace and harmony!

Way cool, we say. But depending on our knowledge of primate evolution, we might also ask why the kindly prof doesn't mention chimpanzees, those larger cousins of bonobos who really ARE our closest relatives (just a few chromosomes away from Uncle Fred). Is it because recent field research suggests that chimps in the wild take giddy delight in such activities as rape, mate-battering, and murder?*

Personally, I don't put much stock in sociobiology. It's fascinating to compare ourselves with animals, but for a couple of millennia, human beings have understood that, like it or not, we are different. For one thing, animals don't conduct scientific studies of their own sexual behavior, publish them in best-selling volumes that contribute to significant changes in social organization (if not behavior), then make movies celebrating only one side of the story.

To be fair, "Kinsey" tells its one-sided story gracefully. Bill Condon is a deft director with a flair for sexual themes (see his excellent 1998 "Gods and Monsters"). And Liam Neeson is a vast improvement on the original Alfred Kinsey - not only is he better looking, with a better sense of humor, he is also better behaved.

Oops. This is science, folks. We're not supposed to judge behavior as better or worse. That belongs to the dark ages B.K. (Before Kinsey), when ten-year-old boys were forced to wear cruel contraptions to keep them from masturbating.

Huh? Where did I get that idea? From a gripping scene in which it is revealed that the suffering flesh of Kinsey père (John Lithgow) had been mortified in this bizarre way. As it happens, there's no evidence that such a thing ever occurred. Why then add it to the movie? The answer is simple: to make the dark ages look even darker than they were.

America had no lack of sexual hangups in the 1950s: anti-gay prejudice, racist myths, and gross disinformation about female sexuality (thanks a lot, Sigmund). A more measured film would not feel the need to add sexual morality to the list. I say this because the last I checked, sex was a pretty strong passion that sometimes needs channelling, if not curbing. (I assure you, my acceptance of this hard fact does not compel me to strap chastity belts on ten-year-old boys.)

One one level, "Kinsey" accepts this hard fact. There aren't many erotic practices out there that most people agree are wrong, but raping children is one. So "Kinsey" includes a moment of moral indignation at it, as though trying to reassure the audience that this is a movie about noble scientists, not nasty libertines.

The trouble is, Kinsey and some of his associates WERE libertines, and like all libertines they ended up hurting and violating one another. There are some hints of this: a scene where two researchers who've been sleeping with each other's wives succumb to jealous anger; and one great line: "When it comes to love, we are all in the dark."

But these are only hints, which is too bad, because underlying this story is a compelling set of questions about what science can and cannot tell us about ourselves. For example, love is not the only thing science cannot illuminate. Morality is another. Can it be proven scientifically that raping children is wrong? Of course not. That is a truth of another kind, no less true for not being subject to the experimental method.

If "Kinsey" went a little further in addressing such questions, instead of pulling back from them (for fear of appearing prudish?), then it would be a great movie instead of merely a good one.

* My source is the work of anthropologist Richard Wrangham, whose 1997 book, "Demonic Males," uses solid research to buttress a less-than-solid brief for what might be described as the bonobo lifestyle.

December 7, 2004 9:45 AM |

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