Christopher Turner

I am Dr Kinsey from Indiana University, and I’m making a study of sex behaviour. Can I buy you a drink?

In a simple attic room, with only a mattress on the pine floor, two people would have sex in a cone of light. Sometimes the director would disappear into the shadows so that the performers would forget he was there; at other times, according to one biographer, he would observe the action ‘inches removed from the couple’s genitals, close enough to smell body odours and hear the squish of juices’. He would whisper instructions to his cameraman, and offer subtle direction to his actors (‘If you would just come now,’ he once said calmly when a camera was threatening to overheat). Often he would star in his productions himself.

Alfred Kinsey’s cinematic oeuvre first came to light in 1972 when Wardell Pomeroy, who worked for Kinsey and had taken down 8000 of the 18,000 sex histories Kinsey amassed, mentioned the films in a biography of his former boss.[1] Until then they had been kept under lock and key in a fireproof safe in Kinsey’s archive and only a select few had been allowed to watch them. One of the chosen few was Hugh Hefner, who was inspired to launch Playboy in 1953 after reading the Kinsey reports. He acquired copies of all Kinsey’s home movies after his death in 1956, along with 8000 other erotic films in Kinsey’s collection, in return for a generous grant to the Institute for Sex Research which was foundering without its leader.

Now the scientist cum film-maker is the subject of a new biopic, Kinsey, directed by Bill Condon.[2] Liam Neeson plays the bow-tied, gall-wasp collecting scientist as a forceful, lonely, socially awkward stickler for detail with a disarming smile. There is a scene in which he and his three helpers – Pomeroy, the psychologist, Paul Gebhard, an anthropologist, and the statistician Clyde Martin – assemble in the attic studio to make a film. Kinsey briefs them about the next subject who, he tells them, can have 15 to 20 orgasms in 20 minutes, the first one two to five seconds after entry. His colleagues jostle for position until she appears, very wrinkly, from behind a curtain like a vanitas image (she is described in the screenplay as a ‘typical grandmother’).

We cut to the sex researchers watching the footage of the multiorgasmic granny having intercourse with Pomeroy, played by Chris O’Donnell. The woman in question is Dr Alice Spears, a gynaecologist who had her first orgasm aged 40; Kinsey shot a number of films in which she featured; he and Paul Gebhard also slept with her (the latter apparently found her machine-like response distracting). The film within a film is studiedly unerotic (Kinsey is rated ‘R’, the equivalent of a 15): a re-creation of a scene which one first-hand observer described as ‘Wardell going like crazy but far, far behind his partner and her effortless flow of orgasms’, and apart from a post-credit sequence of copulating porcupines, chimps and farm animals (original footage from the Institute’s archive), it is the only reference to Kinsey’s home movies.

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[1] Three biographies of Kinsey are mentioned in this piece: Pomeroy’s Dr Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research (1972); Alfred Kinsey: A Public/Private Life by James Jones (1997); and Alfred Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (1998).

[2] It will be released in the UK on 4 March.

[3] Bloomsbury, 432 pp., £16.99, February, 0 7475 7557 6.