Kiss and tell tales

Alfred C Kinsey was a pioneering scientist - or a voracious pervert who used his work to satisfy his secret desires. As a shocking film about his life opens, John Walsh tries to separate the man from the myth, and Gore Vidal remembers his own role in the doctor's research
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It's hard to anticipate which scene from the new film, Kinsey, will most startle British audiences. Perhaps it's the moment when Kinsey (played with hulking, bow-tied idealism by Liam Neeson) discusses with his assistant Clyde Martin the extent to which every man is bisexual, and the two earnest researchers suddenly fall on each other, hungrily (and very noisily) kissing. Maybe it's the wedding night of Kinsey and Mrs K, when the happy pair - both virgins at the altar - fail to consummate their union because of (we soon learn) the disastrous convergence of his enormous member and her reinforced-steel hymen.

It's hard to anticipate which scene from the new film, Kinsey, will most startle British audiences. Perhaps it's the moment when Kinsey (played with hulking, bow-tied idealism by Liam Neeson) discusses with his assistant Clyde Martin the extent to which every man is bisexual, and the two earnest researchers suddenly fall on each other, hungrily (and very noisily) kissing. Maybe it's the wedding night of Kinsey and Mrs K, when the happy pair - both virgins at the altar - fail to consummate their union because of (we soon learn) the disastrous convergence of his enormous member and her reinforced-steel hymen.

Perhaps it's the scene in which we encounter Kenneth Green - a mild-looking, 63-year-old interviewee who turns out to have had sex with hundreds of men, women, boys, girls and animals, and to have written up every encounter in copious notes; Mr Green, furthermore, boasts that he can masturbate to ejaculation from a flaccid start in exactly 10 seconds and, when the Kinsey entourage doubt his word, he goes ahead and demonstrates right there in front of them.

Or maybe it's - but don't let me spoil it for you. This is the most shocking mainstream movie of the year, not for what it shows, exactly, but for what it portrays people talking about, and the language they use with each other. I thought I was unembarrassable, but I turned a dozen shades of ripe cherry while listening to Kinsey advising his daughter (over the family supper, as you do) on how to make her initial sexual encounter less painful.

The film commemorates a period when America flirted with wholesale liberation from the stern shadow of the Pilgrim Fathers; when, briefly, it seemed possible for people to discuss their sexual needs as they might discuss shopping, and to follow their desires no matter where they led. The publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 was a key publishing event of the 20th century, up there with Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders. Like them, it awakened a shocked Western world to an unbroached territory - in this case, human sexual behaviour.

The book offered the erotic history of men from every walk of life and every sexual orientation: gay, straight, teens, oldies, jocks, criminals, paedophiles, serial onanists, furtive bestialists, incestuous mummy's boys, and men who'd shagged their grandparents. Kinsey and his small research team somehow got them all to come clean about their first sweaty fumble, their auto-erotic rituals and their guilty days off from being heterosexual, polite and bourgeois-minded. It revealed, inter alia, that many American men (far more than anyone thought) regularly masturbated, had extra-marital affairs and had experienced gay sex in their younger days.

No wonder Americans were shocked to the core (and were to be again, only more so, when the Human Female companion volume was published in 1953). And they are still shocked today. Since November, when the film was released in the United States, a storm of protest has broken out from pro-Christian lobby groups. "Alfred Kinsey," the Generation Life group complained, "is responsible in part for my generation being forced to deal face-to-face with the devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, pornography and abortion."

Concerned Women for America went further; they compared Kinsey with "Nazi doctor Josef Mengele". A Colorado "broadcasting empire" called Focus on the Family signed up Judith Reisman, who published Kinsey, Sex and Fraud in 1991, to assert that the great man was a "massive criminal" and a shameless homosexual who fiddled with his research figures almost as much as he did with his corrupt associates.

It seems a very American row - the serious-minded, Harvard-educated zoologist devoting to human sex acts the same taxonomical energy he once used to spend classifying wasps, and the shocked response of an essentially puritanical society. But in the midst of this cloacal brouhaha stands (or rather sits, having Sunday lunch with his wife Nicky in the kitchen of his Norfolk farmhouse) an Englishman called Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. He is the author of Sex: the Measure of All Things - a life of Alfred C Kinsey, the biography that has been quarried for the movie's script by the writer and director, Bill Condon.

A leanly handsome aristocrat, whose uncle was the Earl of Cranbrook, Gathorne-Hardy, 71, is best known in this country as the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, a brilliant, unclassifiable piece of social history published in 1973 and admired by WH Auden. He has also written about public schools, doctors and Gerald Brenan. How has such a decent, public-school British chap become involved in such murky transatlantic waters?

"I read the Kinsey report at 16," he says. "My father was a doctor, and I suppose he thought it would help him in his practice. It seemed to me purely, wonderfully erotic, and made clear to me that I should start sleeping with my girlfriend, a mature and highly-sexed 14-year-old, as soon as possible. I never got her into bed, but it gave me a lasting interest in sex. Later, when I was writing Love, Sex, Marriage and Divorce, I read two biographies of Kinsey by his former associates Wardell Pomeroy and Cornelia Christenson - and it was clear to me that both were hiding things: neither was being entirely truthful."

The secrets concealed were about sex - not the sex lives of the American subjects, but the fact that Kinsey and his team were given to having experimental sex with each other, with each other's wives, and with assorted statistical freaks, including a 60-year-old woman called Alice who could have dozens of orgasms during sex, and who slept with all the researchers purely, it seems, to satisfy their curiosity. There was also the secret trajectory of Kinsey's own sexual orientation, from straight to bisexual to omnisexual to (mostly) gay.

"I got an advance of £75,000 and four years to write the true life," says Gathorne-Hardy. "My wife and I went to live in the States for six months [in Bloomington, Indiana, where the Kinsey Institute is located], and it was then that I discovered that someone called James H Jones had been working on his own life of Kinsey since 1972. I almost gave up, but I'd spent a lot of the advance by then, so I carried on. And when the Jones book came out [in 1997], I was amazed by all the things he got wrong."

Jones was an early sighting of the "anti-biographer" who takes the facts of someone's life and builds a case to discredit them. In his 800-page, Pulitzer short-listed study, Jones presented Kinsey as a gay exhibitionist who wanted to tell the world that lots of Americans were like that, in order to feel better about his own secret desires.

"When my book came out," Gathorne-Hardy says, "Bill Condon came over * * for lunch. He said, 'When Jones's book was announced, Gail [Mutrux, the film's producer] and I rushed out and bought it. We've been waiting to make a film of Kinsey's life for years. Then we read it and said: we can't make a film about this man - a fraudulent scientist, a voyeur, an exhibitionist who cheats on the statistics about homosexuality... He came across as so unpleasant that we abandoned the idea. Then your book came along, and I just knew that James had been wrong about a lot of this stuff.'"

It became apparent that there were, in effect, two Kinseys out there - the James H Jones Kinsey and the Gathorne-Hardy Kinsey. Both biographers spoke to hundreds of people who worked with Kinsey or were interviewed by him, and came up with vastly different pictures of the man. According to Gathorne-Hardy, Jones was a homophobe. "He made out that Kinsey was guilty about his homosexual side. But he wasn't the least bit guilty; everyone agrees that he very much enjoyed it. Jones wants to present Kinsey as a man in hell, haunted by demons. He was nothing of the sort.

"And Jones has provided all kinds of ammunition for the American Christian Right, when they argue that Kinsey was a pervert who pretended that the world was as perverted as himself in order to make himself feel less bad. But Jones gave himself away recently in a New York Times article. When he's asked by a journalist about Kinsey's massaging the statistics, Jones says, 'Well, I feel he must have done that. It must have influenced him subconsciously.' You can't accuse a scientist of falsifying data because you feel he might have done so. It's outrageous."

A striking example of Jones's creative deductions was the Hairless Brush Clue. In his book, Jones reports that a man living in the house where Kinsey grew up searched the attic for vestigial traces that might remain from the zoologist's childhood. He discovered evidence of an old Bunsen burner that had once charred the floorboards - and a small brush, with no bristles at the end. Jones decided that Kinsey used to masturbate with this object stuck up inside his urethra, in order to inspire pain and pleasure simultaneously - and used this slender evidence to support his theory that the scientist was a lifelong masochist. "I don't believe a word of it," Gathorne-Hardy says. "There's not a shred of evidence about this brush. He might have used it to stir whatever he was heating on the burner. Jones just invents the rest."

Gathorne-Hardy feels more attuned than his rival to the thought processes of his subject. "How could an Englishman write about this stuff? I've always been very unjudgemental about sex. I completely share Kinsey's view that, if two people aren't hurt by it, then they should be allowed to do it. I had two extremely gay uncles, and my family never minded about homosexuality. My grandmother used to say, 'It's outrageous that two adult men shouldn't be allowed to sleep together.' But then, having two gay sons, she had to be broadminded. And since I went to an all-male public school where we all fell in love with each other, I was quite aware of what he might have felt." The springs of Gathorne-Hardy's interest in the great taxonomist may well lie in his family's bizarre sexual history (as laid out in his autobiography, Half an Arch).

He also agrees with the wider shores of Kinsey's thinking about the intellectual ramifications of human sexual variety. "Kinsey was a biologist, and he knew that, in animal or vegetable life, the principle is variety - there are huge variations in behaviour, and that's how nature works. The same is true of human beings and their desires, of whatever sort.

"Once you have variety as your cardinal principle, you're forced into tolerance. You can't say anything is 'abnormal' or 'perverted'; you can only say that it's rare. And you certainly can't say something is 'wrong' unless it damages people, or forces them to do something against their will. This seems an utterly sane position that most of us in the West can understand, if not the Christian Right in America." So does he think that any behaviour is acceptable as long as enough people are doing it? "I don't think it matters if two people are doing it or two million."

Gathorne-Hardy's sympathy extends to Kinsey's humanity, which is glowingly evoked in the film through Neeson's sympathetic performance, especially in his relationship with his wife, Mac (played by Laura Linney). "Neither I nor Bill Condon knows exactly what Kinsey was like, because we never met him," he says.

"But I think Condon makes him out to be less of a bully than he sometimes was. Kinsey couldn't really converse, he could only lecture; he had no small talk and he was very short on humour. But what Condon did get, that Jones completely missed, was that Kinsey had enormous compassion. I was conscious of it, because of the number of letters he received and answered - he was basically a kind man, who used to weep over people whose lives had been ruined by sexual persecution."

It's alarming to think that a third version of Kinsey appears in the film, by a gay director with, perhaps, an agenda of his own. Condon takes several liberties with the facts - he includes, for instance, a wholly fictional scene of Kinsey's emotional rencontre with his nasty, repressive father, in the course of which the father reveals his own sexual history. "Yes, it's made up, but it's not unreasonable," Gathorne-Hardy says. "It might have happened. It doesn't go beyond the boundaries of what a biopic should do. I wouldn't condemn him for it."

Condon also provides the audience with a spokesman for their own feelings of revulsion at Kinsey's refusal to make moral judgements, even when taking down the testimony of serial paedophiles. ("Screw this," says Clyde Martin, unable to take any more of Kenneth Green's details about children and orgasms: "I'll see you in the bar.")

According to American right-wing Christians, Kinsey's indulging of paedophiles through listening to their stories and using them in his analysis was tantamount to participating in child molestation. Judith Reisman, in Kinsey, Sex and Fraud, wrote: "He found paedophiles all over the country, sought them out and encouraged them to engage in sex with children and report on it to him." Gathorne-Hardy stoutly defends Kinsey on this count, saying that he "cannot be blamed for using the material," while noting that "theoretically, as far as Kinsey was concerned, there was nothing automatically wrong with child-adult sex... Towards the end of his life, Kinsey found it very difficult to criticise anyone for sexual behaviour."

So, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Either Kinsey was a creepy gay proselytiser with no moral sense, who sought to prove that there were lots of people like himself; or he was a scrupulously fair and moral liberator of people who suffered because of their sexual orientation.

A broader view of him came, rather unexpectedly, from Laura Linney, who plays Mrs Kinsey in the film. When Gathorne-Hardy visited the set in New York last summer, he asked her how the producers' modest budget had managed to afford both Neeson and her. "She said, 'It's because we all mind what Bush is doing to America. Kinsey has become not just a symbol of tolerance and liberty in sex, but an icon of a much saner way of looking at the world, one that Bush is destroying. So we're all doing this for much less money than we might be.'

"They saw it as a crusade. Kinsey saw his own work as a crusade, and I've no doubt Condon feels that way too. There was a feeling on set of doing something concrete to win over the American people to [Kinsey's] views." How extraordinary to find, 49 years after his death, the anatomist of sex still contriving to upset, enrage and inspire people in equal measure.

'Kinsey' is released on Friday 4 March. 'Sex: the Measure of All Things - a life of Alfred C Kinsey' by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy is published today in Pimlico paperback (£8.99). 'Half an Arch', a memoir by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, is published by Timewell Press (£20)

GORE VIDAL ON THE COUCH WITH DR KINSEY

I was 23, Dr Kinsey was 54. It was 1948. We met in the Astor Hotel bar in Times Square, Manhattan, where he was conducting interviews with volunteers. In those days, after the Second World War, the Astor Hotel bar was a meeting place for soldiers, sailors and Marines on leave, and a good place for him to catch quarry to interview for his research.

I had just published The City and the Pillar, about two military boys who have a love affair, and it was a great shocker. The New York Times refused to take any advertising for it, and nor would they for Kinsey's book, which was published a month later. He wrote me a fan letter, congratulating me for my "work in the field". He said he wanted to meet me and take my history for a follow-up study.

I had no hesitancy about agreeing. His book was the first non-hysterical look at sex ever taken in the United States. Kinsey was a great cultural force in a rather backward country. In those days, you were supposed to denounce Kinsey for doing the Devil's work. What he was doing was shocking for the times. Homosexuality was considered a crime, still punishable by many years in prison. A sin, and abhorrent to society. So, as a sign of solidarity, I agreed to be interviewed by him.

He was very interested in doing a volume - which he never did - on the homo/heterosexual balance in the arts. He thought people in the arts were more prone to homosexuality than people in other professions. He spoke to artists, novelists, poets. I think Leonard Bernstein was interviewed by him, and he touched base with anybody he could. He was following leads, trying to figure things out. He was like a sexual detective.

Kinsey was sitting at a table in the mezzanine, alone, shuffling papers, with his briefcase beside him. He was wearing a grey suit and a polka-dot tie, and looked terribly grey. All his documents were written in code, and my answers were coded as well.

He seemed rather sleepy. I felt as if he could interview me in his sleep because he had been doing it so long. He had a flat Mid-Western voice, and was very polished at asking the questions. He was totally deadpan. I didn't see any flickers in his eyes, no response to my answers.

My interview took close to an hour. He started by asking if I remembered when I reached puberty. He asked me what I dreamt about, what I'd done sexually, had I done this, had I done that. I was totally truthful and didn't hold back. He didn't have a lie detector, but would ask the same question twice - in a tricky way, to double check and see if someone was lying. He was always neutral, and posed the questions as if he was a taxonomist - someone who counts things - which he was. I didn't get any sexual vibrations from him. I am surprised about the lurid tales that now surround him. I didn't have the feeling he was homosexual.

After my interview was over, we chatted and he autographed a copy of his book for me. He gave me another questionnaire to fill out, but I didn't get round to it.

It was fascinating to be part of his work. It took courage for him to present human sexuality in a practical, scientific way. Kinsey's books told people exactly what they were doing sexually, and they didn't like it. As far as he was concerned, most sexual activity wasn't good or bad. It just was. He was a scientist and utterly sincere.

Within a year of my interview with him, Kinsey was a national figure. Jokes about him were everywhere. One featured Mrs Kinsey and had her saying: "Alfred is so busy. Since he got so interested in sex, I never see him."

His work was courageous and I'm glad I contributed to it.

Gore Vidal was talking to Wendy Leigh

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