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External Articles | Posted: October 3, 2004

Kinsey's Sex Research Gives Birth To Novel

Hoosiers will want to compare fact, fiction about Bloomington

Sun, Oct. 03, 2004

Reviewed By James H. Madison

We are entering a new season of interest in Alfred Kinsey, once a household name. Kinsey's career in science had two parts: the first, a patient gathering and classification of the gall wasp; the second, a similarly patient and laborious gathering and classification of human sexual behavior. It was the latter career, of course, that made his name a household word.

From their base at Indiana University in Bloomington, Professor Kinsey and his research associates interviewed more than 18,000 human subjects, asking carefully structured questions about their sex lives. The results appeared in two best-selling volumes, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953). Americans in those days were as excited about sex today. Some were delighted; many disgusted and appalled by Kinsey's work.

That work and interest in it will not go away. Much of the scientific data still stand. In different form the research continues at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, among the world's premier centers for scholarly research in human sexuality, gender and reproduction. Knowledge of Kinsey's research and life has recently expanded because of biographies by James H. Jones and by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. A Hollywood film, "Kinsey," starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, opens in November, followed by an "American Experience" documentary.

Just published is "The Inner Circle" by T.C. Boyle, a prolific and well regarded novelist. Boyle's work is fiction, though based loosely on the Jones and Gathorne-Hardy biographies. His main character is John Milk, part of Kinsey's inner circle of associates. Boyle moves the team across months and years of interviewing subjects and weaves through the demanding work their own personal and sexual lives. Boyle's Kinsey is a sexual adventurer, a rational scientist convinced that sex is nothing more than a biological pleasure and with no relationship to human love or to marriage bonds. Milk wants to accept his mentor's coldly biological notion of sex, - well, but in the end, pulled by his love for his wife, Iris reader wait.

Those who know something about Kinsey, Indiana University or Bloomington will want to compare fact and fiction. There are several clunkers in the novel (Boyle has Kinsey going hiking at Lake Monroe decades before there was a lake, for example), but more important is the lack of broader context that comes from the novelist's tight focus on his characters and their sex lives.

Kinsey's research really was pioneering work and ranks among the most important science done in the 20th century. And it was controversial. Many condemned him to hell for daring to suggest that humans masturbated, that women liked sex, that not all married women were faithful and that homosexual relationships were not unusual. Polite people at mid-century did not talk frankly about such matters. Many damned Kinsey for talking and counting and especially for not condemning self-abusers, adulterers and homosexuals. America's range of responses to Kinsey is as interesting as the research and the researchers themselves. Boyle fails to bring the reader to this story.

In addition, Boyle ignores one of the great heroes of the Kinsey story. Indiana University president Herman B Wells might have taken the safe course and closed down Kinsey's research. Many across the state and nation demanded he do that. Wells stood by Kinsey, offering us one of the great defenses of academic freedom. Wells comes across in the novel, as he does in the new Hollywood film, as a weak non-entity, when in fact his is among the most interesting and significant roles in the story.

"The Inner Circle" is a good read, though many will find it a bit slow at times, strangely like a 19th-century romance novel with sex added. And even for a made-up story, key parts are missing, including the complicated range of Kinsey's character and zeal. For those parts the reader will need to move to the biographies. They are controversial, too, but they provide the essential contexts that leave no doubt as to the enduring greatness of Kinsey's work and the significance of how we behave sexually and how we as a society think about the sexual behaviors of others.

"The Inner Circle"

by T.C. Boyle. (Viking)