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External Articles | Posted: October 10, 2004

The Joy of Sex Research

The New York Times, 10/10/04

'KINSEY' The Moralizer

To the Editor:

I was amused that Caleb Crain's article ["Doctor Strangelove," Oct. 3] quoted Alfred C. Kinsey as saying "there are only three kinds of sexual abnormalities: abstinence, celibacy and delayed marriage" and also referred to Kinsey's "refusal to moralize about sex." Stigmatizing as "abnormal" a lack of sexual activity sounds pretty moralistic to me. Felicia Ackerman

Providence, R.I.


The Joy of Sex Research

Published: September 19, 2004, Sunday

By T. Coraghessan Boyle.
418 pp. Viking. $25.95.

When Philip Larkin wrote, with pointed sarcasm and mild regret, that ''sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,'' he was off by 15 years. The sexual revolution may belong, in the popular imagination, to the 1960's, but it began much earlier, with the publication in 1948 of Alfred C. Kinsey's ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.'' Of course, the transformation of public attitudes and private behavior is not something that can be punctually dated -- that was Larkin's point -- but the Kinsey Report, as it came to be known, surely marked a watershed in a century-long assault on inhibition and hypocrisy in erotic matters. Kinsey (1894-1956), a professor at Indiana University, was a zoologist by training, whose interests had wandered from the study of gall wasps to more pungent matters. If other thinkers -- Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Havelock Ellis, Margaret Mead -- laid out the theoretical and ideological bases of modern sexual freedom, Kinsey, a dogged empiricist, provided exhaustive data suggesting that such freedom was already widely practiced in bedrooms, back seats and a small but significant percentage of barnyards across the land.

Kinsey's methods and conclusions have been disputed over the years, and the renown that placed him on the bestseller lists and the cover of Time has been displaced by prurient curiosity, fueled by recent biographies, about the professor's own kinks and predilections. But the erosion of his fame -- which may be arrested somewhat by the publication of T. C. Boyle's new novel and by the release this fall of William Condon's biopic, starring Liam Neeson -- hardly diminishes Kinsey's influence, however ambiguous his legacy has turned out to be. It is in part thanks to him that activities once considered shameful, even criminal, are routinely displayed and discussed on Web sites and chat rooms (and even, on occasion, in the pages of respectable newspapers). Some of the findings that seemed wildly counterintuitive 50 years ago -- about the frequency of same-sex contact, the near universality of masturbation and the intensity of the female sex drive, for instance -- now look like plainest common sense. Others of Kinsey's ideas have proved more resistant to assimilation: when it comes to sexual identity, we still seem to prefer the either/or of gay and straight to the subtler gradations of the Kinsey scale, which implied some degree of bisexuality in most of us. (Imagine Gov. James McGreevey standing before the television cameras and announcing, ''I am a Kinsey five American.'') Nor have we entirely learned to regard sex acts with the clinical detachment for which Kinsey served as both evangelist and exemplar. In retrospect, his crusade to disentangle sex from morality was doomed by his own blind, uncompromising idealism. Moral norms change, but the link between sexuality and moral discourse seems as fundamental as the sexual impulse itself.

That may be the moral, so to speak, of ''The Inner Circle,'' Boyle's fictional rendering of the relations -- personal, professional and sexual -- between Kinsey and one of his (invented) acolytes. Kinsey -- ''Prok'' to his intimates, including his wife -- is in some ways a perfect subject for this sly and intrepid novelist. While I would hesitate to burden an imagination as marvelously peripatetic as Boyle's with anything so confining as an overarching theme, he has more than once cast a skeptical eye on a peculiarly American reformist impulse -- a desire to cast aside artificial social arrangements and constraints and to perfect human nature itself. Like John Harvey Kellogg in ''The Road to Wellville,'' like the free-loving communards of ''Drop City'' and like many of the environmentalists and adventurers who amble through the pages of Boyle's other novels and stories, Prok is devoted to the idea of a healthier, less hung up and somehow more natural way of life. As elsewhere in Boyle's work, the conflict in ''The Inner Circle'' is organized around the clash between this utopian impulse and the countervailing desire for stability, harmony and compromise. While Boyle is fascinated by the zealous energy of perfectionists like Kellogg and Kinsey, he shows himself, again and again, to be a champion of human imperfection. For all his cool, satiric intelligence, he is at bottom a defender of romance against the tyranny of reason.

''The Inner Circle,'' which follows Kinsey through the most feverish and productive years of his research, is narrated by a shy Hoosier named John Milk, who falls under the charismatic professor's spell as a Bloomington undergraduate in 1939. At the time, Kinsey had achieved notoriety on campus for teaching a class in human sexuality known as ''the marriage course,'' a nickname that now seems as quaint as the course's enrollment restrictions: it was ''open only to faculty and staff, students who were married or engaged, and seniors of both sexes.'' A pretty female student coaxes Milk into a sham engagement so she can take the class (though to his disappointment she turns out to be, in other ways, ''not that kind of a girl''). Before long Kinsey has hired Milk as the first member of a small cadre of researchers who will log thousands of miles ''taking histories'' from farmers, prostitutes, housewives and inmates -- anyone willing to answer their prying, dispassionate questions about frequency of orgasm, number of partners and favored positions.

No man is a hero to his research assistant, and the picture of Kinsey that emerges has an element of creepiness to it, despite Milk's dutiful, worshipful tones. Prok, like other gurus, combines libertinism with asceticism. He uses his assistants, all of them male, to satisfy his own sexual needs (episodes Boyle depicts with curious reticence compared with his graphic and energetic heterosexual displays) and encourages them to sleep with one another's wives, as well as his own. All in the interests of science, of course. But he also requires that his researchers be family men of unimpeachable outward respectability, and disdains tobacco, alcohol (except as a tool for loosening up subjects), card games and other forms of frivolity.

Even though we witness him gardening in the nude and, later on, inserting a toothbrush into his urethra, Boyle's Kinsey is curiously lacking the vividness that would make him as memorable and complex a character in fiction as he clearly was in life. Even up close, Kinsey is remote -- from Milk, perhaps, but also from the reader. We have Milk's frequent testimony to his mentor's magnetism and charisma, but the glimpses we have of him in action, either as a public figure or as a private man, are sidelong and refracted through the narrator's hesitant, timid voice.

John Milk is a troubled soul who drinks too much and whose job places a terrible strain on his marriage, so it seems unkind to blame him for this interesting novel's faults and infelicities. But as a narrator he is as opaque, and as bland, as his name. It does not help that at crucial points Milk claims a hazy memory, or that he has a habit of abruptly jumping forward in time and skating over pivotal events. He also assumes that certain details of Kinsey's story are too well known for him to bother with, which is annoying on his part and either lazy or disingenuous on Boyle's. These bits of awkwardness are explained and exacerbated by the novel's clumsy framing device, which has Milk speaking his recollections into a tape recorder on the day of his mentor's funeral.

Few living novelists can match Boyle's ability to shift points of view -- the climactic moment in one of his stories is related from the perspective of a rampaging elephant -- and the first- person voice of ''The Inner Circle'' places a crippling constraint on his natural promiscuity. In his two best novels, ''The Tortilla Curtain'' and ''Drop City,'' Boyle buzzes like a hummingbird from one consciousness to another, producing remarkably detailed relief maps of social division and cultural resentment. For all its historical detail, ''The Inner Circle'' has a blurry, hasty, unfinished quality. There is too much sex -- many scenes read like breathless exercises in self-loving virtuosity -- and also not enough for the meaning of Kinsey's work to be understood. At the same time, there is not enough Kinsey -- we come away with only a glancing sense of his impact, his personality or the intellectual context in which his work took shape -- and also too much of him. His real-life celebrity overshadows Milk's fictitious marriage, which is where the book's delicate, true heartbeat lies.

Milk is torn between his quasi-religious devotion to Kinsey and his love for his wife, Iris, the novel's most elusive and engaging character and the only one whose desires and behavior transcend both costume drama and textbook analysis. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Boyle, in composing ''The Inner Circle,'' found himself similarly torn between the grand imperatives of historical fiction and the quieter exigencies of domestic portraiture, between sexuality as a subject of public contention and erotic love as an irreducibly private transaction. Of course, it was Kinsey's ambition to abolish such confusing distinctions altogether. In that much, he failed, and Boyle's novel, while not entirely successful in its own right, helps to illuminate the nature of and reasons for that failure.

A. O. Scott is the chief film critic for The Times.

Published: 09 - 19 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 8