Wrangham regards Kinsey

Popular “Sex” professor presents appraisal of recent biopic

What does he look like, I nervously wonder as I stride into the movie theater’s café for my first ever interview with a Harvard professor. The professor in question is the illustrious Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology Richard W. Wrangham of Science B-29: “Human Evolution and Behavior,” which usually goes by the better-known moniker “Sex.” To make matters even more awkward, we are talking about Kinsey, a movie that, at one point features a forty-foot plastic penis.

I’m sweating bullets as I see him sitting patiently at a table by himself in a fleece vest and a canvas baseball hat. I wonder whether I will embarrass myself and decide not to bring up the relative physical merits of the film’s graphically pictured stars. This is a little crude, I realize, but have a conversation after Kinsey and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

But my anxieties die quickly with Wrangham present. Under his influence, one almost can’t help relaxing, an observation corroborated by many of his B-29 students.

Ironically, we start talking about how the film did something kind of similar: it eases your pretensions about sex by making hilarious joke after joke about it. For example, at one point one of Kinsey’s researchers sits down to interview an old woman, and asks, “Have you ever masturbated?” The ancient old lady shoots back in a steely voice, “Son, I invented it.”

Why would you ask a lady something like that in a major motion picture? Simple: It was Alfred Kinsey’s job.


In 1938, at a time when chronic masturbation was thought to cause blindness and oral sex thought to permanently damage the uterus, Kinsey, founder of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex and the titular subject of director Bill Condon’s latest biopic, lectured with a forty-foot phallus as a visual aid in his infamous marriage course at Indiana University.

Professor Wrangham weighed in on his feelings about contemporary sexual mores and the troubled life of Alfred Kinsey. For Wrangham, “America nowadays is more prudish in more ways than it was 20 years ago with AIDS, etc.”

Indeed, people are still surprisingly sexually conservative in our time: gay marriage and gay, period, in most conservative circles still represent an anathema; an antiquated, often religion-bound outlook on sexual behavior still abounds among the majority of Americans. Kinsey, which touches on several sexual taboos, is going to spark several discussions on this front.

Star Liam Neeson, in perhaps the best performance of his career, seems unafraid to openly engages the sordid aspects of Kinsey’s life. Kinsey involved himself in several open sexual relationships, hetero- as well as homosexual, many of which involved coworkers at the infamous Kinsey Institute.

Wrangham acknowledges that Kinsey “was always very proper in the way he presented himself…he was always able to hide behind the fact he was a professor,” even though he was engaged in sexual activities that would make even the most contemporary liberal shutter.

Wrangham speaks with the ease of an expert on Alfred Kinsey, sliding in and out of anecdotes about the controversial professor as he discusses the film. It becomes apparent that Wrangham is interested in Kinsey on a more personal than professional level.

Wrangham, whose research links violent human behavior with that of chimpanzees through evolution, admits he has a markedly different approach to his fieldwork than Kinsey. He simply watches “animals that aren’t hiding for you” engage in sexual activity. Kinsey was far more actively involved in his subject matter, experimenting with several behaviors that could have been immensely detrimental to his study.

“With humans there is something more personal,” says Wrangham, “it requires a full commitment.”

While touring the country doing research, Kinsey and staff frequented gay bars and other underground venues to find people who would actually sit down and give them a full accounting of their sexual history. Ignoring the professional danger inherent in being at such controversial place, Kinsey’s research team (mostly men) were having sex with each other, each other’s wives and various other partners.

It’s these tensions in Kinsey’s life that pepper Wrangham’s discussion of the film; it’s not the sex education in the film that fascinates him, but the way the film precisely dramatizes Kinsey’s internal tension between having sex and studying it objectively. Almost like my own tension between being overwhelmed by this charismatic professor and writing about my experience objectively.