This film tells the story of Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), the scientist who famously changed his focus in mid-career from the study of gall wasps to the study of human sexuality and through his publications on male and female sexuality (1948, 1953) revolutionized the way we think and talk about sex. Kinsey entered adult life with the classic Boy Scout's view of sex that it was best not to think about it. (He collected a million gall wasps instead.) But under the influence of one of his students, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), who later became his wife, and listening to the questions some students were asking about sex, he decided to teach a course at Indiana University on human sexuality. "Sexual morality needs to be reformed," he proclaims, and "science will show the way."

He begins doing statistical research on individual sexual behavior, training his interviewers to be open and neutral as they encounter a very wide variety of behaviors. He also encourages them to experiment sexually among themselves, and later even to participate in sexual encounters filmed for research purposes. Naturally, not everyone accepts this readily, and there are problems between Alfred and Clara, among the research assistants, and eventually between the whole project and Indiana University and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Rockefeller withdraws its support, complaining that Kinsey is preaching in public, and Clara tearfully complains that some social restraints are needed to keep people from hurting each other. The assistants struggle with the ties between sex, which is part of the experiment, and love, which is not. Kinsey continues striving, but with much reduced means. The film ends with video clips of interview subjects speaking strongly about the benefits that Kinsey's revolution has brought to them, one woman concluding: "You saved my life, sir!"


The film's medical focus is at the cultural level, where misconceptions about gender and sexuality have always had their effect on medical practice and therefore on human lives. (Readers may wish to see the essay The Sexual Politics of Sickness annotated in this database.) Kinsey personally experienced the escape from Victorian repression, in part through a physician who helped him and Clara overcome some wedding-night difficulties, and he worked as a researcher and advocate to bring that liberation to a wider world.

The film presents this as a desirable change while showing Kinsey himself as awkward and naïve in his dogged pursuit of it. Kinsey's simplistic views of politics and personal relations are certainly largely responsible for the decline of his later years. (One can only wonder what Kinsey would have done with 21st-century regulations for the protection of human research subjects!) Nevertheless, he was a man of his time who strove mightily and with unusual success to escape a blindness of that time. The film handles the mix well, and it is strongly recommended to those with an interest in social psychology and the history of science.


Written by director Bill Condon. No Oscars, but numerous awards for the film and major actors.

Primary Source

Fox Searchlight Pictures