In 1948, the publication of a book cataloging the sexual habits of American men sent shockwaves through the nation. The result of over a decade of research and nearly 8,000 interviews, Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male dominated the news, inspired pop songs, and became an unexpected bestseller. "Every magazine, every newspaper, carried banner headlines, huge reports," recalls biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. "The effect was extraordinary; it was compared to the atom bomb."
"Few scientists before or after Kinsey have so galvanized the American public on issues related to sexuality," says Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience. "Kinsey's pioneering research of the sexual habits of American men and women in the 1940s and 50s initiated a conversation about sexual behavior that continues to this day."
American Experience presents Kinsey, a 90-minute biography of a scientist whose repressed childhood, personal struggles, and obsessive nature propelled him to break through the silence on human sexuality, and conduct the first full-scale study of the sexual behavior of Americans. Produced and directed by Barak Goodman (Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, The Fight) and John Maggio (The Fight), Kinsey is the first American television documentary to be granted full access to the extensive collection of research materials at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, bringing to the public a wealth of never-before-seen archival material.
"Having these resources at our disposal allowed us to craft a very complete, honest portrait of Kinsey," says Goodman. "What emerged from our research was the picture of a highly contradictory man: an objective scientist who was also a passionate rebel; a conservative who pushed the boundaries of his own sexuality." Kinsey drew both praise and ire when he published his research, and he continues to be a lightning rod for controversy even today.
Born into a repressive family, Alfred Kinsey defied his father by leaving his New Jersey home to study biology at Bowdoin and Harvard. Following a brilliant academic career, he took a post as a professor of entomology at Indiana University in Bloomington. There, Kinsey began to refine Darwin's theory of natural variation by studying the tiny flightless gall wasp. Decades of studying the insect revealed to Kinsey that no two specimens were the same -- that infinite, subtle differences existed in every living creature. This theory would inform his later research on human sexuality.
It was at I.U. that the twenty-seven-year-old Kinsey met and married Clara McMillen, a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate student. But it was months before Alfred and Clara finally realized that a physiological problem had prevented them from consummating their marriage. Frustrated, Kinsey, sought answers about sexuality in available research, but was astounded to find that no reliable information existed. He took it upon himself to fill the gap in knowledge, and, in turn, share it with I.U. students by offering a marriage course.
"He equated ignorance with pain and the absence of joy," comments biographer James H. Jones in the film. "What he wanted to do in the marriage class was to give people information, to give them what he saw as the tools, the equipment they needed to understand their own sexuality." By the mid-1930s, Alfred Kinsey had become I.U.'s resident expert on sex.
What Kinsey learned through his research and interviews with students was that, like gall wasps, people's sexuality seemed to defy neat categories. Wanting to reveal the vast variety in human sexuality, Kinsey envisioned a major national study and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, established the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. Together with a team of researchers -- Harvard anthropologist Paul Gebhard, prison psychologist Wardell Pomeroy, and I.U. graduate student Clyde Martin -- Kinsey traveled to small towns and large cities, conducting thousands of interviews at sewing circles, bowling alleys, gay bars, fraternities, teachers' conferences, and prisons.
Kinsey's research, however, was not limited to interviews. In time, he came to believe that personal experience was the only way to understand the full range of sexual activity brought to light by his growing data. Kinsey encouraged his team to follow his lead and experiment in a range of sexual relationships outside their marriages.
But Kinsey's insatiable desire to collect more and more information proved to be his downfall. After a careful review, the Rockefeller Foundation, which had long funded his research, found Kinsey's methods flawed and pulled its support. Facing shifting social mores in 1950s, Kinsey was unable to secure another source of funding. Despite the success of his two groundbreaking books, Kinsey feared that if he didn't press on in his research, his work would be forgotten. He died in 1956 at age 62, a broken man who would never witness the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
"If Kinsey could have made it to the 60s, it would have been a different world for him," Jones purports. "He would have seen women's lib, he would have seen the civil rights movement, he would have seen, most importantly for him, the gay liberation movement."
His work, however, has not been forgotten. In 2004, interest in Alfred Kinsey was renewed: a feature film starring Liam Neeson was released on the heels of T. C. Boyle's new novel, The Inner Circle, based on Kinsey's life.
American Experience's Kinsey features interviews with biographers James H. Jones and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy; Dr. John Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute; Kinsey's daughters, Ann Kinsey Call and Joan Kinsey Reid; T. C. Boyle, author of The Inner Circle; Paul Gebhard and Clyde Martin, members of Kinsey's IU research team, and several people who participated in the original interviews in the 1940s and 1950s.