Tonight, ''American Experience" brings us Alfred Kinsey and his revolutionary look at human sexuality, warts and all. The timing is a bit strange given that his clinical approach to the subject lacked any whiff of emotion, let alone love, but Happy Valentine's Day anyway.
With Kinsey's previous fame and the big Hollywood biopic about him last year, it's hard to believe there still may be people out there who don't know who the man was. If there's a reason to watch this show at this point, frankly, it's to learn about the dark side of his crusade to liberate Americans sexually. There is fascination in the train wreck that occurred involving his professional and personal lives.
For the record: Alfred Kinsey, a son of America's heartland, undertook in the late '30s the first modern, scientific study of sexual behavior, free of the religious cant and societal strictures on the subject that had victimized humans for centuries. He believed in a sexual world without guilt. There was no such thing as ''normal" behavior in this arena. His investigation of our sexual habits and appetites lay the groundwork for the sexual revolutions, gay and straight, of the '60s and the women's movement.
A zoologist who lost his way, Kinsey began teaching a course purportedly on marriage at Indiana University in 1938. It was, more to the point, about sex. Young men and women who had never heard of a clitoris before were stunned and transfixed. He then began interviewing his students about their sexual histories. Eventually, he and three assistants roamed the country interviewing people from all walks of life. It was during this research, while married, that he had his first homosexual experience.
''Kinsey," written and coproduced by Barak Goodman, benefits from extraordinary access to letters and files from the Kinsey Institute and boasts a strong roster of talking heads, including biographers James Jones and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, and former assistant Paul Gebhard. Visually, though, it is thin gruel, doing the best it can with old stills, film footage, and impressionistic re-creations of events that don't quite work.
In 1948, Kinsey's first bomb, ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" sold 200,000 copies and received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, of all things. In it, based on more than 10,000 interviews nationally, Kinsey broke it to the public that men peak sexually at 19, that 68 percent of them had had sex with a prostitute, and 37 percent had at least one homosexual encounter.
He followed that up in 1953 with ''Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," which found that two-thirds of women masturbated and 14 percent experienced multiple orgasms. Where his first book triggered huge interest, the second triggered public outrage because it plumbed a subject that was considered taboo -- the sexual depths of women. And, according to the documentary, it was this book that eventually sank him. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had funded his work, pulled its support after Senator Joseph McCarthy cited Kinsey's work as a threat to the country at the height of the Cold War. Kinsey spiraled into depression and plunged deeper into experiments in sexual masochism. He died a broken man in 1956.
The Rockefeller Foundation, among others, also challenged his findings for their disproportionate focus on people most willing to talk about sex at the expense of the silent majority, for focusing on college students at the expense of the working class, whites at the expense of blacks. Most damning, it turned out that all his data on orgasms among prepubescent boys were drawn from the diaries of one pedophile. Defenders counter that Kinsey may have overstated the frequency of some encounters, but not the variety of them.
Meanwhile, Kinsey's personal life grew more bizarre. He and his wife, Clara, maintained an open marriage and practiced what they preached. Each had affairs -- she with men and he with both sexes. For more than a year he filmed one staffer having sex with women. By the end, his world had become a sexual circus.
And here lies the ultimate sadness of Alfred Kinsey, revolutionary. He never appeared to grasp that the study of sex is only half of the story.