In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the Kinsey Report, compiled by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, documented the results of a scientific study of male and female sexuality. The novel explores Kinsey’s influence on American sexual and social mores through the voice of John Milk, Kinsey’s assistant and first disciple, who assists Kinsey both in the office and in bed and with both Kinsey’s wife and his own in group sex.
The fictionalization of Kinsey’s story provides a lens through which the book examines the sexual revolution in sharp, provocative detail, especially as Kinsey’s research grows increasingly voyeuristic and exhibitionistic. As Milk becomes part of the “inner circle” of researchers, he and his wife are drawn into experiments that become increasingly uninhibited and increasingly problematic for his marriage. The shyness regarding sexuality that permeates the era in which the book is set makes the research both alluring and alarming to Milk, whose sensibility reflects that of the readers of the Kinsey Report and chronicles the transformation of public attitudes and private behavior.
The book’s primary theme is sex, marriage, and jealousy and the difficulties of attempting to quantify or classify personal interactions. Boyle explores the division between human pride and human animal natures and whether the act of sex can be separated from its emotional and spiritual context. In Kinsey’s crusade to separate sex and morality, his attempt is doomed by his own uncompromising idealism. The novel also serves as a case study of what it means to become another person’s apostle as it explores the impact of Kinsey’s methods on Milk and his marriage.