Book Summaries Cont’d: 20th-Century Sexuality and Sexology

The items below do a fantastic job in connecting the “private” with the “public” spheres—and show that they’re not actually separate spheres whatsoever. Many of these works, I already utilized during a research project on a statistical review of the Kinsey Report. I haven’t had time to revise the research paper that grew out of this project in order to get it accepted at a journal, but I’m positive that this will be easier as soon as I don’t have to read 13 books per week anymore. Just like the reading list on post-WWII US science and second-wave feminism, from which the following items are a part, I worked with Susan Lindee on this research paper.

Works Read

Sexological Surveys:

Ericksen, Julia A. and Sally A. Steffen. 1999. Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century. With the assistance of S. A. Steffen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Robinson, Paul A. 1989. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Reumann, Miriam G. 2005. American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Lewis, Carolyn H. 2010. Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Block, Andreas de, and Pieter R. Adriaens. 2013. “Pathologizing Sexual Deviance: A History.” Journal of Sex Research 50 (3–4): 276–98. doi:10.1080/00224499.2012.738259 .

Meyerowitz, Joanne J. 2002. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Terry, Jennifer. 1999. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, David K. 2004. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

D’Emilio, John. 1998 (1983). Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Escoffier, Jeffrey. 1998. American Homo: Community and Perversity. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sociologist Julia Ericksen’s first monograph, Kiss and Tell, was researched and written in collaboration with lawyer (to be) Sally A. Steffen. The two authors draw on interviews as well as published popular and scientific literature in order to elucidate the social and political contexts of sexological surveys in the 20th-century US. The book progresses chronologically, but the chapters have thematic focuses reflecting major concerns of the time: from male to female to adolescent sexuality, to sex therapy and sex crime, to homosexuality and HIV/AIDS, with generally increasing political and media interest.

Ericksen and Steffen put much emphasis on the researchers’ goal to create ‘objective’ numbers about sexuality and to use these as a basis for typing sexual behavior and classify sexually active individuals (ch. 10). Even though the researchers believed that they were uncovering innate sexuality, the authors argue that these surveys have created sexuality and changed sexual behavior by suggesting to certain societal groups that they can, should, or should not behave as reported. The authors frame the development of sex surveys as “a history of the growing sophistication of researchers and the increasing certainty of their conclusions” (p. 10) and explain that “superior methods” (p. 7) were only slowly taken up by the researchers who, in particular in the first half of the 20th century, “did not understand … the importance” of appropriate sampling, the impact of the interview questions and the interviewer on the results gathered, or the problem of biased data analysis. The authors explain why this may have been the case: because researchers were oftentimes isolated since ‘sex talk’ was virtually impossible in any social realm.

In the early 20th century (and again during the Cold War), sexual behavior was closely linked with the moral character of a person. The hygiene movement in the early 20th century and the rise of the New Woman made it even more desirable for religious and political authorities to advocate for the restriction of sexual behavior to reproductive acts in heterosexual marriages, an attitude that was slowly abandoned during the first 30 decades of the 20th century. Ericksen and Steffen draw on Michel Foucault and use his concepts of sexuality as a tool to put forth their own agenda, namely that future sexology needs to self-reflexively study sexuality as something that is ‘made up’ by all the aforementioned factors and the presentation of sex surveys in the media.

Paul Robinson’s lucidly written intellectual history of The Modernization of Sex covers the work of “major sexual theorists” of the 20th century (p. 191): H. Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, as well as William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whom Robinson frequently compares to each other and to Sigmund Freud. In the three essays that make up his book, Robinson does not attend to any of the political and social developments Ericksen identifies as crucial for the research direction, funding, and reception of sexological surveys. He aims instead at illustrating the ideas of “sexual modernism as a reaction against Victorianism” (p. 191), that is, against the oppressive notion of the close link between moral character and sexual behavior. This lack of context leaves him unable to explain the alleged setbacks of liberation he identified in Master and Johnson’s work.

Even though Ericksen illustrates the Victorian concepts of guilt and immoral sexuality as late as during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Robinson shows how theories about masturbation, female sexuality, sexual deviance, and non-reproductive intercourse indeed have episodically become less oppressive. The modernizer of sexuality according to Robinson, Ellis, had a Romantic approach to sex and devoted his research to the liberation of sexuality in the interest of sexual pleasure in affectionate monogamous heterosexual relationships with occasional additional affectionate affairs. This set the stage for Kinsey’s much more radical and “naturalistic” (p. 56) approach to sex. Kinsey also advocated for sexual liberation, but sought to divorce erotic encounters from emotional attachment. In this regard, Robinson suggests, Kinsey was entirely anti-Romantic.

Masters and Johnson returned to some of the Romantic ideas, for example, the close link between affection and sexuality. They exhibited a therapeutic approach to sex, including a critical stance towards homosexuality. Kinsey’s naturalism, however, was reflected in their “clinical” or “heartless” research methods (p. 195); instead of surveying, they directly manipulated intercourse in their lab and dissected the sexual response into four phases—an exemplar of their consistent imprecision, Robinson argues very entertainingly. In this connection, their framing of sexual intercourse as “work” resonates very well with Emily Martin’s metaphoric analysis of women’s reproductive labor.

Miriam Reumann’s first monograph, American Sexual Character, zooms in on Kinsey’s work and its reception in the US during the 1940s and 1950s “as a Rorschach test for postwar Americans” (p. 13). Reumann draws on scientific and popular periodicals, newspapers, cartoons, films, fiction, and advice literature as well as the archival collection at the Kinsey Institute in order to elucidate the ways in which Americanness, masculinity, femininity, marriage, family, and sexuality were bound together in the early Cold War. After a first chapter covering the bases of the post-war “sexual order” in the US, Reumann devotes one chapter to Kinsey’s male report, one to the female, one to the question of marriage and (pre)marital intercourse, and a last one to the question of homosexuality before a substantial epilogue closes the book with broader considerations of sexuality as an “orgone box” in the US, or, more specifically, its middle classes, during the early Cold War. This close link that social scientists and the public established between sexuality and citizens’ morality sounds very familiar by now. And as a sequel to Sarah Igo’s assertion that Americans identified themselves with surveys like Kinsey’s, Reumann argues that Americans of the 1950s “celebrated the idea of an essential American character” (p. 198).

The topics Reumann identifies in the controversial debates surrounding Kinsey’s publications resonate very well with James Gilbert’s depiction of factors contributing to a perceived masculinity crisis in the 1950s: the fear of the effeminate man with homosexual tendencies (chs. 2 and 5), the concerns about surprisingly unruly “average” women (ch. 3), the worries surrounding mass consumption and morally erosive popular culture (chs. 1 and 5), and the difficulties of adjusting to the new ideal of companionate nuclear families and the danger of uncontrollable demands for sexual fulfillment (ch. 4). Furthermore, Reumann illustrates that different groups, pro- and anti-governmental, used the Kinsey Reports for their own gains, interpreting the numbers as they saw fit. This malleability of Kinsey’s allegedly ‘hard data’ is striking. In my last essay, we have seen how Stephen Robertson’s and Marga Vicedo’s actors have reinterpreted the guilt of mothers (overprotection vs. deprivation) as the political demands were changing, but Reumann exemplifies how numbers can in the very same moment serve contradictory agendas.

Sexing the Body is biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling’s second monograph. With political vigor and autobiographical inspiration, Fausto-Sterling tackles the un-naturalness of “sex” by analyzing the scientific publications and practices surrounding three major instances of “sexing” in bio-medical practice and theory: intersex phenomena and involuntary surgical sex assignment as acts of anatomical, physiological, and psychological normalization (chs. 2–4), the translation of gender roles into alleged brain sex differences in the corpus callosum (ch. 5), and the un-linkable gender-steroid compound and the sexualization of so-called sex hormones (chs. 6–8). She provides numerous charts, tables, pictures, and cartoons in order to accentuate her argument that lots of labor is required to construct and uphold the concept of dichotomous sexes. Her argument proceeds in a somewhat Stephen-Gould-ian or Troy-Duster-ian manner. Despite (or because of?) its popular style, the book contains an extensive 217-page note and bibliography section, extending the already detailed discussion of scientific matters in the text even more and providing insight into Fausto-Sterling’s sources, predominantly published scientific texts from the late 20th century.

Many familiar ‘characters’ show up in this work. From Richardson’s “sex chromosomes” through John Money, who also plays a major part in Meyerowitz’s history of transsexuality (see below), to the gender-heterosexuality composite so popular during the Cold War. When Fausto-Sterling writes about “sex,” she addresses both meanings: “sex,” the complement to “gender,” and sexuality, for example, in the case of intersex individuals who have allegedly been assigned specific gender roles and sexual preferences together with their genitalia (ch. 3). Even though Fausto-Sterling references major theoretical texts, for instance, the works of Haraway, Foucault, Latour, and Hacking, she does not engage with such conceptual problems on a deeply theoretical level. In her final chapter, she reiterates her argument that nature and nurture cannot be distinguished, that the process of acquiring knowledge about humans is a social process, and that biology can never provide any ‘truth’ about sexuality. She advocates for interdisciplinary approaches to this sensitive topic, in teams including biologists as well as “feminist critical theorists” (p. 235). But how collaborations of this sort could be implemented remains an open question.

American women’s historian Carolyn Lewis’s first book, Prescription for Heterosexuality, assesses the “obsession” of Americans with heterosexuality in the post-war decades through the lens of physicians’ efforts to stabilize heterosexual lifestyles. Lewis’s main sources are popular advice literature as well as medical and scientific publications in periodicals and newspapers from the 1950s and 1960s, proceedings from professional conferences, as well as select archival collections. These sources allow Lewis to provide a fresh account of the aforementioned concerns surrounding premarital intercourse and teen pregnancies, increasing divorce rates and the pursuit of female sexual pleasure, as well as alternative masculinity, femininity, and marriage concepts. Lewis shows how the medical profession became crucial in the mediation and realization of governmental heteronormative policies. In doing so, she presents heteronormativity at the same time as one of several forms and as a foundation of all other forms of “domestic containment” in the face of nuclear threat (p. 5).

In chapters 2 and 4, Lewis shows how female sexual pleasure in “the home” was promoted in order to stabilize heterosexual marriages. Because the success of marital sexual relationships needed to be secured, doctors provided pre-marital sex instruction and monitored male and female reproductive health in mandatory pelvic examinations. Lewis also illustrates how general practitioners allied with psychoanalysts rather than psychiatrists, their professional competition, in combating female sexual dysfunctions; this offers an explanation for the sustained power of psychoanalysis in the late 20th century (see below). Lewis’s observation that women were blamed for their own and their husbands’ sexual dysfunctions (ch. 3) resonates well with Robertson’s and Vicedo’s accounts of mothers’ responsibility for societal degradation. And since the advent of artificial insemination (ch. 5), all biological reproductive responsibility was women’s. Men only had to make sure they and their wife lived an ideologically conform life so they could qualify for the procedure.

Philosophers Andreas de Block and Pieter Adriaens have compiled information from papers in biomedical, psychological, and historical online databases in order to provide a short account of 150 years of “Pathologizing Sexual Deviance” leading up to the publication of the DSM-V. The authors revisit Ellis, Freud, and Kinsey with a specific focus on their views on homosexuality. They trace the controversies surrounding the assessment of sexual deviances as “a disease” and “[a] biologically normal variant(s) of sexual variation” respectively (p. 277). De Block and Adriaens make clear that the interpretation of sexual deviance has always rested on ideological and political foundations: even though Freud did not consider homosexuality an illness, the powerful psychoanalysts of the American Psychological Association (APA) defined it as a symptom of an underlying psychopathology in the first two editions of the DSM. Only in the 1970s, when psychoanalysts lost their influence and psychiatrists rose to power within the APA, did the APA replace homosexuality that did not cause subjective distress with “sexual orientation disturbance” (p. 288). In the DSM-III and subsequent editions, the authors argue, “[t]he grand theorizing of … Freud has gradually been replaced by a more piecemeal, quantitative, and data-driven approach to sexual deviance” (p. 294), that is, by diagnostic criteria rather than etiological analyses. However, the question of why some fixations (heterosexual, homosexual) should be healthy while others are not (e.g., pedophilia, necrophilia), is still arbitrary, as the authors make very clear.

One of the alleged sex-linked psychopathologies covered by de Block and Adriaens is “transvestism,” a term that described trans-sex/gender phenomena when the first sex-reassignment cases became public in the 1930s. Joanne Meyerowitz’s second monograph, How Sex Changed, traces the histories of famous “transsexual” individuals (a term coined in 1949) as well as the public and scientific responses to these cases. Meyerowitz has worked extensively with contemporary popular press releases, scientific publications, and archival sources, in particular from highly visible trans* individuals like Christine Jorgensen, LGBTQ groups, and the Kinsey Institute.

Meyerowitz argues that the public and scientific engagement with trans* phenomena aided a rethinking of “sex” in the second half of the 20th century and stimulated the creation and acceptance of the “gender” concept (ch. 3); this process helped scientists, the broader public, and affected individuals to distinguish between or identify as “transsexuals,” “hermaphrodites,” and “homosexuals,” categories that had been enmeshed until the late 1950s (ch. 1). Over the course of the 1960s, legal and medical self-determination slowly increased for trans* individuals (ch. 4), but led also to a sexualization of MTF trans* conditions (ch. 5). The human rights movements of the 70s solidified the legally and medically beneficial developments (ch. 6), but also led to a clash with feminists, who disagreed with the MTF community’s celebration of femininity (ch. 7).

Meyerowitz’s argument that Jorgensen and other similar cases were fashioned with such a wide media coverage because post-war America was searching for new gender roles makes much sense in light of Gilbert’s, Vicedo’s, and Reumann’s works. Her claim that the notion of “sex” radically changed, however, and that this concept became less dichotomous and more malleable does align with the still ongoing pathologization of trans* phenomena in the DSM and in public perception as well as the trans* community’s petitions for equal treatment and more self-determination. Meyerowitz’s case studies are more cautious than these assertions in the introduction; they succeed admirably in illustrating the ways in which even radical figures like Jorgensen were to some extent still bound in traditional gender roles (e.g., in that she disapproved of women who supported their husbands financially; ch. 2). In providing an account of the disagreement between physicians and psychologists on whether to promote sex-reassignment surgery or preventive psychotherapy (ch. 3), the book also complements the history of the struggle for professional authority, which we have seen before in the social science / natural science competition, the psychiatrist / general practitioner rivalry, the “computer boys” / manager controversy, and the issue of military and government funding vs. academic independence.

Jennifer Terry’s third monograph, An American Obsession, focuses on the most pervasive form of sexual deviancy in the 20th century: homosexuality. “[W]hy homosexuality has been and continues to be demonized in the United States” is the puzzle she sets out to solve (p. 1). Terry’s book connects 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century investigations into theories about the origins of homosexuality in Europe and the US (even though, as the title suggests, the focus is on the US) and thus also bridges my European History list (with Heidi) with these readings on US science.

Terry draws on a wide range of published medical, sexological, and social scientific texts, as well as on advocacy literature, legal cases, and archival sources—including, as so often, the Kinsey Institute archives. Informed by Foucault and feminist epistemologists, Terry illustrates the ways in which research into homosexuality has provided several governments and the public with the tools they needed to define normal sexuality and moral citizens. We have encountered this before, but Terry argues that the American concept of individuality combined with “the American cultural ethos of perfectionism and self-improvement” (p. 10) have shaped US homosexuality research and its uses in very particular ways, making exceptionally strong the connection between sexuality and morality, productivity, and class consciousness. Terry extends her view beyond sexuality and explains that homosexuals were construed as one in several groups of deviant citizens, sharing the outsider status with impoverished, political, and ethnic minorities, but that they nonetheless maintained some degree of agency (particularly well evidenced in homosexuals’ cooperation with the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants in New York City in the 1930s; chs. 6–8).

Terry’s account ties in many conceptual concerns and historical topics that already familiar from previously discussed works: the process of typing people like in Sorting Things Out (all chapters), the rise of the reproductive sciences as described by Reumann and Clarke (chs. 2, 3, 4), the power of psychoanalysis, which de Block and Adriaens have already identified in controversies surrounding the DSM (chs. 2, 9, 12), a fear of human degeneration in eugenic thought as explained in The Science of Human Perfection (ch. 3), the rise of sex surveys as described in Kiss and Tell (chs. 4, 6, 7, 9), the pervasiveness of endocrinology in matters of sex as shown in Sexing the Body and How Sex Changed (ch. 5), the sex crime panic of the early 20th century and concerns about masculinity in the early and mid-century as discussed by Robertson and Gilbert (chs. 5, 8, 10), the impact of Kinsey’s studies familiar from Igo’s, Clarke’s, Ericksen’s, Robinson’s, and Reumann’s works (chs. 9, 12), the rise in public family surveillance out of concern about ‘bad parenting’ as described by Vicedo (chs. 6, 10), the arising view of a more “fluid” sex since the 1930s as indicated by Meyerowitz (ch. 5), large-scale homophobic witch hunts during the Depression and in connection with anti-Communist measures akin to The Lavender Scare (see below; chs. 8, 11), and the rise of human rights movements, as discussed by Ericksen and D’Emilio (see below; ch. 12). This observation suggests that the history of gender and sexuality in the 20th-century US may actually be told through the history of homosexuality, broadly conceived.

The Lavender Scare is David Johnson’s first monograph; it aims at illustrating that the persecution of homosexuals was not a small-scale phenomenon in the periphery of the Red Scare but an extensive and deliberate political undertaking targeting sexual minorities during McCarthyism as well as under Eisenhower’s allegedly “more methodical, discreet, and just” security program (p. 146). Johnson draws on over two dozens of oral histories acquired by himself in the 1990s, court cases, popular press reports, and a large number of archival papers, including the collections of his main actors, gay rights organizations, and formerly classified documents from federal bodies. The picture he draws of the cruel persecutions from the late 1940s to the late 1960s captures both the political reasoning as well as the stories of affected individuals.

Johnson’s detailed history is set in Washington, D.C., as a formerly “gay city,” to which the homophobes turned most readily in their attempts to “clean” the government and public institutions of homosexuals, in particular at the State Department (chs. 2, 3), but the efforts extended even to international organizations (ch. 6). Sexual minorities were considered “perverts” (and thus likely to succumb to the ideology of communism as well) and easy targets of blackmail (and thus likely to be forced into pro-Soviet espionage), in short, they were “security risks” (chs. 1, 5).

Chapter 7 makes clear the fear that surveillance instilled in the gay community as well as different forms of resistance that grew out of it. Not informing or misinforming authorities in interrogations was one option that homosexuals chose; the rise of a gay press was another means of communicating and criticizing the discriminatory measures nation-wide. In addition, over the course of the 1950s, chapters of the Mattachine Society formed in different cities of the US; the one in D.C. called itself the Council for Repeal of Unjust Laws. Even though it did not have much direct success, Johnson’s sources allow him to convincingly argue that the roots of the gay rights movement lay in these instances of resistance (ch. 7, 8). The directed discrimination stimulated the radicalization of gay rights organizations as well as the solidarity amongst homosexuals whose social and legal victories created and rehabilitated “the homosexual citizen” (p. 214).

John D’Emilio’s first monograph, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, traces the formation of the “homophile movement” in the US from after WWII to after the Stonewall riots in 1969. D’Emilio’s sources are in large parts archival. Published diaries, (auto)biographies, oral histories, and gay periodicals also provide D’Emilio with significant information to help him answer the question of how allegedly isolated gay individuals could form a movement, including periodical publications and gay societies, while they were still in or just about to come out of ‘the closet’. D’Emilio’s periodization is roughly the same as Johnson’s, which makes apparent the shared argument that the gay liberation movement did not rise out of nothing in 1969. D’Emilio’s geographical scope is wider than Johnson’s and he focuses on the gay movements rather than on the persecution of gay individuals. The lens changes the narrative; for example, D’Emilio illuminates the ways in which the founders of the Mattachine Society managed to create safe spaces for militant activism aided by their experience of secrecy and hierarchy within the Communist party and how the second generation of leaders vehemently rejected these roots and sought broad social approval.

The reflections in the second edition of this book, 15 years after its first publication, are particularly interesting to read. D’Emilio mentions, for instance, that he researched the book during the 1979 riots in San Francisco, a much more violent form of activism than during the first 25 years after WWII. The book proceeds very effectively in order to argue that these years provided homosexuals with a “mixture of freedom [which stemmed from the social disruption of WWII as well as the sexual liberation] and oppression [which Johnson has elaborated upon so clearly]” (p. 252), which led to a geographically specific movement of politicized and self-identified gays and lesbians, laying the groundwork for the radical liberation from 1969 onwards. He also suggests that “those armed with … a willingness to engage in militant collective action,” initially along the east coast, were more effective in promoting change than their more peaceful fellows (p. 252).

Jeffrey Escoffier is a left and gay activist and writer; American Homo is a collection of eleven previously published essays (1985–1997), revised and framed by an introduction and conclusion. The essays are reactions to published works about homosexuals, about queer studies, and in queer, gay, and lesbian studies, as well as Escoffier’s own experience. Escoffier’s volume explores in three parts the rise of homosexual activism and liberation since the 1950s and the rise of gay/lesbian mainstreaming (Part I); the establishing of a public homosexual identity by lesbian and gay academic intellectuals, the institutionalization of gay and lesbian studies at American universities, starting in the 1970s, as well as the discourse-centrism of queer studies (Part II); and the challenges of competition between marginalized groups in the age of multiculturalism and the battle against the new Religious Right (Part III). These accounts are all remarkably autobiographical and driven by the conviction that, over the course of the 20th century, the US society has lost its “sociological imagination,” and that without it, people are unable “to navigate social change” (p. 15).

Escoffier suggests that institution-centrism and economization of lesbian/gay/queer studies and explanations of sexuality and other personal as well as intellectual characteristics as innate, rather than as social processes, have led to the contemporary “impoverished … idea of the social” (p. 15). With his account, Escoffier wants to offer queer studies and homosexual activism a mirror, a refreshing agenda in the face of often-times hostile critiques of the established academy like Fausto-Sterling’s. Even though the goals of this volume differ much from TallBear’s, the inclusion of autobiographical details is equally powerful in both accounts, and more substantially valuable than in Sexing the Body or in Fatal Invention, I would say.

Escoffier starts from the premise that “[h]omoeroticism pervades American life” (p. 4), an assertion that entails one of the public fears that led to the masculinity crisis as described by Gilbert. Escoffier provides an account of the stigmatization of ‘the homosexual’ in the 1950s and 1960s, with all of its economic, geographical (ch. 2), and identity-building consequences during the sexual revolution (chs. 1, 3). D’Emilio has elaborated on this topic in the context of the formation of homosexual organizations. This identification led to the normalization of ‘the homosexual’, Escoffier argues, and calls it “the politics of identity” (p. 34), a concept he juxtaposes with his argument for “the many ways of being homosexual” (p. 28). Finally, Escoffier advocates for a collaboration of lesbian/gay/queer activists with other social groups and also names a clear goal for the further intellectual development of the field: “Homo social theory must incorporate the larger historical structures of the economy, institutions, and the state in order to complement queer theory’s maps of discursive formations” (p. 184). This is a little bit more concrete than Fausto-Sterling’s wish, but still not very practicable.

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