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Sex, Lies, and Social Science

Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research

by Vern L. Bullough
Basic Books, 376 pp., $25.00

The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States

by Edward O. Laumann, by John H. Gagnon, by Robert T. Michael, by Stuart Michaels
University of Chicago Press, 718 pp., $49.95

Sex in America: A Definitive Survey

by Robert T. Michael, by John H. Gagnon, by Edward O. Laumann, by Gina Kolata
Little, Brown, 300 pp., $22.95

I once knew a man who was posted as a research scientist at an agricultural institute in what was then British Uganda. He told me with great frustration that he was having extreme difficulty in finding out whether his African assistants had actually carried out the procedures that he had prescribed because they had become so anxious to please their colonial bosses that they always answered “Yes” to every question asked. He claimed, however, that he had thought of a way around the problem. In the future he would always elicit the same information twice in such a way that the correct answer would be “Yes” the first time he asked and “No” the second. It apparently had not occurred to him that if his assistants really always answered “Yes” to every question, his scheme was doomed to failure.

My friend had discovered the fundamental methodological difficulty that faces every historian, biographer, psychotherapist, and reader of autobiography, the problem of self-report. How are we to know what is true if we must depend on what interested parties tell us? The historian and biographer, at least, have access to alternate sources and to the intersection of the independent stories of reporters with different axes to grind. We don’t need Napoleon’s Mémoriale de Sainte-Hélène or Wellington’s papers to know who won at Waterloo, and neither source would have been enough for Hugo’s description of it in Part Two of Les Misérables.

Public events have many private versions, but private events produce only a single public show. The readers of The New York Review of Books need only reread the January 12, 1995 issue to see the problem in two of its manifestations: one, in the autobiography of a scientist who has been engaged in contentious ideological battles over his scientific claims for half of his professional life,1 and the other, in the bitter struggle over the reliability of repressed memories of childhood abuse.2 A third, and even more difficult one, is the attempt to find out what people do in their quest for sexual gratification and why. The famous studies by Alfred Kinsey and his collaborators in the 1940s and 1950s which have become part of everyday reference as “The Kinsey Report,” the later research by Masters and Johnson, and the more popularly read work of Shere Hite, 3 are part of a long history of the science of “sexology.” Vern Bullough’s Science in the Bedroom is an extensive review of that unsatisfactory history. “Bedroom” is, of course, pure synecdoche, since no space that can contain one or more human beings appears to have been excluded from the possible sites of sex. The latest try at knowing who does what to whom, and how often, is the National Opinion Research Center’s The Social Organization of Sexuality, completed just too late to be included in Bullough’s historical survey. Suspecting that Americans would not be wholly indifferent to their findings, the research workers who produced The Social Organization of Sexuality also arranged with the well-regarded science journalist Gina Kolata to collaborate on a popular version, Sex in America, an haute vulgarisation of our basses vulgarités.

We all have created elaborate fictions, both conscious and unconscious, that we try to sell to ourselves and others as the real stories of our lives. The reader of conventional autobiography is, in principle at least, able to test some of the self-indulgences of autobiographers, since much of what is of general interest in a public life has been seen and heard by others who may be consulted. Moreover, autobiographers do not know from the beginning that they will publish a life story, so they may commit to writing, unthinkingly, rather contradictory material. But these provide only a theoretical possibility of looking for the truth, since, with not many exceptions, one must be a Napoleon before anyone will bother to check an author’s memoirs against the record. For the most part, autobiography is a free ride into history. Repressed memories, too, are not entirely liberated from tests of their credibility. First, it may be that repressed memories simply do not exist so that every claim to them must be false. It might indeed be true, as claimed by Frederick Crews, that the entire experience of psychiatry and psychology speaks against the phenomenon. Second, even if repressed memories do, in fact, exist, and can be called to consciousness by appropriate techniques, the credibility of particular repressed memories is strained by their content. Sensible people can only scoff at reports of widespread Satanic rituals in which Babbitts consume the flesh and blood of babies.

There remains, however, one realm of self-report that seems utterly resistant to external verification. Given the social circumstances of sexual activity there seems no way to find out what people do “in the bedroom” except to ask them. But the answers they give cannot be put to the test of incredulity. Surely we believe that there is no sexual fantasy so outrageous and bizarre, no life of profligacy so exhausting, that it has not been realized by someone, somewhere, perhaps even by a reader of the New York Review‘s personals. But if by someone, then why not by 17.4 percent of white males with two years of education beyond high school and with an annual income of $43,217? What behavior that is credible in individuals becomes incredible in the mass? The problem is to turn biography into science. If research produced by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the organization that epitomizes modern objective statistical social science, designed and analyzed by two distinguished service professors and a past president of the International Academy of Sex Research, carried out by a full time project manager in charge of 220 interviewers, and resulting in a book of 718 pages, including 178 tables, 34 graphs, and 635 references, does not crack the problem of knowledge from self-report, then not just “sexology,” but all of scientific sociology, is in deep trouble.

The motivations for the NORC study were two. First, given the evident importance of sex in people’s lives, it is hard to see how there could be an adequate theory of social processes, not to speak of efficacious planning of social policy, without an understanding of the shape of people’s sex lives. Unfortunately, previous social surveys of sex, as documented in Science in the Bedroom, were methodologically unsatisfactory. The flaws in these studies did not arise from a simple lack of technical sophistication. Bullough’s tremendously informative analysis shows that sex surveys did not come out of a general demand by sociologists to document yet another central feature of social life, or from the desire of theoretical sociologists to provide empirical evidence for some overarching theory of social determination. Rather, they were an outgrowth of a variety of theories of the determination of individual sexuality, of ideological convictions about sex and of a concern about sexual pathologies.

A major change took place between the end of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, as studies of sex ceased being a concern with pathologies and became part of a crusade for sexual liberation. The earlier tradition was represented by Krafft-Ebing’s famous compilation of scores of case histories, Psychopathia Sexualis, regarded as a scandalously raw book by my parents, who could not refer to it except sotto voce, and who would have been indignant to know that we pre-adolescents still tittered over its discreet Latin descriptions. The new “sexology” was epitomized by Havelock Ellis, whose research was in the service of a universal appreciation of human sexuality in all its aspects, including its formerly taboo manifestations in masturbation and homosexuality. For Ellis, the term “abnormal” meant simply a deviation from the average, being descriptive rather than normative in its intent. And between Krafft-Ebing’s ideal of sex and Ellis’s realities falls the shadow of Freud, who began with pathology and wound up with the domestication of incestuous desires. The gathering of case histories by these and other students of sex, like Magnus Hirschfeld in his attempt to establish the normality of homosexuality, was an instrument of argument, a demonstration of perceived truths about sex.

As psychology and social theory became social science, so studies of sex took on more of the methodological apparatus of the natural sciences. What were once compilations of illustrative case studies became large samples in objective surveys with elaborate interview protocols and questionnaires that included information about other social variables such as economic status. Yet these surveys remained in an ideological tradition. Bullough describes Kinsey as an objective scientist:

His two major works, the male study in 1948 and the female study in 1952, serve as effective indicators of the change taking place in American society. Though Kinsey is known for his diligent interviewing and summation of data, his work is most significant because of his attempt to treat the study of sex as a scientific discipline, compiling and examining the data and drawing conclusions from them without moralizing. [my emphasis]

But what Bullough has missed here is that discussing sex “without moralizing” is precisely the moral position that what people do with their erogenous zones is simply part of human natural history, that sex, in Ellis’s sense, is normal, and that notions of abnormality and deviance can have only a statistical meaning. So Kinsey and his epigones do not represent a real break in the smooth history of sexology, which continues to reflect the changing social attitudes toward fun in bed.

Moreover, it seems clear that Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and Shere Hite knew what they would find in their surveys, namely that, putting aside the trivia of percentages, a substantial number of ordinary people will say that they do anything you care to name. The lack of statistical rigor in the sampling techniques of these earlier studies is a revelation not of technical sloppiness, but of the studies as demonstrations of what their planners already believed they knew to be true. So the sexologists didn’t really think it mattered how they got their samples, and it turns out that they were substantially right because, as I will argue, sampling technique is not the important issue.

The second reason that the NORC team thought that a new sex survey was needed was its relevance to the epidemiology of AIDS. Because AIDS is spread largely through certain sexual practices, an accurate estimate of the frequency of such practices, the way they are distributed through the population, and what the network of sexual partners looks like, are all important variables in any model of the spread of the disease. If we are really interested in a useful epidemiological model of AIDS spread, not to speak of one that does not make the situation worse, we had better get the answers right. We have more than an academic interest in knowing whether self-report is a road to truth.

  1. 1

    E. O. Wilson, Naturalist (Island Press, 1994), reviewed by Jared Diamond in these pages, January 12, 1995, pp. 16–19.

  2. 2

    Victims of Memory: An Exchange,” The New York Review, January 12, 1995, pp. 42–48. See also Frederick Crews’s two-part article, “The Revenge of the Repressed,” The New York Review, November 17 and December 1, 1994.

  3. 3

    A. C. Kinsey, W. B. Pomeroy, and C. E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Saunders, 1948); A. C. Kinsey, W. B. Pomeroy, C. E. Martin, and P. H. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Saunders, 1953); W. H. Masters, and V. E. Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Little Brown, 1966); S. Hite, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (Knopf, 1979) and The Hite Report on Male Sexuality (Knopf, 1981).

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