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 and John H. Gagnon and Robert T. Michael and Stuart Michaels
University of Chicago Press, 718 pp., $49.95

Sex in America: A Definitive Survey

by Robert T. Michael and John H. Gagnon and Edward O. Laumann and 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

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