Jennifer Terry’s An American Obsession is one of several recently published books which are opening up the dialogue on the development and use of sexual science, and indeed, asking what counts as sexual science. It is rather a pity that the timing of publication has meant that these works have not been all been able to engage in intratextual dialogue with one another. For example, Terry’s early chapters on the European rise of sexology would have been enriched by engaging with Harry Oosterhuis’s brilliant study of Krafft-Ebing, Stepchildren of Nature (2000), and a number of his points resonate with her delineation of the evolution of attitudes towards homosexuality in the United States. But scholarly synchronicity of interests has meant that the dialogue between these two important studies is left as an exercise for the reader.
As Oosterhuis has done, Terry moves away from the view of sexual science as a monolithic apparatus of oppression, and instead looks at the ways in which the objects of the discourses of sexology might become active subjects in its creation. Not only, in the American context, did they deploy the new categories as a mode of interpreting themselves to themselves or to others; nor did they merely offer themselves as specimens for investigation. Terry has retrieved, among the many stories she has to tell in this book, the tales of the homosexuals who aligned themselves with the investigators.
The opening chapters, which set Terry’s meticulous study of the US story in wider context, are much the weakest part of the book and hardly do justice to the rest of it. They seem to be based on early background reading and mention little of the more recent work in the area, for example on the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. While the scientific and medical discourse on sexual deviation in North America was strongly influenced by the transatlantic exchange of ideas, these chapters could well have been shortened. As it is they provide an induction into the book which is far from reflecting its considerable strengths.
Terry has done sterling service in delving into the archives and discovering the multifarious ways in which American medicine and science were dealing with ‘the problem’ of homosexuality. In particular she has retrieved the significant social survey studies which preceded Kinsey but were occluded by the massiveness of his own survey (and his somewhat grudging attitude towards those who had done the essential groundwork in the field in which he was working). She demonstrates the very various fields of knowledge which could make interventionary claims to define and explain the problem of sexual deviancy and moves the subject on from the dichotomous explanatory models of the biological essentialist versus the psychoanalytic to present a much more complex and nuanced picture.
One element which Terry puts into the picture is the important ethnographic dimension. The social survey tradition which played an important part in the investigation of homosexuality in the interwar period had its equivalent of ‘native informants’, with the participation of self-identified homosexual individuals such as Jan Gay and Lura ‘Larry’ Beam. The influence of the Boas school of social constructionist anthropology and the use of cross-cultural data is also demonstrated to have made significant contributions to the understanding of homosexuality, by revealing its persistent existence across a range of cultures, and the various ways in which these cultures dealt with the presence of ‘deviants’ and indeed constructed potential social identities. It is also clear, however, that there was something of a prurient interest in revelations of this hidden, secret, internal ‘other’ culture, leading to the production of sensationalist pulp ‘surveys’ aimed at a popular market. The study of ‘Sex Variants’ was persistently justified to potential sources of funding and those who doubted the value of pursuing such a stigmatised topic by the argument that it would enable a better understanding of heterosexuality and thus ways of improving ‘normal’ married life. The homosexual thus became a scapegoat and an awful warning in the context of anxieties about changing sexual mores and gender roles in a society undergoing rapid social and economic change, a dreadful exemplar of what could go wrong along the road to ‘mature’ sexual development. However, among those concerned about marriage at a time when women’s role and expectations were perceived as having undergone major evolution (which men had apparently not kept up with) it also seemed that men might have something to learn about being adequate lovers from discovering what lesbians did in bed.
As in the case of Krafft-Ebing as delineated by Oosterhuis, issues of class and general assessments of the ‘social value’ of individuals had a significant impact on researchers’ evaluation of the homosexual as citizen. Those who were dealing with more middle-class homosexuals with professional jobs were inclined to be less pathologising than those whose contact with the ‘deviant’ population came via the legal system or psychiatry. However, as Terry points out, the presentation of homosexuals as good citizens who could not necessarily be distinguished from anyone else was not an unmitigated good. On the one hand, it privileged an assimiliationist model over more subversive identities, and also tended to encourage a down-playing of other forms of political protest, as with the exclusion or marginalisation of communists within some early homophile organisations. On the other, it could lead to paranoid homophobic fears about the ‘enemy within’, in particular in the climate of the Cold War years. The idea of the ‘passing’ homosexual – and the fears generated by what Kinsey had believed would be the reassuring and tolerance-producing effects of the knowledge of the actual prevalence of male-male sex – raised a frisson of fear rather than acceptance.
This is a dense and detailed study with a large cast of characters and many narrative strands. A complex story of the implication of science, social science, and medicine in defining and explaining ‘the homosexual’ has been carefully placed in a specific (and equally complex) context of American culture and society during the twentieth century.
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London