Vernon A. Rosario(ed.), Science and Homosexualities, London, Routledge, 1997. Pp. x + 308. £12.99 (paperback). ISBN 0-415-91502-3.
Stimulated by the recent flurry of research into the biological basis of homosexuality and the media attention this has gleaned, this collection presents a series of essays on attempts to engender a 'scientific' description of, and explanation for, the homosexual. The standard is generally high, providing illuminating accounts of precisely located and defined historical moments in this cautionary project. Vernon Rosario in his introductory essay draws attention to the persistence of unhelpful binary divisions in the discussion of homosexuality: nature versus nurture, normal versus pathological, essentialism versus constructionism. Such resort to binary categories seems almost over-determined, given the potential of same-sex desire s to destabilise that major distinction of male/female, and the continuing attempts to draw a clear and definite line betwixt gay and straight. Alice Dreger's 'Hermaphrodites in Love' on the treatment of individuals of ambiguous sex in the late nineteenth century, and Anne Fausto-Sterling's brief and elegant 'How to Build a Man' on the more recent management of intersexuality, show that the over-riding consideration in dealing with such individuals, even more than physical conformation, has always been received assumptions about appropriate gender appearance and behaviour, in which activity and aggression are characterised as male, and the female encoded as passive and undesiring.Most of the papers deal with the USA, but there are valuable studies of pioneering theorists of the German-speaking world, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Magnus Hirschfeld. Oosterhuis's article reveals that Krafft-Ebing and his work enabled a productive dialogue to take place between medical thought and the individual self-definitions of 'inverts' with the potential of liberalising existing legal penalisation. Many of the 'patients' (if they can be so designated) who approached Krafft-Ebing were of high social status: the significance of the class element in the whole debate (the influence on discussions of the homosexual male who was not only not a criminal but in all other respects conformed to the idea of the socially valuable) is alluded to in other papers but perhaps deserves deeper analysis. Rosario illuminates the wider cultural construction of 'inversion' in fin-de-siècle Francethrough the relation between literary and medical discourses. One outstanding omission in this volume is the lack of any paper on the contribution of English sexologists, in particular Havelock Ellis, widely read and influential in the USA. Ellis is mentioned in several papers but the impression given of his actual stance is ambiguous: none of the authors makes it clear, when citing Ellis, whether these are his own words, or one of the many instances in his encyclopaedic compilation of data where he was quoting another authority, while a sense of the relationship of particular passages to his wider agenda is often lacking or misconceived. An article giving a detailed analysis of what Ellis was doing in Sexual Inversion, and his relationship with other British writers on the subject, especially Edward Carpenter, would have been invaluable. Because she has tended to be less of an object of the scientific gaze than the male homosexual, there is less here on the lesbian. Gibson's 'Clitoral Corruption' points out that definitions of female 'perversion' emerged from the developing discussion of male perversion rather than directly from the anxieties over the changing social role of women to which they are often attributed. She indicates, however, that the characterisation of the 'perverted' female has strong connections with that of 'deviant' women more generally, literally embodied in the hypertrophied clitoris. In the discussions of the curious relationship between homosexuals and lesbians and their investigators, Lura Beam, a leading figure in interwar sex research in the USA, is mentioned several times but perhaps not adequately problematised, given the strong evidence that she was a lesbian, although Jennifer Terry does mention the work of the lesbian Jan Gay in acquiring volunteers for research through her subcultural connections. Stephanie Kennan in 'Who Counts When You're Counting Homosexuals?' articulates most clearly an underlying theme: who exactly is the homosexual who is the object of study? Researchers have seldom if ever selected an entirely satisfactory sample: many authorities based their pronouncements on men who came to their attention through the penal system or else as psychiatric patients. Others operated specific criteria as to who counted as 'really' homosexual for the purposes of their investigations; only Kinsey, emphasising acts rather than identity, evaded this problem. As a whole this volume presents a compelling case, superbly argued in particular in Garland Allen's 'The Double-Edged Sword of Genetic Determinism', that biological determinists who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine