HEROIC RESEARCH: MILESTONES AND. MILLSTONES
In Paul Robinson’s (1976) view, the modernization of sex was associated with the works of Havelock Ellis, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson. To which I would add the path-breaking work of John Money for having enlarged our attentions to the fullest implications of gender. These are people we associate with works and traditions of work from which we have all been beneficiaries. However, as monumental as such labors justifiably appear, they have also proved to be curiously barren of expanding traditions of exploration or understanding. Working in an oppressive isolation, such pioneers rarely challenged these conditions of isolation: rather than shaping their views of the sexual to meet their belief s about the nature of the human, they (Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, and Money, more than Ellis) allowed their image of the human to be shaped by their beliefs regarding the sexual.
The Kinsey tradition was the least ambiguous about its commitment to empiricism at its most reductionist. The very titles of the classic works, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), spoke directly to this narrow conception of “scientific” treatment of the sexual. The basic model for the research on sexual behavior was anticipated by Kinsey’s prior work on the gall wasp (Robinson 1976:51-2). This model was the source of his aspiration to finalize his research by completing a hundred thousand sex histories; his assumption was that in doing so he would be able to sample the human experience with sufficient density to reveal all forms of human sexuality in their relative frequency. Being an individual of extraordinary gifts, he often went beyond his own empiricist model, providing us with insights that went well beyond his statistics. But he rarely questioned the model itself.
More than two decades later, Bell and Weinberg (1978) and later Bell et al. (1981) did little better and possibly worse. Demonstrating how little they understood the implications of the titles given to their monographs (Homosexualities and Sexual Preference), they sought the cause of object preference through a maze of quasi-simulations of reality (path models). Finding no one satisfactory social or psychological explanation of homosexual preference in men and women, from their data they concluded that its source must surely be found elsewhere. Their work culminated in finding a probable explanation of sexual preference in innate attributes that they could not describe, let alone explain or understand. Still conceptually trapped in the simplistic approach of the medical model, the possibility that sexual preference might be the outcome of a complex and highly variable process was not seriously considered. To risk confronting just how contingent our destinies are, as well as the degree to which these destinies are as much rooted in the minutiae of everyday life as they are in its moments of high drama, is consistent with modernism’s abstract and ahistorical requirements.
Similarly, Money’s unqualified condemnation of all attempts at a social – psychological explanation of human motivation, and his equally unqualified commitment to the ultimate explanatory powers of body chemistry and neurophysiology (Money 1980), can only be described as an act of religious faith, since it does not seem to rest upon reason, theory, or data. Money (1988) may conceptualize the isomorphism of “gender identity”— an intrapsychic experience —with “gender role”—observable behavior— but he does so only by linguistic fiat (see below, page 32). And appropriately so, as these concepts may function only as simplifying metaphors for processes of almost infinite complexity which have themselves been abstracted from processes of still greater complexity. His abstractions ignore the complexity of links between the sexual aspects of self and all other aspects of self and the ways in which gender roles reflect the linking of individual history with that of surrounding social life.
More recently, Lauman and his colleagues have provided us with what will remain for the indefinite future the definitive Kinseyesque survey of patterns of sexual behavior in contemporary North America (Lauman et al. 1994). This study’s unequaled methodological sophistication probably qualifies it as the apotheosis of the modernist project to comprehensively audit sexual behavior. Moreover, embracing a tamed social constructionist or “scripting approach”, the authors remain comfortably within a modernist paradigm by shifting the regulation of the sexual from the laws of nature to the laws of social life. This is accomplished by the employment of “network analysis”, a questionable statistical method pretending to be a theory, and an “economic resource approach”, which provides for an emotionally eviscerated conception of the sexual actor. Assuming with remarkable naivety that sexual behavior is virtually synonymous with sexuality, the major and largely ignored finding of the research is its demonstration of how little of sexual behavior is in the direct control of sexuality, as it ignores the profound and complex role that sexuality, in the fullest sense of that word, plays in the dynamics of cultural, social, and personal life and, in particular, in the interplay between these.
The crisis of modernist perspectives seems to have come to the area of human sexuality more understandably than to most other areas: the best of a tradition of research that promised so much appears to have brought us close to a kind of disturbing pause, as if trapped in a sentence that cannot be completed. It should be obvious, except for the most myopic or naively optimistic, that the mere continuing of accumulation of more information, of more data, will not move us forward substantially. We are not dealing with an issue of information—at least, not of information alone; it is not so much a matter of what we think about the sexual as it is a matter of how we think about the sexual, not a matter of explanation, but one of understanding.
Let me be very careful at this point. It is not that I believe that we currently possess all the information we require or that what we have learned, frequently at very great costs, is without continuing relevance to our practice or our lives. What we have is a crisis of paradigms, one that follows, not because the prior paradigms failed but because they succeeded. As a result, we currently see more than we could have seen prior to the ascendancy of these paradigms. These works have made us aware of the distribution of the experiences of the sexual and of its different meanings; they have also made us aware of how these changed. Such works have themselves directly contributed to a revolution in thinking about the sexual, altered its meanings and prompted changes in realms of experience as well.