An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality


An Interpretation of Desire offers a bracing collection of major essays by John Gagnon, one of the leading and most inspiring figures in sexual research. Spanning his work from the 1970s, when he explored the idea that sexuality is mediated through social processes and categories—thus paving the way for Foucault—and then extending through his turn to issues of desire during the 1990s, these essays constitute an essential entrée to the study of sexuality in the twentieth century....

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An Interpretation of Desire offers a bracing collection of major essays by John Gagnon, one of the leading and most inspiring figures in sexual research. Spanning his work from the 1970s, when he explored the idea that sexuality is mediated through social processes and categories—thus paving the way for Foucault—and then extending through his turn to issues of desire during the 1990s, these essays constitute an essential entrée to the study of sexuality in the twentieth century.

Gagnon may be best known as the coauthor of Sexual Conduct—a book that introduced the seminal concept of sexual scripting—and as one of the coauthors of The Social Organization of Sexuality, a foundational work that is widely considered to be the most important study of human sexual behavior since the Kinsey report. The essays collected here first trace the influence of scripting theory on Gagnon, outlining the radical departure he took from the dominant biological and psychiatric models of sex research. The volume then turns to more recent essays that consider such vexed issues as homosexuality, the theories of Sigmund Freud, HIV, hazardous sex, and the social aspects of sexually transmitted diseases.

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John Gagnon is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of numerous works, including Human Sexualities, Life Designs, and The Social Organization of Sexuality, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality

By John H. Gagnon

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 John H. Gagnon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226278603

Sex Research and Social Change (1975)

The field of scientific sex research, which emerged at the turn of the century with the exemplary work of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, has been complexly interactive with changing general social conditions, specific trends in sexual conduct, the content of sexual ideologies, and the developing techniques of scientific inquiry. The earliest sex researchers, although serving to bring sexuality out of the Victorian cold and into the center of human development, based their views of sexuality on control-repression and drive models. The Freudian tradition was especially influential in general intellectual matters and was probably the most important in the development of twentieth-century sexual ideologies. Beginning in the 1920s and culminating in the work of Kinsey in the 1940s and 1950s, a tradition of social bookkeeping began focusing on the sexual behavior of relatively "normal" persons. Methodologically such studies moved away from the case history and from populations who were defined as criminal or neurotic. At the same time, general social changes were occurring that were directly affecting the rates and directions of sexual conduct in the society. The work of Alfred Kinsey charted these changes and in turn influenced public attitudes, public policy, and research interests during the 1950s and 1960s. The work of other researchers began to fill in the picture of sexual conduct in the society using survey methods, and some workers began studies in sexual deviance that focused anew on homosexuality and prostitution. The work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson served to open the door to studies of sexual anatomy and physiology by applying well-known techniques to the laboratory study of the sexual. While the biological tradition is still strong in the discussion of the sexual, new emphases are being placed on a cognitive-social learning perspective that emphasizes the nonbiological factors in sexual development. Major changes have occurred in the sexual backdrop of the society in the 1960s, and, while changes in sexual conduct have been less than revolutionary, they have occurred in a number of areas (contraception, abortion) that have directly influenced societal practices. Sex research and the sex researcher have played an important role in providing benchmarks for sexual practices, illuminating general understanding, and providing the content for ideological debates about the right and wrong of sexuality in the society. In few areas of research have researchers had such an important role in the debate over the meaning and significance of the behavior they have studied.

One of the most sensitive and consequently elusive indicators of social change is the rate at which members of a culture become strangers to their personal pasts as well as to the historical modes of experiencing which were provided by their culture. That is, as members of an ongoing present we are detached and/or alienated from those past processes, which have created our current cultural situation. This estrangement seems to have two sources. The first is that we are the individual products of the cultural changes we seek to understand, and the cultural resources of symbols, language, and styles of apprehending which we use are themselves the results of this same process of cultural change. We lose our past because we can only experience it through present artifact and the rules of retrospection; the layers of the present conceal and distort. The second source is that our attempts to consciously set in motion planned social change are lost in the general process of social action and the outcomes of our efforts cannot be limited and controlled. This is in some measure because the consequences of complex social acts are difficult to predict, but also in part due to the indeterminate nature of such complex social activities. We offer ideas and perform acts, and despite our best attempts to constrain their meanings an active and variously motivated world takes them and puts them to manifold uses both consonantly and dissonantly with our original intentions.

In any attempt to examine the history of research on human sexuality and the interactions of that research with the sociocultural order in which it is embedded, we face these problems of estrangement from the past. As each new generation appears, the felt and experienced sexual culture, the sexual landscape of the past becomes more distant. Not only does the cultural reality of the era prior to the work of such sexual revolutionaries as Ellis, Freud, and Magnus Hirschfeld fade, but so does the reality of the two decades prior to the publication of the Kinsey researches in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The young today grow up in a post-Freudian, post-Kinseyan, and near to post-Masters and Johnson world in which the findings of sex research have been transmuted into popular culture by the alchemy of the mass media magazines, advice columns, volumes of popularized science, and the textbooks of abnormal psychology, sociology, physiology, and home economics. The climate of ideas and the cultural-historical situation that produced scientific knowledge about sex and the sense of personal mission and risks that accompanied its original acquisition and publication can be experienced only in retrospect, even by those who participated in it, for the ideas themselves are now part of our present conventional wisdom. For the majority of the young, except for those rare few who as a result of personal or academic misadventure are historically minded, these ideas in their present textbook form seem adequate. This is at one level surely appropriate, for if knowledge is to be of use to a new generation it must come partially or even totally freed from many of the historical, biographical, or cultural conditions that produced it. Yet for those who participated in that older culture and for those who actively sought its transformation, this easy acceptance can only produce a sharp sense of disjuncture and an uneasy feeling of both personal and historical inauthenticity.

Not only have the cultural conditions under which research into human sexuality began been partially lost to us, but the second source of estrangement comes into play as well. The outcome of what researchers have done or published is not received passively nor does it retain the form in which it was conceived. Research on sex or practical attempts at sexual reform enter into the world and are willy-nilly put to use by a lively culture in ways that their creators never intended. Unlike the poets, who can claim to be the parents of any interpretation that a critic finds in their poems, especially if the poets like it, scientific researchers find themselves in the difficult position of defending a "truthful" view of their own work. The near impossibility of this attempt, against the inventive efforts of both followers and adversaries, is suggested by Freud's continual struggles for doctrinal purity in psychoanalysis. But such struggles for the control of the meaning of ideas and research have far deeper implications for those who perform research on sexual conduct than for most other researchers, for the influence of their ideas flows far outside the academic sphere and in more or less accurate forms penetrates into the daily life of society. I recall from Calder-Marshall's (1959) biography of Ellis that some of the volumes of The Psychology of Sex found their way into the less staid Soho bookshops, their pages riffled by those seeking what Calder-Marshall calls prurient excitement. Undoubtedly, the findings of the "Kinsey Reports" have been used by young men to justify having intercourse with young women on the grounds that such practice improves the likelihood of sexual compatibility in marriage, and in an earlier day the Freudian texts were used to point out the potential psychological disorders that resulted from personal sexual inhibition. None of these men, if they had observed these unintended uses of their work, would have recoiled in shock. I think Ellis particularly would have appreciated the ways in which what he had done had been put to use in the marvelous diversity of human lives. Such practical uses he would have seen not merely as clinical manifestations or additional data, but also as celebrations of human ingenuity.

I do not wish these "practical" outcomes to be taken as the only examples of the ways that research on human sexual conduct penetrates the life of the culture and serves as an element in its change. I use them only to illustrate the various ways that the work of those who would disturb the world's slumber are received. Such uses of the work of Ellis, Freud, and Kinsey are further reflections on the meaning of sexual research and its relation to the social and cultural order in which it exists. In this sense, research on sexual conduct, which by its form and findings influences to some degree the less academic forms of sexual life in society, is itself a form of sexual conduct. As sexual conduct, academic research and publication are subject to cultural constraints; they are desired, permitted, or prohibited. The subject matter, the techniques and conditions of research, the forms of publication, and the canons of proof of sex research are cultural products with an internal dynamic as well as having connections with the larger academic, intellectual, and social world which surrounds and interactively influences them. Once the researches are completed and published, the public informed, and students trained, these new conditions have a variable influence on general sexual conduct in society by bringing to bear on that conduct new bases for judgment, and this new conduct becomes the basis for similar or different patterns of future research.

A studied concern for the role of sexuality in human life has a relatively short history, one of scarcely a century, at least insofar as that concern takes as its point of departure a scientific attempt at disclosing what people do sexually through researches performed in the spirit of intellectual and social enlightenment. This is not to say that there were not some who were concerned with the sexual, both medically and morally, earlier in the nineteenth century. There exist some fragmentary studies of the sexual life of peasants, the dangers of masturbation, and, most commonly, the social conditions of prostitution and venereal diseases. But it was largely toward the end of that century in Europe that there was a major cultural movement cast in a scientific-medical form that directly challenged previously held beliefs about the role of the sexual in human life. It was at this time that the works of Freud, Hirschfeld, Moll, and Krafft-Ebing on the Continent and Ellis in England began to appear in print. It is a difficult and perhaps fruitless task to declare the beginning of an era in more than the roughest historical terms, but it appears that in much of Western Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States in the 1890s more attention began to be paid to the formulation of alternative interpretations of the significance of the sexual in human life. It was clearly not a movement that occurred on its own, for it shared elements and overlapped with changing patterns of political and artistic thought and activity. It was part of the period in cultural history which was the source of the idea and experience of the "modern." One aspect of the modern is that it was/is a period when cultural elements that were largely insulated from the sexual in the past could be informed by and informing of its new presence. More directly than before, the sexual aspects of life could be used as material for the arts, as the basis for personal relations, and as planks in platforms for individual and political liberation.

If there was a basic common ground in the work of this generation of revolutionaries, it was that they acted to move sexuality out of the domain of the alien and the ignored-to bring sexual acts and actors into the world of the noticed. This was the major and original influence of these sexual pioneers rather than any specific formulation or program. The fundamental act was one of inclusion; that is, they took that which was largely external to the mental life of nineteenth-century culture and moved it inside. In John Le Carre's sense, sex had been brought in from the cold. But what was involved was not only the cultural recognition of the sexual, but through the process of cultural reformulation its cultural invention as well. The quality of this cultural barrier in England (and with variations, for the Continent) is expressed in the words of Sir George Croft in George Bernard Shaw's long-banned play of the early 1890s, Mrs. Warren's Profession (1970). Croft, in plighting his troth to Mrs. Warren's daughter, is not aware that she knows that her mother's profession is managing the brothels that Croft has financed. When confronted with the facts, Croft says: "Why the devil shouldn't I invest my money that way? I take the interest on my capital like other people: I hope you don't think I dirty my hands with the work.... How do you expect me to turn my back on 35 per cent when the rest are pocketing what they can like sensible men? . . . If you want to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles, you'd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of decent society." And then Croft goes on to define "decent society" in this way: "As long as you don't fly openly in the face of society, society doesn't ask any inconvenient questions . . . there are no secrets better kept than the secrets everybody guesses. In the class of people I can introduce you to, no lady or gentleman would so far forget themselves as to discuss my business affairs." At one level I suspect that Shaw, in order to draw his archetype of Victorian hypocrisy with hard edges, makes Croft too knowing and too cynical. But to see that the same situation of respectable profit from society's dirty work still exists, we need only to examine a recent essay (Sheehy 1972) in New York magazine which exposes the ownership of the hotels that profit from the recent boom in prostitution: "No one in city government was willing to talk about the owners of prostitution hotels. It was all very embarrassing ... a little research turned up the names of immaculate East side Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), a prominent Great Neck heart surgeon, bona fide members of the Association for a Better New York and the Mayor's own Times Square Development Council . . . [as well as] several Park Avenue banks" (71). These two quotes are not to emphasize the continuing venality and corruption of respectable society, but to highlight the nature of attitudes toward the sexual that revolutionaries like Freud, Ellis, and Hirschfeld faced-an attitude deeply ingrained in contemporary consciousness which defined persons who were unashamedly sexual as belonging to a different class of human beings than the general run of society. Ellis's response to these conditions was to say: "I have never repressed anything. What others have driven out of consciousness.... as being improper or obscene, I have maintained or even held in honor" (Collis 1959, 8).

At one level these personal postures and scientific works were a challenge to many of the collective views of the place of sex in human life. They exposed and brought forward deeply held cultural beliefs about sexuality. The act of including the sexual into life not only as a pathological manifestation but also as it informed and shaped conventional lives was a profound challenge to that elite for whom the sexual existed outside the normal social order. Indeed, it was only through the exclusion of the sexual that many aspects of the normal social order could go forward, since its absence was required to maintain the current orthodoxy of relations between the genders, as well as being implicated in the meaning of religious, economic, and political life. The extended crisis created by the Freudian position and its vast intellectual influence resulted from the decision of its adherents to place the sexual at the center of character formation, not as a deplorable instinct that could and should be controlled, if not completely suppressed, but as a prime motive force, not only of pathology, but in its transformations bringing about the development of cultural life itself. My sense is that the fascination and continuing power of Freud and his extraordinary influence during this century have been generated by his thoroughgoing ideological treatment of sexuality in human character development-an impressive philosophical effort at totalizing and encompassing the human condition in a single system.

In contrast, more pragmatically in the English intellectual tradition, and perhaps in consequence having a more modest impact, Ellis argued differently about the role of the sexual: "The sexual impulse is not, as some have imagined, the sole root of the most massive human emotions, the most brilliant human aptitudes-of sympathy, of art, of religion" ([1899] 1936, 282).

Indeed, this difference between Freud and Ellis was permanent-an opposition grounded in differences in cultural styles and in the nature of the cultures that produced and chose among their ideas. Outside the central act of inclusion, substantial differences did emerge among the leading pioneers in the study of sex, differences that commonly grew as their scientific styles, relations to social action and reform, and strategies for promulgating their ideas changed over the ensuing decades. In the totality of Freud's thought there remained a sense of the tragic limitations of human relationships, even those that were the most intimate. Ultimately these limits were buried in the irreducible conflicts between biological nature and cultural reality. Ellis reacted against this stream in Freudian thought and shared that ameliorative tendency which characterized social and sexual reformers in England at the turn of the century and later. He focused on dispelling ignorance and superstition, and this emphasis on education and reform limited the use of his works in the interests of an ideology of either despair or optimism. This difference between Ellis and Freud meant that they had quite different patterns of influence. For many purposes, Ellis's formulations were too measured; they did not provide a general and organizing base for making sense of the role of the sexual in all aspects of life. For when the sexual was brought in from the cold, it was more than an intellectual act; it had the deepest emotional resonance and for many people it necessitated integrating the new fact of the sexual into the entire fabric of their lives. The overriding significance of the sexual required a deep personal transformation and conversion if it were to be admitted at all. This experience of conversion, which characterized not only the true believers in psychoanalysis but many other intellectuals as well, as part of dealing with a revalued sexuality, is one of the measures of the alienated status of the sexual at that moment in cultural history-a status that has lasted for many persons until the present time.


Excerpted from An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality by John H. Gagnon Copyright © 2004 by John H. Gagnon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Jeffrey Escoffier
An Unlikely Story (1990)
Part One: Scripts, Conduct, and Science
Sex Research and Social Change (1975)
Scripts and the Coordination of Sexual Conduct (1974)
Reconsiderations: The Kinsey Reports (1978)
Science and the Politics of Pathology (1987)
Gender Preference in Erotic Relations: The Kinsey Scale and Sexual Scripts (1990)
The Explicit and Implicit Use of the Scripting Perspective in Sex Research (1991)
Part Two: The Quest for Desire
Disease and Desire (1989)
Theorizing Risky Sex (2000)
Epidemics and Researchers: AIDS and the Practice of Social Studies 1992)
Captain Cook and the Penetration of the Pacific (1997)
Who Was That Girl? (2000)
Sexual Conduct Revisited (1998)

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