ISBN-10:
0520238354
ISBN-13:
9780520238350
Pub. Date:
03/07/2005
Publisher:
University of California Press
American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports / Edition 1

American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports / Edition 1

by Miriam G. ReumannMiriam G. Reumann

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Overview

When Alfred Kinsey's massive studies Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female appeared in 1948 and 1953, their detailed data spurred an unprecedented public discussion of the nation's sexual practices and ideologies. As they debated what behaviors were normal or average, abnormal or deviant, Cold War Americans also celebrated and scrutinized the state of their nation, relating apparent changes in sexuality to shifts in its political structure, economy, and people. American Sexual Character employs the studies and the myriad responses they evoked to examine national debates about sexuality, gender, and Americanness after World War II. Focusing on the mutual construction of postwar ideas about national identity and sexual life, this wide-ranging, shrewd, and lively analysis explores the many uses to which these sex surveys were put at a time of extreme anxiety about sexual behavior and its effects on the nation.

Looking at real and perceived changes in masculinity, female sexuality, marriage, and homosexuality, Miriam G. Reumann develops the notion of "American sexual character," sexual patterns and attitudes that were understood to be uniquely American and to reflect contemporary transformations in politics, social life, gender roles, and culture. She considers how apparent shifts in sexual behavior shaped the nation's workplaces, homes, and families, and how these might be linked to racial and class differences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520238350
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/07/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 305
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Miriam G. Reumann is Visiting Scholar at Brown University and Instructor in History at the University of Rhode Island.

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American Sexual Character

Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports
By Miriam G. Reumann

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23835-4


Introduction

In 1948 and 1953, the United States was rocked by events that observers compared to the explosion of the atomic bomb: the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, respectively, popularly known as the Kinsey Reports. These two massive sex surveys, compiled by the Indiana University zoologist Alfred Kinsey and a team of researchers, graphically presented the results of interviews with thousands of American men and women, including information on their age at first intercourse, number of partners, history of premarital and extramarital sex, incidence of homosexuality and lesbianism, and virtually every other imaginable sexual statistic. The studies'findings shocked experts and the public alike, as Kinsey demonstrated that much of Americans' sexual activity took place outside of marriage, and that the majority of the nation's citizens had violated accepted moral standards as well as state and federal laws in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female struck a nerve within the American public. Despitetheir complex graphs and charts and abstruse scientific language, the volumes became best-sellers and spurred unprecedented public discussion of national sexual practices and ideologies. Praised by some experts for their breadth, precision, and dispassionate approach to human sexuality, the books were also the targets of virulent criticism and were widely denounced as immoral, perverse, and damaging to the reputation of the United States. Upon the appearance of the first volume, Kinsey was simultaneously hailed as a liberator, denounced as a pornographer, compared to the scientific martyrs Darwin and Copernicus, and declared a Communist bent on destroying the American family, all themes that would persist in discussions of his work. Public uproar over the volumes spread well beyond the world of science, as millions of Americans purchased and discussed them, rendering the reports' vocabulary and sensational findings a part of everyday knowledge. Kinsey's statistics on pre- and extramarital sex prompted a national forum on the state of the nation's morals and marriages, and his findings on the extent of same-sex sexual behaviors spearheaded debate about homosexuality in the United States. Omnipresent in postwar mass culture, the volumes featured centrally in discussions of virtually every topic imaginable, as references to the reports abounded in postwar political coverage, social science and medical writing, general-interest journalism, and even fiction.

This book examines the cultural dynamics and social dilemmas that informed the construction of American sexual character-a term I use to describe sexual patterns and attitudes that were understood as uniquely American-between the close of World War II and the early 1960s. It was initially spurred by my curiosity about why a sex survey repeatedly cropped up in discussions of topics that it ostensibly had nothing to do with. While scanning postwar books and articles, I was repeatedly struck by the pervasiveness of the two reports: articles on gender, marriage, and the family devoted extensive attention to the studies, but so did texts probing the effects of suburbanization, assessing the national zeitgeist, comparing Americans to their counterparts in other countries, and analyzing the state of contemporary theater. As I noted more such examples, I was struck by how often and how prominently the findings of the reports, along with public and media responses to them, featured in discussions of American society and national identity after World War II.

Postwar commentators saw Kinsey's research as expressing profound truths not only about Americans' sexual behavior but also about the nation itself, as charts and graphs from the two studies were brought to bear on analyses of America's class mobility and race relations, attitudes to work and leisure, and international political position. In brief, this book examines the processes by which Kinsey's statistical data became cultural narrative. It is not a history of the reports per se; rather, it maps the broader field of American sexual character by looking at themes and tensions in social scientists' and cultural critics' writings about sex in the United States. It examines the ways in which normative categories such as heterosexuality, masculinity, femininity, and Americanness itself were constructed and questioned. In the process, it chronicles some of the microstruggles that constituted the meaning of sex, including popular responses to the two Kinsey Reports, discussions of the relation between sexual excess and popular literature, the changing legal meanings of obscenity, and homosexual activists' negotiation of scientific categories of normalcy and deviance.

Defining American Sexual Character

My analysis of how the Kinsey Reports and other work on sexuality functioned to harness and rework notions of national identity is anchored by the concept of American sexual character. This phrase was not commonly used in the postwar United States, but its three terms, all widely used by authorities at the time, together capture some of the interwoven themes that characterized discussions of public and private life around the time of the Kinsey Reports. In juxtaposing them, I call attention to the mutual construction of postwar ideas about national identity, sexual life, and personal and community standards of behavior and ideology by exploring the relationship between these three terms. In this analysis of the discursive construction of sexuality in the modern United States, I examine contending definitions of sexuality and gender and explore how middle-class Americans during the postwar era negotiated a host of sexual possibilities. By reading various crises of American sexuality as responses to postwar worries about the stability and strength of the nation and its population, I map the ways in which new discursive practices emerged around American sexuality, examining why and how Americans thought that sexual behaviors were changing and how they related these changes to other developments in the United States during the cold war era.

The first key term, American, alludes to the centrality of nationalism, nation building, and national identity to postwar culture. A recent resurgence of interest in nationalism has encouraged scholars to focus less on traditionally defined political processes than on the social and cultural processes that shaped changing conceptions of national identity. In the introduction to a 1996 collection of essays on nationalism, the historian Geoff Eley and the political scientist Ronald Suny note that, "if politics is the ground upon which the category of the nation was first proposed, culture was the terrain where it was elaborated," and they observe that recent literature has interrogated the "need to constitute nations discursively through processes of imaginative ideological labor-that is, the novelty of national culture, its manufactured or invented character, as opposed to its deep historical rootedness." In Benedict Anderson's influential model, every nation is an "imagined community" in which citizens envision themselves as units in a collective, "because the members of even the smallest nation will never know their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each they carry the image of communion." It is everyday beliefs and processes, not only spectacular events like wars, parades, or elections, that create and reproduce national identity. Identifying the 1950s as an era when interest in nationalism and nation building peaked, scholars argue that between the 1940s and 1960s the United States remade its economic, political, and social position, and that the period was thus marked by struggles to reestablish old models of nationhood and create new ones.

During the 1950s, the United States-at perhaps the last moment in which many could still imagine a national public not riven by racial, class, gender, and other differences-defined itself in relation to a constellation of real and imaginary ideals, including both other nations and idealized Americas of the past. New themes also spurred and shaped postwar nation building. These included the postwar endorsement of middle-class status for many previously excluded groups like white ethnics and Jews; threats to the nation from the outside, such as the rise of international Communism; and dangers from within, such as Americans' alleged laziness, sensuality, consumerism, or any of a host of other characteristics. The very factors through which the nation achieved and celebrated its postwar supremacy-possession of the atomic bomb; an enduring democratic government in the face of fascism, Communism, and revolutions abroad; economic prosperity; the mass production of consumer goods; and a cultural focus on family bonds and personal fulfillment-were double-edged swords. Nuclear knowledge made the United States internationally powerful but also promoted widespread fear and suspicion, and the specter of Communism prompted both celebrations of American democracy and crippling suspicions about internal subversion. Such paradoxes abounded in postwar culture: the economic prosperity that funded single-family homes and supported growing families also created new opportunities for single living, and the consumer economy lauded by boosters was accused of promoting a hedonism that subverted, rather than supported, national values.

The postwar era's teachings about sex fit perfectly into this contradictory pattern, as authorities simultaneously maintained that sexuality had the potential to ruin families and community standards and sought to harness its appeal for the maintenance of traditional lifestyles. The second word of my title phrase, sexual, thus alludes to the ways in which Americans brought sexuality into the public arena in the decade and a half after the end of World War II, making it a political and social topic as well as a personal one. The war changed the sexual landscape for many Americans, as wartime economic and social shifts promoted geographical and class mobility. War and its aftermath furthered dialogue about which of the domestic crises associated with war-desertion and failed marriages, promiscuity, same-sex sexual relations, and so on-were temporary eruptions and which were here to stay. When Kinsey's first study appeared a few years later, it provided vivid evidence of sexual change.

The reports, along with the host of other explorations of American sexuality that appeared in their wake, were received not only as collections of statistics but also as important statements about gender difference, social change, and American identity. Topics such as the increasingly direct depiction of sexual themes in the popular media, the future of the nuclear family, and the importance of sexual pleasure in marriage were also topics of heated discussion. Even more troubling to many was "unnatural" sex, and campaigns targeting "perverts," described as a threat to American security interests, drummed suspected homosexuals out of military and governmental service. As well as finding a far higher incidence of same-sex sexual practices than many had previously believed existed in the United States, the reports found that sexual behaviors long believed to be the province of homosexuals, including oral and anal sex, were in fact widely practiced by heterosexuals. Most Americans, according to Kinsey, believed fervently that "sexual behavior is either normal or abnormal, socially acceptable or unacceptable, heterosexual or homosexual, and many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from one extreme to the other." The report's statistics made these convictions increasingly untenable, as evidence suggested that the dividing line between heterosexual and homosexual was increasingly blurred.

Kinsey argued that many of the sexual categories Americans lived by were meaningless, claiming that "such designations as infantile, frigid, sexually over-developed, under-active, excessively active, over-developed, over-sexed, hypersexual, or sexually over-active ... refer to nothing more than a position on a curve which is continuous. Normal and abnormal, one sometimes suspects, are terms which a particular author employs with reference to his own position on that curve." In the postwar United States, as normal and abnormal threatened to lose all meaning, sex was both a pressing social issue and a rhetorical site for public discussions of American culture and identity. Literally, sexuality was surveyed, mapped, and theorized as never before. Metaphorically, sexual behavior was framed as a matter of politics, cultural change, and public policy.

In his analysis of "that quite recent and banal notion of 'sexuality,'{hrs}" the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault points out the importance of examining how and why a culture's common wisdom about sex changes over time. The object of historical inquiry, he argues, is "not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said." As Foucault reminds us, discussions of sex are always about more than bodily behaviors. Postwar Americans made extensive use of sexuality as a category that expressed and explained other kinds of social concerns, demonstrating his assertion that modern identity included an injunction to catalogue and speak of sex.

A new language of sexuality-in which "sex" moved from a static, biologistic measure of the differences between male and female to a broad category that encompassed sexual practices, moral concerns, and social problems-reflected profound changes in the cultural meanings of sexuality. This transformation of sexual discourse was reflected not only in the proliferation and popularity of examinations of American sexuality but also in the ways in which sexual information was managed and categorized. Before World War II, articles about sex cited in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature were primarily medical in nature, with most sources falling under the category of "SEX (Biology)" and dealing with topics like venereal disease or sexual selection in the animal kingdom. After the war, the number of entries under "Sex" and its various subheadings expanded rapidly, demonstrating a quantitative increase in the production and dissemination of popular information about sex. The taxonomy of the Readers' Guide also changed, reflecting profound shifts in the ways sexual knowledge was organized and the expansion of terms for sexual acts.

Continues...


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. "Sexual Order in Our Nation":
American Sexuality and National Character in the Postwar United States
2. "A Missing Sense of Maleness":
Male Heterosexuality, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and the Crisis of American Masculinity
3. "Much the Same Desires as Men":
Sexual Behavior in the Human Female and the "American Woman"
4. "I’m a Much Better Citizen Than If I Were Single":
Remaking Postwar Marriage and Reconfiguring Marital Sexuality
5. "An Age of Sexual Ambiguity":
Homosexuality and National Character in the Postwar United States
Epilogue. "All America Is One Big Orgone Box":
American Sexual Character Revisited
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index

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