Stonewall and Beyond:  Lesbian and Gay Culture



Books that Shaped 20th Century Ideas about Sexuality

Guest Curator: Sarah Chinn, Department of English & Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Throughout this century, sexologists, psychologists and laypeople have theorized about sexuality. Taking a variety of approaches: scientific, personal, anthropological, how-to!!the writers featured here changed their contemporaries' minds about human sex uality. Certainly, Freud's revolutionary contention that psychological development was based in childhood sexuality radically influenced Western notions of what constituted mental illness and "normality," although in the United States Freud's theories were warped considerably to fit social mores.

The books exhibited here are diverse, but they share one definitive characteristic: each one shifted the trajectory of discussions about sexuality in the U.S. in this century. They all urge a liberalization of sexual standards either implicitly or explic itly. This hasn't been true of all books that shaped the public's treatment of sexual issues; for example, one perennial bestseller, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by David Reuben, tends to support the erotic stat us quo. Nonetheless, I've felt comparatively free to construct this narrative of sexual sea changes as a way to indicate that a variety of thinkers were considering alternate ways of theorizing sexuality from the turn of the century.

Case Displays

      Sigmund Freud

  • Sigmund Freud, 1859-1939. Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie. Leipzig: Deuticke, 1910. (1st edition published in 1905.)

  • Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, James Strachey, translator. New York: Basic Books, 1962.

    Originally published in Germany in 1905, the Three Essays appeared in English in 1910. As Steven Marcus notes in his introduction to the 1975 edition, "from the outset one of the overt aims of this work was to declare the end of a historical innocence. In these essays Freud introduced the now commonplace ideas of the polymorphous perversity of prelinguistic children, the centrality of sexual drives, and the instability of normative heterosexuality. The material for the first essay, "Sexual Aberrations," came from previous sexological research by Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and others--as Freud admitted, he himself had had no "aberrant" patients.

    Freud rejected "biological" explanations for homosexuality and heterosexuality that were popular at that time and instead proposed an innate bisexuality in all people that is molded by childhood experience. Indeed, he claimed that "all human beings are capable of making a homosexual object-choice", and that heterosexuality needs as much explaining. Nonetheless, many American psychologists leaped on Freud's less sanguine theories that "male inversion" was in part caused by over-identification with a dom inating mother and the absence of a strong father, and resulted in excessive narcissism.

      Margaret Mead

  • Margaret Mead, 1901-1978. Coming of Age in Samoa: a Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: Morrow, 1975. Originally published 1928.

    Mead's book was a breakthrough in modern anthropology, particularly in its descriptions of sexuality and gender roles among Samoan adolescents. The study followed two villages in the Pacific island of Samoa, exploring sexual mores around such issues as m enstruation, rape, pre- and extramarital sex, and same-sex relationships. Mead found her Samoan subjects to be open and relaxed about their sexual lives, allowing for a wide range of activities and desires.

    Mead's thesis, that attitudes towards sex are culturally prescribed and that without the bonds of repressive Western mores people would casually participate in masturbation, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and other "deviant" activities, sent a shock wave through 1920s America. While Coming of Age in Samoa was later criticized for its overly romanticized view of island life, it presented a whole new framework of sexual possibility for its readers. Margaret Mead was herself a lesbian (as well as a Columbia graduate) and a strong advocate of women's rights.

      The Kinsey Report

  • Alfred Kinsey, 1854-1956, et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1949. Originally published 1948.

    Within two weeks of publication, this scientific study of male sexual activity in the U.S. had 185,000 copies in print, and was riding high on the New York Times bestseller list. Kinsey and his associates had interviewed over 5,000 mostly white men of al l social classes on their sexual lives, and even they were "totally unprepared" for the results. Kinsey found that the vast majority of men masturbated, that most had become sexually active by the age of 15, and that 95 per cent engaged in sexual practic es forbidden by many sodomy laws.

    It was his findings on homosexuality in men, however, that most amazed Kinsey and the American public: half the men he interviewed had experienced erotic attraction towards other men, 37% had acted on that attraction as adults, over 12% had extended same-sex orientation, and 4% were exclusively homosexual. Kinsey's 1953 study on female sexuality revealed that American women were also extremely sexually active inside and outside marriage, with men and with women. Perha ps the most extraordinary aspect of Kinsey's study was the objective, nonjudgmental tone with which his reports were written!!a far cry from much sexological research.

      Donald Webster Cory

  • Donald Webster Cory [Edward Sagarin]. The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach. New York: Greenberg, 1951.

    Publishing under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory, Sagarin designed his book as part sociological study of gay male life, part civil rights tract and part "spiritual autobiography." Openly gay within the book, he invoked W.E.B.DuBois' landmark study of black life in the U.S., The Souls of Black Folk, as a model for his own work, and proposed a civil rights approach to combat discrimination against lesbians and gay men.

    The Homosexual in America was based on the then (and perhaps even now) radical assertion that "homosexuality is perfectly natural...; the suppression of homosexuality is most unnatural for those who desire its fulfillment". He rejected the theory that homosexuality was "curable," and advised gay readers to accept and even enjoy their sexuality, however despised by others. Most remarkable about his text are Sagarin's insistence on an international gay heritage from the Greek hero Alexander to Walt Whitman to Nobel prizewinner Andre Gide, and his sympathetic, nonsensationalist portrayals of gay male sexuality and experience, particularly his descriptions of gay bars.

      Masters & Johnson

  • William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

    While Kinsey and his associates conducted in depth interviews with their subjects about the varieties of sexual experience, Masters and Johnson went one better. In laboratory conditions they observed human sexual interaction, recording the physiological processes of arousal and orgasm in both women and men. By removing sexual activity from sexual orientation, and discussing eroticism as just one kind of human function. Masters and Johnson set a new standard for thinking about sexuality.

    One of their most important findings was that female orgasms were only possible through clitoral stimulation. This was not to say that women's orgasms were impossible through vaginal intercourse, but that the orgasm was caused by pressure on the clitoris. Masters and Johnson's work was instrumental in breaking down what feminist theorist Anne Koedt has called the "myth of the vaginal orgasm," which caused many women to feel sexually inadequate in their inability to achieve orgasm during intercourse and also invalidated lesbian sexuality.

      Martin and Lyon

  • Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/Woman. Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1991. (Originally published San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1972.)

    Martin and Lyon, long-time lovers and founders of the 1950s lesbian organization the Daughters of Bilitis and publishers of The Ladder, one of the first lesbian magazines in the U.S. (Butler library has a substantial holding of The Ladder in the stacks), wrote Lesbian/Woman to educate people about the realities of lesbian lives. For the first time, the history of constant harassment and threat of arrest of gay men and lesbians themselves were chronicled by women involved in lesbian culture.

    Martin and Lyon's unapologetic stance was part of the burgeoning feminist and lesbian and gay liberation movements that had re-emerged in the 1960s. They insisted on equality on lesbian terms: "We Lesbians do not want your sympathy nor your pity; we want your love and your respect...; we want a society that will recognize and adjust to the diversity and humanness of all its citizens."

      Pat Califia

  • Pat Califia, b. 1954. Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality. 2nd ed. Tallahassee: Naiad Press, 1983. Originally published 1980.

    Unlike the few previous sex manuals written by lesbians (such as The Joy of Lesbian Sex), Sapphistry was revolutionary in its treatment of lesbian sexuality. Where many texts had assumed that women intuitively knew how to perform sexually with each othe r, Califia recognized that many women felt unsure of their erotic abilities or embarrassed by their desires, and emphasized communication and openness in sex. Completely unfazed by the variety of sexual fantasies and practices among women, Califia's atti tude throughout the book is an explicitly feminist combination of unabashed celebration and cool reportage of lesbian desire. Califia's agenda in writing Sapphistry was to challenge what she saw as the development of puritanical attitudes in many lesbian and feminist circles, and to foster what anthropologist Gayle Rubin has termed a "pro-sex" atmosphere for discussions of lesbian erotic practice.

    For the first time many lesbians--those with disabilities, women growing older, teenage lesbians,women whose sexual activities included sadomasochism, group sex or role playing--saw their sexuality discussed in a nonjudgmental, common sense way. Califi a included chapters on fantasy, masturbation, and specific sexual techniques, as well as on avoiding and treating sexually transmitted diseases.

Last revision: 2011-08-24