CHANGING OUR MINDS
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.
- 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,
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, 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
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
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
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, 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
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.