An Insider's View of Sexual Science since Kinsey. By Ira L. Reiss. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006, 237 pages. Softcover $27.95.
It is rare that any scientist explores and reviews his life's work. In a highly personal and easily readable conversational tone, deservedly well-respected sociologist Ira Reiss from the University of Minnesota does just that. For the budding scientist as for the casual reader, this review of thinking and actions over a professional career provides insight into aspects of the developing field of sexology as they appeared to this involved critical observer. Of particular value for the sociologically minded is how assumptions are challenged and proof is demanded of otherwise unquestioned beliefs, to strengthen theory formation. Using not only memory recall but also regular journal entries, names, and dates, the author offers incidents that flush out those early years that brought sociology to join other disciplines such as medicine, biology, psychology, and public health in forming and enhancing the field we today recognize as sexology. Reiss explores all this and adds a good touch of ethical, philosophical, and political considerations that, in themselves, are a lasting contribution.
This book covers the period extending essentially from the end of World War II to the present. The incidents and issues discussed resonate with this reviewer since I, while a decade younger than Reiss, essentially experienced many of the same personal forces and professional issues and challenges. This I know because Reiss begins his book with the chapter, "Know Your Author." I can, thus, in many ways compare my own "insider's view" to his, and judge how we agree or differ. Others of about our age (seventies and eighties) probably can do the same, regardless of being professional sexologists. Younger readers and those with any other professional association can do likewise, considering their own experiences as background, given that all fields of study and investigators have to deal with many of the same issues covered in the book.
In his introductory chapter Reiss describes how incidents and factors of his life impinged on his views and on the approaches that might have modified, biased, or influenced his work. In doing so, he reflects for others how this might influence a life's perspective and approach to data and purported evidence. Scientists of all disciplines would be wise to similarly explore how their life experiences and global and sectarian views might color their work. The chapter sets the stage for understanding and evaluating all the writing that follows.
Various items from the book are worthy of particular comment. Perhaps one of the most significant is Reiss' repeated search for meaningful efforts to extract workable and testable theories and explanations of sexual behaviors. Much of the early sociological research could be characterized as heavily descriptive and searching, but lacking in awareness of what was most important to know or why. Reiss counts the early Kinsey reports in this category. While he credits them with providing a monumental body of work comparing one group with another, and certainly exploring areas never delved before, he criticizes Kinsey for providing little insight into why the differences existed or even discussing why some phenomena were worth probing and others, not.
Kinsey (and his collaborators Gebhard, Pomeroy, and Martin) without stating so, however, did consider it important to distinguish sociological parameters of sexuality. This is obvious in their categorizing sexual behaviors into premarital, marital, and extramarital and recording activities for different religions, educational levels, and economic classes. Reiss himself explored such different classifications when he studied sexual experiences and how they might be related to different types of relationships. In this regard, toward understanding one of the areas for which he is best known, Reiss wrote,
"My study of premarital sexual permissiveness had to be an exploratory study because there was no developed theory upon which I could build. I designed my questionnaire to cover the five broad areas of social life that I felt might be influencing changes in the acceptable level of premarital sexuality. The five areas I explored were as follows: (1) general background factors like social class, religion, gender, and so on; (2) dating experiences and love concepts of the respondents; (3) sexual experience and guilt reactions; (4) perceived sexual permissiveness of one's parents, peers, and close friends; and (5) family characteristics, such as age of children, being divorced, and so on (p. 70)."
To Reiss' credit, he was among the first to stress the importance of emphasizing the development of sociological investigation and theory to go along with description.
Simultaneously, I must say I believe there also is merit in providing accurate data without theory, so topics are unfettered by preconceived notions of why and how. Kinsey himself was proud of his attempts to describe and neither prescribe or proscribe. Different investigators, without prejudice, can then mine objective data and the factors that might be associated with them. In this vein, for instance, Reiss' ideas on premarital sexual permissiveness can resonate against the current conservative administration's lean toward abstinence-only and abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Reiss's theory would predict that those couples who are most committed to each other also would be the most permissive and thus the more likely to engage in sexual activities prior to marriage. For these students, the abstinence strategy is least likely to work.
Various features of the book's presentation, while impinging upon many aspects of sex research, will interest readers regardless of their professional focus. One such delightful aspect of the book revolves around the many personal stories and encounters the author relates having had with different luminaries. Many of these individuals, associated with the development of sexology as a field, have been in the public eye and have influenced many aspects of medicine and society. Some include Mary Calderone, Eli Coleman, Albert Ellis, Richard Green, Ed Laumann, Harold Lief, and John Money. And there are tales involving the well-known duos of Vern and Bonny Bullough, Bill Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, and Bill Simon and John Gagnon.
I do have one nit-pick with the author—and yes, we have discussed this in person. Throughout the book, Reiss uses the expression sexual science and avoids sexology as a title for this discipline we study. I think this is a remnant of his experiences with the American life described in the book's chapter entitled "The Antisex Bias of the 50s." During the 1940s and 1950s, anything related to the topic of sex was considered suspect and to be ashamed of or hidden. These are the years in which the author developed and emerged as a professional. And that antisex attitude of others still haunts him. Indeed, in those years, any scientific study of sex was suspect and discredited. Think of the overwhelming negative response given to the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953. A discipline of sexology (or even courses on the subject, such as those in sociology, biology, or psychology) would not have been seen on any campus at that time, and it remains rare. It was not until the 1960s that fields like psychology and sociology began to explore aspects of sexuality in any depth. Biology and medicine, with the emerging fields of endocrinology and animal behavior, are to be credited with breaking down most of the earliest barriers to sex research.
As expected of scientists in all disciplines, I believe we have to respect the work we explore and its academic, social, and public relevance. Calling something science is not going to add respect but good perspective, and, yes, good theory, will. And perspective and theory will come only from good and important work. Such efforts will sustain, enhance, and perpetuate the discipline of sexology. Reiss's book should be helpful in this regard. Despite our differences as to what to call our field, the more important point is that Reiss's book is a valuable and important contribution to the promotion of a scientific study of sexuality.