Biology is a boo word

Experiments in Knowing - Making Sexual History

September 8, 2000

Lots of people are fascinated by sex but do not get to spend the best part of 30 years studying the subject. Jeffrey Weeks did. Homosexuality rather than sex in general has been Weeks's abiding passion. Making Sexual History gathers together a dozen essays he has written during his career. They are categorised into three types: those concerned with writers, those with histories of homosexuality and those attempting to make homosexuality more socially acceptable. All are elegantly written, and Weeks's own biographical experiences are interwoven with academic material. It is made clear throughout that his personal commitment shapes his academic studies.

Weeks has been around for a very long time, and he makes this clear with the aside that he was making a contribution well before Michel Foucault, who is regarded by many as the canonical figure in sex studies. I am happy to accept this, but unfortunately this volume expresses a post-Foucault orthodoxy. This has it that all talk of nature is at best an obfuscation when it comes to human sexuality, and at worst reactionary and intolerant of diversity. His key word is "constructivism", something set against "fundamentalism". The first term proclaims that everything is a matter of social fabrication, so much so that sexuality is entirely a matter of choice and hence sexual preferences are mere matters of selecting from varied options, each of which is of equal worth. Such a premise informs the whole of the book, and it endows the work with a characteristic enthusiasm for those who agitate for innovation in sex and refuse attempts to limit behaviour. Fundamentalism, on the contrary, is a bad thing because it suggests that there may be limits to the variety of sexual behaviour. Weeks flays those who slip in to talking about sex as if it was shaped by biological impulses. Even heroes of sexual liberation, such as Havelock Ellis, get bashed about for this folly because to do so suggests constraints on choice, and Weeks, committed from the outset to gay liberation, sees such talk as reactionary and threatening to stigmatise and harass homosexuals.

Weeks articulates a currently fashionable nostrum that everything is socially constructed. On these terms, sociology is the most imperialist of all disciplines, because nothing is beyond its explanatory reach and no explanation is adequate unless it accepts that things are socially created.When it comes to sexual behaviour, many people retain serious doubts about this. The majority disposition towards heterosexuality is thought by such to require a universal (even a fundamental) explanation. Some even think that genetics might have something to offer the analyst. It is a pity that Making Sexual History makes no mention of biology other than to dismiss it as a boo word.

Weeks's over-intrusive value position, which leads to predictability and a lack of critical edge, contrasts vividly with Ann Oakley's Experiments in Knowing . Oakley has long been one of Britain's leading feminist sociologists as well as a popular novelist, who writes with feeling, imagination and insight. From Sex, Gender and Society (1972) to the compelling Taking It Like a Woman (1984) Oakley has made no secret of her personal motivation in academic research.

Oakley may have been driven by her feminist convictions, but something has happened over the past two decades. Increasingly, she has become impatient with talk of a feminist methodology that vilifies quantitative approaches and lays special claim to qualitative methods (interviews, observation and the like) as in some way particularly feminine. Oakley has as little time for this oppositional dualism as she does for facile dismissals of those who strive to marshal empirical evidence as "positivists". She rejects any idea that there are intrinsic gender characteristics of methods.

Experiments in Knowing is motivated by antipathy towards today's postmodern rejection of empirical sociology on grounds that everything is a matter of "discourse". Oakley insists on an old-fashioned ideal of social science, to capture reality as best one can in ways that eliminate distortion, are systematic and transparent. She does so because she feels such knowledge is essential to people, perhaps women especially, to help make informed decisions about their lives.

To this end Oakley makes a detailed case for the primacy of randomised controlled trials in allowing reliable evidence to be gathered. Oakley remains a feminist, but she wants evidence rather than assertion to be foregrounded. In pursuit of this ideal she endeavours to rescue quantitative research from those who reject it as a male preserve. She also demonstrates considerable sympathy for evidence-based social policy and conscious efforts to evaluate the effects of government initiatives using social science, not least approaches pioneered in the United States. This is not what one would have anticipated from Oakley a decade ago, but such unpredictability is refreshing, as is her lengthy and scholarly reassessment of the history of social-science methods. Oakley rescues neglected figures such as Franklin Giddings, Ronald Fisher and Beatrice Webb.

Already there are those who refer to the "old" and "new" Oakley, the preference of most of her feminist colleagues being the former. I prefer the Oakley who remains impelled by the search for justice between the sexes, but is unwilling to ignore poor social science and eager to move on to better research.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

Experiments in Knowing

Author - Ann Oakley
ISBN - 0 7456 2256 9 and 2257 7
Publisher - Polity
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 402

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