Gentlemen’s Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men, by Peter Hegarty

Donna Drucker on the relationship between intelligence and sex

October 3, 2013

Peter Hegarty focuses on a relatively obscure disagreement between two prominent mid 20th-century US scientists in order to show how two trajectories of normalisation competed in the human sciences. Gentlemen’s Disagreement has two key objectives: first, to show that academic analyses of intelligence and sexual behaviour, as represented by the major works of the psychologist Lewis Terman and the biologist Alfred Kinsey, have co-constructed each other throughout the 20th century. Second, it aims to illustrate the workings of “the intersecting methods of normalization” in the human sciences – Queteletian, in which most individuals are grouped around a central norm, and Galtonian, in which select individuals embody an ideal type. As Hegarty writes about the significance of Terman’s and Kinsey’s disagreement, “These forgotten small points between these two men provide pivotal vantage points from which components of much larger androcentric discourses linking sexuality and the intellect might be glimpsed.” Those two objectives do not always overlap, producing an intriguing but uneven final product.

Directed at an academic audience already familiar with postmodern scholars, this book’s arguments would be difficult to follow without previous knowledge of them. The writings of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Steven Shapin, Judith Butler and Bruno Latour all play into its argument and structure. Moreover, its two objectives in turn suggest two separate but overlapping audiences: those interested in the intellectual history of the human sciences more generally, and those interested more specifically in how that history sheds light on present-day problems in psychology. It may have had greater coherence if Hegarty had chosen one or the other audience.

At the heart of the story is a review article that Terman wrote about Kinsey’s landmark 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male soon after its publication, and Gentlemen’s Disagreement is at its best in uncovering how the spoken and unspoken criticisms that Kinsey and Terman lobbed at each other shaped their work. Kinsey derided such unclear categories as “happiness” and “masculinity” in Terman’s 1938 work Psychological Factors in Marital Happiness and his co-authored 1936 study Sex and Personality; in his own work, he deployed instead a 0–6 (heterosexuality–homosexuality) scale and other quantitative measures that he considered more scientifically robust. Although Terman disagreed with Kinsey’s contentions relating male sexual physiology to social class, he remained silent on the large amount of same-sex behaviour that Kinsey found; he had, after all, discovered a fair share of queerness in his own studies. Scholars often over-read the meanings of silences in historical records, but Hegarty demonstrates how to read them without overreaching.

Hegarty’s larger goal, though, is to critique the epistemological structures of psychology, and to suggest ways that discourses of normalisation and specialness might help, rather than harm, psychological subjects. He uses the work of postmodern scholars to “trouble” categorisations of sexual behaviour and intelligence and of academic knowledge-making in general, to reveal problematic flaws in psychological thinking about intelligence and queerness. However, his critiques of cognitive dissonance theory – which developed after Kinsey’s and Terman’s deaths – and Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1937) – which relates only loosely to their work – take readers in tangential directions. Furthermore, his suggestion that ideals of gentlemanly conduct shaped Kinsey’s and Terman’s disagreement, and by extension the mid-20th-century human sciences, could have been developed in more depth.

Gentlemen’s Disagreement concludes on a rather gloomy note, arguing that the patterns of categorisation used in human sciences, and frontier narratives in general, misused as they have been in the past, should not be used to predict the future. I cannot predict the future either, but Hegarty’s work may inspire more careful considerations of the ways scientists think about sexuality and intelligence.

Gentlemen’s Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men

By Peter Hegarty
University of Chicago Press, 240pp, £52.50 and £17.50
ISBN 9780226024448 and 24585
Published 12 August 2013

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