Men's minds in women's bodies

Sexology in Culture - Sexology Uncensored
February 5, 1999

These texts provide a keen insight into the science of sexuality from its emergence in the late 19th century to the second world war. Sexology Uncensored provides extracts from key primary sources, while Sexology in Culture analyses the ramifications and influence of sexological writing. The texts can stand alone, but function much better in tandem. The reader gets a rich flavour of source material alongside incisive critical analysis; a productive combination for student, academic and general reader.

Sexology Uncensored is organised thematically into eight sections. Each is prefaced by a concise introduction with background information on the writers, texts and historical context. The editors do not try to provide exhaustive coverage but gather a range of writing from the mountain of sexological work. The result is usefully complicating, showing sexology as a field rife with internal contradictions.

The collection includes not just male sexologists such as Henry Havelock Ellis but also a number of female commentators. There are pieces by the novelist Olive Schreiner and the pioneer of birth control and sex advice, Marie Stopes.

Sexology Uncensored reveals the tension between theories of sexuality and individual experience. Miss B, one of Ellis's case studies in Sexual Inversion (1897), notes: "I thought that the ultimate explanation might be that there were men's minds in women's bodies, but I was more concerned in finding a way of life than in asking riddles without answers."

The limitations of Sexology Uncensored surface only when reading the companion text. The frequency with which the romantic socialist Edward Carpenter is discussed in Sexology in Culture makes the brief extract in Sexology Uncensored seem inadequate. Also, despite Darwin's importance to the field, there is no extract from his work.

The 13 chapters of Sexology in Culture are organised thematically but in loose chronological order, broadly indicating changing preoccupations over the period covered.

The collection considers sexology's intersection with other areas of debate. Carolyn Burdett examines the relations between eugenics and feminism, and Siobhan Somerville explores the ideologies of race underlying Ellis's work. A recurring theme of the collection is the diversity of sexological debate and its capacity to serve a range of ideological positions.

Other chapters give a strong sense of sexology's effect on individuals and of the complex legacy of these theories of sexuality. Joseph Bristow contributes a compelling account of the collaboration between Ellis and John Addington Symonds on Sexual Inversion . It shows how Symonds (a homosexual) found his implicit critique of sexology undermined and sidelined. Chris Waters observes the significance of sexological categorisations for many lesbians and homosexual men in the interwar years.

The collection is tightly edited and indexed, and the pieces provide a useful diversity in perspective and approach. Again, however, the main deficiency is of omission: there is, for example, no consideration of the dynamic between sexology and class.

Since the broad brush-strokes of Michel Foucault's groundbreaking History of Sexuality (1976), there has been a continuing project to provide a more nuanced account of the genesis of 20th-century understandings of sex and sexuality. Sexology Uncensored and Sexology in Culture engage critically with this project while also providing new material for a debate that will run and run.

Matt Cook teaches English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and is administrative editor, History Workshop Journal.

Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires

Editor - Lucy Bland and Laura Doan
ISBN - 0 7456 1982 7and 1983 5
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 240

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