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The joy of history

Linda Grant on an analysis of sex research that confirms that science and ideology are close bedfellows SCIENCE IN THE BEDROOM: A HISTORY OF SEX RESEARCH Vern L Bullough Basic Books £16.99
The picture of Vern L Bullough on the back of his book, Science in the Bedroom, depicts a grey-haired man in his sixties, his tie knotted closely about his neck. For all the world he resembles an associate of Newt Gingrich, an elder Republican statesman in the Senate or House. Like William Masters, of the Masters and Johnson pairing, Bullough acted on advice from his elders and betters which warned that he should not embark on sexual research until he had established himself in another field and gained tenure.

Bullough's present work, this volume, shows that thinking about sex is most safely done on the moral and scientific high ground. But his attempt to provide a history of the discipline, if that is what it is, reveals - through his accounts of the work of others and his own prejudices - that science and ideology are never far apart when it comes to investigating the sexual practices of human beings.

Sheer ignorance characterises most of human history. It was not until as late as the Thirties that chromosomes were discovered, and it is breathtaking to consider what Shakespeare and Milton did not know about reproduction - that the flowers on plants were sexual organs or about the existence of sperm, which even in the 19th century was thought by some to be parasites in the seminal fluid.

Until the 20th century sexual research largely consisted of looking through microscopes and discovering what was there in the hope that biological explanations could be found for sexual behaviour. Much of what passed into puritan morality resulted from erroneous scientific theories such as the belief that physical bodies were continually suffering waste which was the cause of death. Since masturbation represented waste for no useful procreative end, its morbidity seemed self- evident.

Bullough argues, convincingly, that the history of sex research from the latter part of the last century onwards has been one in which those who practise various forms of forbidden sex have sought to explain and rationalise their desires. The earliest, like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, supposed to be the modern world's first self-proclaimed homosexual, were inevitably proselytizers for theories which would normalize their sexual preferences in the eyes of the world. The effect, however, was far more wide-reaching, for in attempting to explain themselves, they threw considerable light on desire in general.

Recently, a number of American graduates, including the First Lady, found, to their embarrassment, that photographs of themselves undressed had been kept in an archive. It was their misfortune to have begun their studies at a time when sex research was drawing on a captive pool of healthy, middle-class young men and women in order to give an aura of respectability to that then notorious subject. This middle period, with which perhaps Bullough feels most comfortable, was the time of Kinsey and of Masters and Johnson. Sex research was considered an exclusively European phenomenon until America quantified it, drawing on thousands of interviews which culminated in the famous 1951 Kinsey report. According to Bullough, this did much to pave the way for the sexual revolution by bringing the personal lives of Americans out into the open. Isolated gay men realised that they were not alone. Women discovered that they could have orgasms.

Since the Seventies, the emphasis has been almost exclusively on "deviant" behaviour such as cross-dressing and fetishism. Gender studies has sought to analyse these aspects of sexuality as the product of social conditioning as much as physiology. Perhaps these developments have been too complicated for those who discovered Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex in mid life. Bullough writes that "large segments of the interested public found it difficult to distinguish between legitimate research and wishful thinking." In fact his book demonstrates that much of what goes on in this field falls into the latter category. Recent gender studies theorists such as Marjorie Garber hope that cross-dressing, by undermining gender distinction, is so subversive that it will somehow manage to undermine civilisation as we now know it. A similar hope was expressed for gay promiscuity in the late Seventies, but it did not turn out that way.

At the end of Bullough's thorough but not specially lively or readable account, one wonders if the study of human sexuality could or should be a discipline in its own right? At present, it is shared by sociologists, feminists, gynaecologists, statisticians and historians. Each speciality brings to bear its own discourse, its own cultural models. At any given moment one or the other is in the ascendancy. We think about sex through their eyes. Genetics represents the next great breakthrough, which might establish that there are specific genes for particular sexual urges. What will the gender theorists do then?