Miriam G. Reumann
University of California Press, 2005

Reviewed by Joy Scott

As the title of her book suggests, Miriam Reumann explores the development of sexual character specific to the United States in the post WWII era of the late 40s through the 50s. Presenting a comprehensive and clear interpretation of the well-known Kinsey reports as a primary source of information about American sexual behavior and the ways in which this information was used, she maps its influence on our national identity.

A massive undertaking by Indiana University zoologist Alfred Kinsey and his team, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published five years later, were instant best sellers. Collectively referred to as the Kinsey reports, these tomes represented the results of more than five thousand interviews (for each volume) across the country. No surveys on sexual behavior have before or since covered such breadth and depth of the topic.

Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male brought practices to light that had been going on “back stage” for some time, a critical finding that was largely ignored in favor of the popular explanation of postwar effect (24). Findings about sexual practices, such as “less than half of all male orgasms stemmed from marital intercourse,” (74) became points in the widely argued stance that America was being feminized. Discussions dwelt on “American sexuality as a sign of cultural disintegration and political weakness” (9) and authorities bemoaned the passing of “traditional masculine vigor and aggression” (55) as women gained more roles outside the domestic sphere. Conversely, Kinsey was also lauded for bringing sexual behavior into the open and offering more information on which the public could debate what normal means.

When Sexual Behavior in the Human Female came out in 1953, the mainstream literature prior to this publication had already addressed two primary, yet divergent female archetypes. One archetypal behavior was more traditionally-minded, “based on maternal instinct” (89) and “portrayed as [sexually] passive” (87), while the other carried something of a cultural stigma for portraying women as having “rapacious and socially destructive” (87) sexual desires. What was hard for the American public to swallow was Kinsey’s findings that only two or three percent of the females in his sample complied with the strict, idolized first stereotype (125). Therefore, while indignant banter continued over the welfare of national morals from Kinsey’s previous report on males, considerable discussion also revolved around the honesty and believability of the study’s female informants. Eventually, however, mainstream America’s stereotype had to make room for a concept of a female population with much the same desires and sexual variance as males.

Reumann devotes an entire chapter to the national response to the issue of homosexuality. A hitherto closeted subject, Americans were not prepared to accept the large number of instances reported. Kinsey’s surveys, which suggested that “as many as half of all men and nearly a quarter of all women [who] could be classified as homosexual on the basis of behavior or fantasy” (169), proved to be a double-edged sword. While this scientific report gave permission, so to speak, to discuss the topic, it simultaneously provided both “ammunition for witch hunts” (201) and rhetorical fodder to the development of the gay/lesbian rights movements (ibid.).

The most striking component of Reumann’s book is the extent of the public discussion the Kinsey reports generated. She brings to her work some 25 pages of references, including cartoons, magazines, governmental debates, print and screen fiction, additional survey studies, and scholarly essays from such notables as Margaret Mead, Toni Morrison and Michel Foucault.

Reumann remains steadfastly neutral in presenting the information, never voicing her own opinion in recounting those who applauded or scorned the reports. While she focuses on the post WWII era, she also provides a useful and interesting recap of lingering effects of the reports up through the new millennium. Additionally, each chapter piques the reader’s curiosity and opinions – all worth unpacking as class discussions. As such, it could be a constructive educational text.

Thorough as it is, American Sexual Character is not a stand-alone work. The reader who in uninitiated to the Kinsey reports can’t help but crave more particulars about the reports themselves. While this kind of information is secondary to Reumann’s stated objective of exploring the development of the three terms in her book title – American, sexual, and character – it would add a contextual grounding for following the discourse in the book. However, this is a minor point in an otherwise enlightening work.

Joy Scott is an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. candidate at Washington State University, and combines anthropology, communication and psychology to explore gender identity as it relates to work/life imbalance, including “glass ceiling” issues.

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