- Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research
Despite its coy and inaccurate title, Science in the Bedroom is an important contribution to the history of modern medicine and science. Vern L. Bullough is well known for many important contributions to the history of sexual behavior and values, and this history of sex research provides a summary of his long engagement with those who have made contributions to our understanding of human sexuality. Bullough identifies strongly with the “sexologists” who have struggled since the nineteenth century with the “sex-negative culture” of Western Christianity (p. 3), and he gives careful attention to the major figures—from the nineteenth-century German physicians who invented the vocabulary for discussing same-sex love, to the contemporary pioneers of cross-gender behavior studies. Scholars who need succinct descriptions of the work of the key figures in the development of sex research will find this book both a useful introduction and a guide to further study.
Bullough weaves many themes into his long narrative, including the pioneering role but gradual eclipse of practicing physicians, as sex research found institutional niches in modern universities; the contributions of homosexuals and feminists, who turned to science for perspective on their personal searches for fulfillment; and the relationship between funders of research and the scientists who sought to provide solutions to “problems” ranging from the masturbatory habits of adolescents to the need for a birth control pill. Sex researchers have sometimes received generous support from foundations and the federal government, but funds have quickly been withdrawn in the face of political [End Page 164] controversy, and Bullough believes that the future of the field is still threatened by social fundamentalists hostile to the interdisciplinary and humanistic enterprise of sexology.
Bullough provides descriptions and evaluations of hundreds of specific studies, but he does not have much interest in the kind of sociology of knowledge developed by such historians of science as Robert E. Kohler. Rather, his story is a positivist chronicle of the struggle for progress against ignorance and fear. He sometimes seems unfairly to discount the reservations of scientists or their sponsors about the quality or feasibility of particular projects. For example, he finds fault with the National Research Council’s Committee for Research in Problems of Sex for investing most of its resources in the animal research that laid the foundation for modern endocrinology during the 1930s, rather than supporting studies of human behavior—despite the fact that the committee seems to have bet its resources on the best scientists available, given the state of knowledge at the time. For a contrasting view of the evolution of sexual values in the United States, I recommend Peter Gardella’s Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure (1985).