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  • At the Dawn of the Sexual Revolution: Reflections on a Dialogue
  • Carolyn Herbst Lewis
At the Dawn of the Sexual Revolution: Reflections on a Dialogue. By Ira L. Reiss and Albert Ellis. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 212. $29.95 (paper).

There is something deliciously satisfying about reading other people's mail, and when the subject is sex, the trespass is even more thrilling. In At the Dawn of the Sexual Revolution: Reflections on a Dialogue, renowned sex researchers Ira L. Reiss and Albert Ellis offer readers an "unadulterated" glimpse into a decade's worth of their professional and personal correspondence. Each man was—and continues to be—highly productive in his own discipline. Reiss, a sociologist and now a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, made his reputation studying sexual standards and premarital sexual behavior in the United States. Reiss's most recent work has included studies on the effects of HIV/AIDS on American sexual behavior and a cross-cultural comparison of sexual standards around the world. In addition to numerous publications on sexuality, psychologist Albert Ellis is perhaps most widely known for his development of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). The Institute for Rational Living, founded in 1959 to teach the principles of REBT, was later renamed in his honor. Reiss and Ellis were both founding members of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex (now the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality) and played key roles in the development of American sexology.

Although they never produced a collaborative study, the two exchanged over sixty letters between 1956 and 1967. Topics range from the professional to the personal: collegial critiques of each other's work and passionate debates over the merits of sex without love to heartfelt congratulations over the birth of Reiss's first child and a friendly report on the success of Ellis's date with Reiss's sister. Unfortunately, many of the letters by Reiss to Ellis were not preserved, which makes for slightly lopsided reading; and short notes confirming dinner plans tend to interrupt the flow of the dialogue. Nevertheless, the letters contained in this volume demonstrate not only the growth of an important personal and professional relationship but also how Reiss and Ellis repeatedly challenged one another's beliefs regarding human sexuality and thereby shaped each other's work.

The letters included in the volume are divided chronologically into four sections that trace the development of the authors' thinking on various topics. This is particularly clear in the first section, entitled "Abstinence Is Dethroned, but What about Casual Sex?" in which the correspondence between the two men begins when Reiss asks Ellis "why he seemed to make less of a distinction than I did between what I called 'body-centered sexuality' and 'person-centered sexuality'" (1). Whereas Reiss continued to maintain that sex with love, or "person-centered sexuality," was preferable to and healthier than sex without love, or "body-centered sexuality," Ellis wished to refrain from all such value judgments. The debate that follows shows Ellis and Reiss working through their differences, finding a common ground, [End Page 122] and challenging each other to examine their own moral assumptions. For example, in one of his early letters, Ellis informs Reiss that while he agrees with him in theory, in practice he found Reiss's views "somewhat unrealistic" (21). But by the end of the exchange, Reiss and Ellis concurred that they were "in better agreement than when we started" (44) and chalked up their differences to their respective disciplines—Reiss, as a sociologist, was inclined to focus on social trends, while Ellis, a psychologist, preferred to consider the impact on the individual. In the following three chapters, the authors engage in similar debates regarding ethics and religiosity or science and morality, discuss the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex and the founding of Ellis's Institute for Rational Living, and compare notes on the trials and tribulations of getting published.

The book's tidy structure—two short prefaces, four chapters, two closing self-assessments, and two minibiographies—belies the informal feel of the collection. The tone of the editorial material remains consistently...


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