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  • An American Obsession: Science, Medicine and Homosexuality in Modern Society
  • Kevin White
An American Obsession: Science, Medicine and Homosexuality in Modern Society. By Jennifer Terry (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xiv plus 537pp.).

Jennifer Terry’s ‘ An American Obsession is a work of breathtaking scholarship and gravitas. For four hundred tightly-argued pages she expounds on a very important subject: how scientists and doctors have in the last hundred and thirty years shaped discourse on homosexuality. Yet although her core argument is interesting, her research impeccable, her theoretical sophistication state-of-the art this is a work which most readers of this journal, and certainly rigorous “annalistes” everywhere should view with alarm.

Predictably, Terry situates her work firmly in the ideas of sex/love philosopher/guru Michel Foucault. She argues for the centrality of discourses about homosexuality in defining what is “normal” and “abnormal” in American society. She cites Foucault’s adage that “where there is power, there is resistance” and that discourses on homosexuality make for “a starting point for an opposing strategy”, (pp 16–17) and hence were particularly important. She notes that Foucault’s medical model has been misused by scholars who have placed excessive stress on the role of doctors and scientists in defining sexuality. She, of course, is not guilty of this. She rejects the idea that doctors and scientists stimulated a “reverse discourse” from homosexuals. On the contrary, many of the scientists and doctors were themselves homosexual. Many homosexuals, far from launching a “reverse discourse” “beseeched (doctors) for help and support in protecting them from hostile police harassment and fierce social prejudice.” (p18). Terry, interestingly, insists that “the scientific and medical construction of homosexuality was and is a collaborative process involving sexual dissenters who appraised science and medicine as enlightened, unbiased, and potentially benevolent avenues for producing knowledge about homosexuality” (p18).

But, says Terry, those homosexuals who sought the help of science and medicine got “the short end of the stick” (p18). And this, in a nutshell, is the real theme of her book. For Terry’s work is a tale of dualisms and binaries and dichotomies galore, that is of goodies and baddies. For, while this book is an undoubted tour de force that interprets and synthesises a wide range of material on the medicalisation of homosexuality, Terry never takes her eye off her political agenda, thus seriously weakening the work’s worth.

To be sure, the story that Terry tells us is a pretty gruesome one. She begins by discussing science classification in the mid 19th century before moving to the early medicalisation of homosexuality and then on to discuss the Progressives’ anxieties about homosexuality as a possible focus for disorder. From the 1920’s, social surveys revealed the wide prevalence of homosexuality and hence ensured [End Page 487] that such practices were seen very widely as threatening. Terry is particularly good on George Henry’s late 1930s study of “sex variants” in NYC. She then proceeds to analyse Alfred Kinsey’s celebrated surveys which she sees as representing in the context of the Cold War the acme of a debate about “objective statistical methods versus subjective psychiatric case studies”. Kinsey, the sexual liberationist, of course is on the side of the angels. She then develops in greater detail the “postwar paranoia” about homosexuality before discussing the rise of a gay and lesbian movement and a concomitant medical commentary that, particularly in its insistence on the existence of a gay gene, recalls earlier simplistic, essentialist classifications of the homosexual.

Much of this material is inevitably, familiar, but it has rarely been placed together. It is not, however, over-ambition that causes Terry to come unstuck but rather her openly presentist view of historical method which she proudly and pompously displays in her introduction. While she does indicate her debt to Foucault’s concept of “effective history” her major historiographical influence is Nietzsche no less! She insists that he “decried what he called monumental, antiquarian and critical approaches to history, for each dealt on that past in a manner that distanced the past from the present” (p 25). For Terry’s view of history is firmly presentist, or...

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pp. 487-490
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