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  • American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports
  • Lisa Z. Sigel
American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports. By Miriam G. Reumann ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. 305pp.).

Miriam Reumann's American Sexual Character is a welcome addition the history of sexuality. Like many recent books on the history of sexuality, American Sexual Character examines discourse rather than behavior. While many such books look at a rather broad period to get at changes in beliefs, this volume restricts the scope of its analysis to a roughly fifteen year period from the end of World War Two until 1960. In doing so, Reumman focuses intently on how the post-war world viewed men, woman, sexual normativity, and sexual deviants.

Rather than exploring the Kinsey Reports as the title implies, Reumann uses the Kinsey Reports as a starting point to assess debates about sexuality in the post-war world. She argues that America, battered first by WWII and then the Cold War, experienced the Kinsey Report as a document that pin-pointed a current crisis in society. In locating the crisis, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (the first volume published) forced the nation to reassess sexuality—its meanings, its incidence, and its importance. She argues that the Kinsey Reports (both male and female) mattered to American because sexuality had become fundamental to national identity and national character. [End Page 491]

Reumann demonstrates that the Kinsey Reports re-shaped American sexual consciousness by bringing new terms and ideas into the public debate. Once Kinsey raised these issues, other authors entered the fray, making debates about sexuality and gender a national pasttime. As Reumann makes clear, the problem of the Kinsey Reports was a public one about the nature of the "national character" as much as a private one about what people did with their bodies. That between 10 and 80 per cent of American men had engaged in some form of homosexuality (depending on how one defined homosexuality from a mere thought to the single incident to the occasional behavior to the lifetime commitment) raised issues about American masculinity overall. Commentators viewed Kinsey's statistics as speaking to the failings of American society rather than just problems with sexual desire. In other words, the issues that the Kinsey Reports raised had a great deal to do with gender roles, public life, national culture, family fissures, and the shifting economy and only something to do with the individual man. However, once discussed and debated in the public realm, the new loading of cultural meanings onto sexual problems no doubt affected the individual man even as he faced issues such as homosexuality, impotence, or sexual brutality in private. Thus, while Reumann's analysis stays at the realm of discourse, she makes it easy to see how these public debates could affect the individual at the level of meaning and behavior.

As many commentators have argued, the passion that Americans exhibited for the Kinsey Reports despite the dense statistics and rather terse prose demonstrates the enormous and unmet appetitive for sexual information. Reumann shows that once opened by Kinsey, discussions proliferated among critics and commentators in the post-war world, but most of these writers considered gender and sexuality—few spoke about sex acts. Despite this, she posits that the outpouring of information finally met the need. By the time that Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion, Kinsey's third volume, appeared in 1958, interest in his work plummeted. According to Reumann, sexual knowledge abounded and Kinsey's dry statistics had little to offer in comparison. Thus, Reumann argues that the sexual revolution began in the 1940s with sexual discourse rather than in the 1960s and 19760s with sexual bodies.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Reumann's work is the way she provides a history for current debates about sexual issues like birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and same sex marriage. While many see the current conservative positions emerging out of new right-wing formulations developed during the 1980s, Reumann provides a direct line from the cold-war world. She demonstrates that the conservative position based in "family values" and intent on controlling sexual information...


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pp. 491-493
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