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  • An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality
  • Lenore Manderson
An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality. By John H. Gagnon. Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. 336. $65.00 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

An Interpretation of Desire offers an invaluable account of developments in the study of sexuality, sexual behavior, and society in the second half of the twentieth century through the work of one man. John Gagnon has perhaps contributed more than any other individual in taking sexual research from the margins to the center, and in doing so, from the vantage point of the social construction of sexuality, he has inspired a generation of scholars.

The volume is a collection of essays written between 1974 and 2000 by Gagnon alone, although, as he himself reflects, much of his work has been with colleagues. His work with William Simon includes their edited volume, Sexual Deviance: A Reader (1967), a product of their shared time at the Kinsey Institute in the 1960s and an unsurprising outcome of Gagnon's earliest work on sex offenders and survivors. Their 1973 book, Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality, introduced the idea of sexual scripting, which was to become central to the work of sociologists and other social scientists interested in interventions as HIV infection took hold. Gagnon's later collaboration with Ed Laumann and others, as a coresearcher and coauthor of The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (ed. E. O. Laumann, J. H. Gagnon, R. T. Michael, and S. Michaels, 1994) and its popular companion, Sex in America (ed. R. T. Michael, J. H. Gagnon, E. O. Laumann, and T. Smith, 1994), place him at the center of developments in sex research.

This volume is invaluable for many reasons. First, for those interested in life history, Gagnon's prologue, originally published in 1990, is a wonderfully witty account of his early life and aspirations, his failure to be admitted into medicine (a question of class), his default shift into arts, his consequent "sliding down the academic funnel toward a graduate degree in sociology" (and we present this to students as an uphill climb!), and his happy stint at the Kinsey Institute. Gagnon provides just one more example of the serendipity of academic vocation and success.

The substantive chapters are divided into two parts. The first is a collection of papers on scripts, sexual conduct, and sexual science, published between 1974 and 1991 and set against the work of Alfred Kinsey and the heritage of his research program for sexologists and others over the past half-century. Gagnon's research and writing about sex began during a period of dramatic political and social change, including the emergence of gay politics and, subsequently, queer theory and identity. Gagnon was a student when homosexuality was largely closeted; he conducted his earliest work when the Mattachine Foundation and Daughters of Bilitis were in their infancy. [End Page 495] His time at the Kinsey Institute was transformative; his essay on the role of Kinsey in mapping homosexuality and same-sex desire is fascinating for its critical gaze and the insight this writing provides of Gagnon's intellect. In reviewing Kinsey's representation of heterosexuality and homosexuality as occurring along a complex continuum (113–15) Gagnon offers some sharp and witty insights. While he allows for increasing fluidity with regard to gender preference and objects of desire, for instance, he notes the lack of enduring influence of Kinsey's theories; for example, "no one has ever experienced himself or herself as a jar filled with 50 percent heterosexual and 50 percent homosexual acts" (116). Kinsey's influence, as Gagnon assesses it, was not related to his science but in contributing to a discourse of sexuality that supported the social activism of gay and lesbian communities. Gagnon's influence in turn has been to sustain this intellectual environment, facilitating and legitimizing discourse about sexuality while also pursuing the science of sexuality.

Gagnon's collaborative and individual work on sexual scripts is a central contribution to our understanding of the...


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