HE VOLUME of recent literature now appearing on sexual roles, preferences and behavior suggests an insatiable hunger to understand ourselves as sexual beings. The most exciting of these new books revive the "nature versus nurture" debate, and suggest that genetics do account for important differences in human behavior.
Over the last generation, the study of sex roles--male and female, homosexual and heterosexual--has often rejected hereditary explanations because such reasoning did not suit the goals of the analysts. Feminists focused their critiques on the patriarchal organization of society and its economic and political strictures on women's fulfillment. Acknowledging any nonreproductive genetic differences with men might imply the acceptance of social discrimination, they felt. Similarly, homosexuals and society at large have discounted genetic explanations for differences in sexual preference. Homosexuals have feared being stigmatized yet again--this time for being genetically inferior. And society has been unwilling to give up its efforts to "reform" homosexuals or its attempts to avoid homosexuality through better parenting.
With the publication of Sexual Preference by Alan P. Bell, Martin S. Weinberg and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith, much of this thinking may have to be revised. The book is a compilation of 1,500 interviews (two-thirds of them with homosexuals) conducted in 1969 and 1970 by researchers from the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. The goal of this ambitious effort was to explain how people become either heterosexual or homosexual.
Traditional psychoanalytical theory often attributes male homosexuality to domineering mothers, while female homosexuality is frequently traced to a poor mother/daughter relationship. Moreover, adolescent homosexual encounters are often thought to set a pattern for later life.
This new Kinsey study, however, finds that there is little or no evidence to support these theories. Rather, the authors suggest that adult sexual preference is the continuation of deeply ingrained patterns of behavior that are part of a person's "core identity." While falling short of saying homosexuality is hereditary, they conclude that their "findings are not inconsistent with what one would expect to find if, indeed, there were a biological basis for sexual preference."
The authors' conclusions have controversial implications. They contradict Alfred Kinsey's original research and call in question Masters' and Johnson's belief that homosexuality is entirely a learned response. While this question can only be resolved through further research, scientists' findings of hormonal and blood chemistry differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals support the conclusions of Sexual Preference.
If being homosexual is biologically determined just as having red hair or freckles is, society is faced with sobering moral dilemmas. Will parents be tempted to monitor each fetus and then opt for an abortion if genetic signs point toward later homosexuality? Will medical science be asked to develop means of depressing biological predispositions to homosexuality--methods that could make current behavioral reform efforts seem tame by comparison?
Unfortunately, these issues are inadequately dealt with in Sexual Preference. Moreover, the book's academic style makes it unsuitable for the average reader. Yet these shortcomings in no way diminish the work's significance. It is a groundbreaking effort that may ultimately redefine much of our understanding of human sexuality.
Gender, by James C. Neely, is a broader literary, philosophical, and scientific look at our growing understanding of the differences between men and women. The author points out that male (XY) chromosone pairing probably makes men more susceptible to disease than women. Similarly, while women's verbal and spatial abilities are located on both sides of their brains, men's left-or right-sided cerebral dominance makes them vulnerable to head trauma. All this leads Neely to conclude that there is a "certain inherent vital firmness and superiority in the female and a certain brittleness and vulnerability in the male."
Neely's insightful treatment of male/female issues is marred, however, by an inappropriate and distracting juxtaposition of personal anecdotes and observations with scientific explanations. The result, is an unfortunate jumble, albeit well-written.
Two other recent works on human sexuality, Sex: The Facts, The Acts & Your Feelings and The Cosmo Report, are written more for the popular audience and are less ambitious in their approach. Sex, by prominent sex educator Michael Carrera, presents an integrated view of sexuality not limited to genital expression but including how people feel about their sexual identity and the cultural and religious factors that condition their relationships with other people.
The book is organized encyclopedia-style into sections ranging from the steps of aging, birth control, gender, and sexual orientation to a description of the male and female sexual systems. There are tasteful drawings plus question-and-answer sections with nearly every chapter. For readers who find a narrative, analytical approach too cumbersome, Sex would be an especially useful addition to library shelves.
In contrast to these self-consciously serious studies of sexuality, Linda Wolfe's Cosmo Report is a sexual scorecard, a benchmark for the modern woman, that reminds us that sex is fun. Moreover, her compilation of responses to a questionnaire in Cosmopolitan suggests that the "Cosmo girl" is not just a creation of Madison Avenue hype. There are in fact a large number of women today who are sexually liberated in both style and outlook.
Ultimately, however, their story is a sad one. These women who have reaped the fruits of the sexual revolution are frequently unhappy with the harvest. A little over half feel that the revolution has gone too far and many are disillusioned with their new-found sexual freedom. A predominant underlying complaint is that the new sexuality has benefitted men more than women, often simply providing a new justification for one-night stands.
Unfortunately, Wolfe is little interested in probing this growing uneasiness or in exploring why the women in her survey seem hell-bent on outdoing their partners in traditional macho sexual behavior. Her short treatment of every issue from sexual fantasies to infidelity consists primarily of paragraph-long excerpts from questionnaire answers, which merely serves to titillate the reader with details of other people's sex lives. The voluptuous Cosmo women of the newspaper ads are apparently far more complex than their glossy image leads one to believe, but the reader will learn little about them from this book.y