How Sexual Desire Works: The enigmatic urge by Frederick Toates (Cambridge University Press)
Fuckology: Critical essays on John Money’s diagnostic concepts by Lisa Downing, Iain Morland, Nikki Sullivan (University of Chicago Press)
SEX. It’s one of the few subjects about which we know everything and nothing: a paradox facing all who study it scientifically. Sex doesn’t have to be private, but most sex acts are, so even when shame is put aside, it’s a tricky thing to study. How do you make a science out of more or less desperate fumbling?
To judge by an exhibition on sexology, the first show at a newly refurbished Wellcome Collection in London, researchers were more upbeat in the 20th century.
Take Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish radical who collected books, documents and artefacts on sexual behaviour, charted his proclivities in coloured inks, and fought discrimination against homosexuals. His Institute of Sexology, which was ransacked by the Nazis in 1933, gives the name to the Wellcome show.
Then there is Alfred Kinsey, who brought taxonomic skills gained studying gall wasps to the complexities of human sexual behaviour. And in the 1960s and 70s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson observed the sexual responses of anyone for whom they could get ethical approval.
One of the strongest elements of the show looks at Marie Stopes, who was a vigorous advocate of contraception and was opposed to sexual shame.
Today, the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, set up in 1990, is one of the few globally to gather the broad information that would have fascinated Stopes. Most of today’s cash funds brain-imaging studies or “performance” drugs.
Leaving Wellcome’s quiet, informative show, you would be forgiven for thinking its unblushing researchers have gifted us a profounder understanding of ourselves. On reflection, however, it’s hard to say what their work adds up to.
Is sexology a science, or a series of well-intentioned, evidence-based campaigns? Maybe labelling this messy field as science is helpful, securing funding in an age of austerity. For it is the absence of understanding of our needs and desires that matters, showing up over time in illegal abortions, gay-bashing, sexually transmitted diseases and more.
How Sexual Desire Works is psychologist Frederick Toates’s stab at a proper scientific account. He maps the mess as rigorously as he can, and the book is worth it for its bibliography alone. But sexual desire turns out to be as much about boredom, habit, disgust, rage, self-image, disappointment and the like as it is about desire. How to make a science out of this?
John Money, a New Zealand-born psychologist who died in 2006, applied boundless energy to the problem, creating concepts, with their own neologisms, such as “troopbondance”. In Fuckology (another of his), Lisa Downing and co-authors capture his story ably.
Money was interested in gender identity, and the possibilities for gender reassignment. Depending on what you read, he either tried to eradicate “man” and “woman” as categories, or to link sexuality and gender with a scalpel. After a botched circumcision, David Reimer had gender reassignment surgery at age 2, on Money’s recommendation. His miserable life and suicide in 2004 defined the psychologist’s reputation.
The authors are ironic about Money’s approach to his work: “To admit the potential of being wrong, or to settle for the productive tension of ambiguity, is not a feature of Money’s rhetorical range…”
But Money is in good company. Sexology lures big personalities: Sigmund Freud was its founder, after all. Have these strong egos bequeathed us a science? It’s hard to say. Sex, when push comes to shove, is not for the faint-hearted.