Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Julia A. Ericksen with Sally A. Steffen.
Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, 270 pp. $U.S. 29.95 cloth (0674505352)

As much as attitudes towards sex have changed over the last century, so too have sex research methodologies. Advancements in research design ñ in areas such as sampling, interviewing methods, questionnaire construction, and statistical analysis -- have broadened and shaped our understandings of sexual patterns, preferences, and outlooks. In chronicling a century of sex survey research in the United States, Ericksen critically explores how sexual knowledge has been constructed through survey methods. Sex surveys, while designed to uncover the truth about sexual behaviour, produced a particular understanding of sexual relations. The various methodologies did not simply measure reality; they were, in fact, laden with dominant values and assumptions that worked to shape specific kinds of realities. Numbers neither documented facts, nor were they value-free; they created meaning. The more frequently a particular pattern of behaviour occurred statistically, the more likely it was deemed “normal.” Ericksen, for instance, documents how the accepted norm of heterosexuality was challenged by reports that 10 percent of the United States population was gay.

Combining feminist theory with a critical analysis of survey research, Ericksen demonstrates how choices surrounding research topics, questionnaire construction, classification, and analysis of findings are social, cultural, and political activities, and are not simply objective scientific endeavors. They reflect the expectations, values and cultural beliefs of those conducting the research. As Ericksen demonstrates, the class, gender, race and sexual orientation of surveyors impinged greatly on the results of surveys. For example, the fact that most researchers were men who believed in innate differences between male and female sexual behaviour, affected the knowledge that was produced. As Ericksen notes, “with few exceptions, male sexuality appeared uncomplicated and in little need of analysis. When men did face problems they were deadly enemies from without, such as syphilis or HIV.” By contrast, lack of interest in or inability to achieve sexual satisfaction by women was attributed to internal problems, either an inadequate sexual drive or fear of pregnancy.

Such assumptions were challenged as more women entered the field of sex survey research in the 1980s. As Ericksen notes, women surveyors asked different questions and consequently uncovered different realities. Their questionnaires moved beyond inquiries about the number of partners; they began focusing on issues of consent. As surveys on sexual assault began to include questions on date rape, high levels of nonconsensual sex were “discovered.” Such information alerted the public and, in particular, prosecutors to the realities of date rape which led to the redefinition of sexual assault and, consequently, higher rates of conviction. As Ericksen argues, “it is unlikely that research on nonconsensual sex would have appeared without the presence of female researchers influenced by feminism.”

After establishing her main argument and providing a general review of sex survey research, Ericksen’s subsequent chapters consist of empirical studies in the history of sex survey research. Chapter 2 recounts how sex surveys arose in response to turn-of-the-century panics over masturbation, and later following World War I became concerned with the spread of venereal disease. Reports of increasing divorce levels coupled with declining birth rates in the 1920s and 1930s led to new exploratory research into sexual pleasure, sex drives, and “orgasm inadequacy.” It is within this context that Alfred Kinsey’s famous studies occurred. Chapter 3 discusses how the popularity of Kinsey’s studies brought sex survey research into the public arena in the late 1940s. The ensuing media coverage popularized sex surveys, making academic research accessible to the general public while also simplifying and reinterpreting findings in order to bolster newspaper readership. Chapters 4 through 6 report on the proliferation of sex surveys during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Survey research was instrumental in telling young Americans that premarital sex was a normal experience, while at the same time alerting people to the realities of teen pregnancy.

The advent of magazine-sponsored sex surveys is discussed in Chapter 7. Despite their methodological shortcomings – poor sampling methods, shoddy questionnaire construction, and faulty analysis – sex surveys by magazines like Psychology Today, Playboy, and Cosmopolitan grew increasingly popular, beginning in the 1970s. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, discussed in Chapters 8 and 9, launched a new wave of sex research that brought questions of methodology, reliability, and validity to the forefront. To predict and control the spread of the disease, accurate data and epidemiological information were essential. As such, the methodology of sex surveys, which lagged behind the advances of voting surveys, became of paramount importance. Ericksen attributes part of the problem to the fact that sex questionnaires are rarely published, thereby making it difficult to critically evaluate their reliability and validity. Chapter 10 reviews the ongoing battles amongst contemporary sex survey researchers.

Although a comprehensive study of sex survey research, I have a couple points of criticism of the book. While Ericksen provides a detailed account of sex survey research, her analysis is under theorized. In the Introduction, Ericksen cites Foucault as a relevant theorist but subsequently draws little on his insights. She refers to his premise that discourse about sexuality, rather than being liberating as Freud and many feminists have argued, in fact reinforces control of sexuality. However, she neglects to extend his insights to explore fully the power/knowledge nexus concerning sex surveys. Her analysis could also have been strengthened by drawing on the growing body of historical and sociological works from scholars like Theodore Porter and Ian Hacking, among others, that examine the social meaning and “objectivity” of numbers. These shortcomings aside, Ericksen’s book is an important and timely work in the area of sex survey research.

Paula Maurutto
Carleton University
March-April 2000
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