In 1948 and 1953, the United States was rocked by events that observers compared to the explosion of the atomic bomb: the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, respectively, popularly known as the Kinsey Reports. These two massive sex surveys, compiled by the Indiana University zoologist Alfred Kinsey and a team of researchers, graphically presented the results of interviews with thousands of American men and women, including information on their age at first intercourse, number of partners, history of premarital and extramarital sex, incidence of homosexuality and lesbianism, and virtually every other imaginable sexual statistic. The studies' findings shocked experts and the public alike, as Kinsey demonstrated that much of Americans' sexual activity took place outside of marriage, and that the majority of the nation's citizens had violated accepted moral standards as well as state and federal laws in their pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female struck a nerve within the American public. Despite their complex graphs and charts and abstruse scientific language, the volumes became best-sellers and spurred unprecedented public discussion of national sexual practices and ideologies. Praised by some experts for their breadth, precision, and dispassionate approach to human sexuality, the books were also the targets of virulent criticism and were widely denounced as immoral, perverse, and damaging to the reputation of the United States. Upon the appearance of the first volume, Kinsey was simultaneously hailed as a liberator, denounced as a pornographer, compared to the scientific martyrs Darwin and Copernicus, and declared a Communist bent on destroying the American family, all themes that would persist in discussions of his work. Public uproar over the volumes spread well beyond the world of science, as millions of Americans purchased and discussed them, rendering the reports' vocabulary and sensational findings a part of everyday knowledge. Kinsey's statistics on pre- and extramarital sex prompted a national forum on the state of the nation's morals and marriages, and his findings on the extent of same-sex sexual behaviors spearheaded debate about homosexuality in the United States. Omnipresent in postwar mass culture, the volumes featured centrally in discussions of virtually every topic imaginable, as references to the reports abounded in postwar political coverage, social science and medical writing, general-interest journalism, and even fiction.
This book examines the cultural dynamics and social dilemmas that informed the construction of American sexual character—a term I use to describe sexual patterns and attitudes that were understood as uniquely American—between the close of World War II and the early 1960s. It was initially spurred by my curiosity about why a sex survey repeatedly cropped up in discussions of topics that it ostensibly had nothing to do with. While scanning postwar books and articles, I was repeatedly struck by the pervasiveness of the two reports: articles on gender, marriage, and the family devoted extensive attention to the studies, but so did texts probing the effects of suburbanization, assessing the national zeitgeist, comparing Americans to their counterparts in other countries, and analyzing the state of contemporary theater. As I noted more such examples, I was struck by how often and how prominently the findings of the reports, along with public and media responses to them, featured in discussions of American society and national identity after World War II.
Postwar commentators saw Kinsey's research as expressing profound truths not only about Americans' sexual behavior but also about the nation itself, as charts and graphs from the two studies were brought to bear on analyses of America's class mobility and race relations, attitudes to work and leisure, and international political position. In brief, this book examines the processes by which Kinsey's statistical data became cultural narrative. It is not a history of the reports per se; rather, it maps the broader field of American sexual character by looking at themes and tensions in social scientists' and cultural critics' writings about sex in the United States. It examines the ways in which normative categories such as heterosexuality, masculinity, femininity, and Americanness itself were constructed and questioned. In the process, it chronicles some of the microstruggles that constituted the meaning of sex, including popular responses to the two Kinsey Reports, discussions of the relation between sexual excess and popular literature, the changing legal meanings of obscenity, and homosexual activists' negotiation of scientific categories of normalcy and deviance.
Defining American Sexual Character
My analysis of how the Kinsey Reports and other work on sexuality functioned to harness and rework notions of national identity is anchored by the concept of American sexual character. This phrase was not commonly used in the postwar United States, but its three terms, all widely used by authorities at the time, together capture some of the interwoven themes that characterized discussions of public and private life around the time of the Kinsey Reports. In juxtaposing them, I call attention to the mutual construction of postwar ideas about national identity, sexual life, and personal and community standards of behavior and ideology by exploring the relationship between these three terms. In this analysis of the discursive construction of sexuality in the modern United States, I examine contending definitions of sexuality and gender and explore how middle-class Americans during the postwar era negotiated a host of sexual possibilities. By reading various crises of American sexuality as responses to postwar worries about the stability and strength of the nation and its population, I map the ways in which new discursive practices emerged around American sexuality, examining why and how Americans thought that sexual behaviors were changing and how they related these changes to other developments in the United States during the cold war era.
The first key term, American, alludes to the centrality of nationalism, nation building, and national identity to postwar culture. A recent resurgence of interest in nationalism has encouraged scholars to focus less on traditionally defined political processes than on the social and cultural processes that shaped changing conceptions of national identity. In the introduction to a 1996 collection of essays on nationalism, the historian Geoff Eley and the political scientist Ronald Suny note that, "if politics is the ground upon which the category of the nation was first proposed, culture was the terrain where it was elaborated," and they observe that recent literature has interrogated the "need to constitute nations discursively through processes of imaginative ideological labor—that is, the novelty of national culture, its manufactured or invented character, as opposed to its deep historical rootedness." In Benedict Anderson's influential model, every nation is an "imagined community" in which citizens envision themselves as units in a collective, "because the members of even the smallest nation will never know their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each they carry the image of communion." It is everyday beliefs and processes, not only spectacular events like wars, parades, or elections, that create and reproduce national identity. Identifying the 1950s as an era when interest in nationalism and nation building peaked, scholars argue that between the 1940s and 1960s the United States remade its economic, political, and social position, and that the period was thus marked by struggles to reestablish old models of nationhood and create new ones.
During the 1950s, the United States—at perhaps the last moment in which many could still imagine a national public not riven by racial, class, gender, and other differences—defined itself in relation to a constellation of real and imaginary ideals, including both other nations and idealized Americas of the past. New themes also spurred and shaped postwar nation building. These included the postwar endorsement of middle-class status for many previously excluded groups like white ethnics and Jews; threats to the nation from the outside, such as the rise of international Communism; and dangers from within, such as Americans' alleged laziness, sensuality, consumerism, or any of a host of other characteristics. The very factors through which the nation achieved and celebrated its postwar supremacy—possession of the atomic bomb; an enduring democratic government in the face of fascism, Communism, and revolutions abroad; economic prosperity; the mass production of consumer goods; and a cultural focus on family bonds and personal fulfillment—were double-edged swords. Nuclear knowledge made the United States internationally powerful but also promoted widespread fear and suspicion, and the specter of Communism prompted both celebrations of American democracy and crippling suspicions about internal subversion. Such paradoxes abounded in postwar culture: the economic prosperity that funded single-family homes and supported growing families also created new opportunities for single living, and the consumer economy lauded by boosters was accused of promoting a hedonism that subverted, rather than supported, national values.
The postwar era's teachings about sex fit perfectly into this contradictory pattern, as authorities simultaneously maintained that sexuality had the potential to ruin families and community standards and sought to harness its appeal for the maintenance of traditional lifestyles. The second word of my title phrase, sexual, thus alludes to the ways in which Americans brought sexuality into the public arena in the decade and a half after the end of World War II, making it a political and social topic as well as a personal one. The war changed the sexual landscape for many Americans, as wartime economic and social shifts promoted geographical and class mobility. War and its aftermath furthered dialogue about which of the domestic crises associated with war—desertion and failed marriages, promiscuity, same-sex sexual relations, and so on—were temporary eruptions and which were here to stay. When Kinsey's first study appeared a few years later, it provided vivid evidence of sexual change.
The reports, along with the host of other explorations of American sexuality that appeared in their wake, were received not only as collections of statistics but also as important statements about gender difference, social change, and American identity. Topics such as the increasingly direct depiction of sexual themes in the popular media, the future of the nuclear family, and the importance of sexual pleasure in marriage were also topics of heated discussion. Even more troubling to many was "unnatural" sex, and campaigns targeting "perverts," described as a threat to American security interests, drummed suspected homosexuals out of military and governmental service. As well as finding a far higher incidence of same-sex sexual practices than many had previously believed existed in the United States, the reports found that sexual behaviors long believed to be the province of homosexuals, including oral and anal sex, were in fact widely practiced by heterosexuals. Most Americans, according to Kinsey, believed fervently that "sexual behavior is either normal or abnormal, socially acceptable or unacceptable, heterosexual or homosexual, and many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations in these matters from one extreme to the other." The report's statistics made these convictions increasingly untenable, as evidence suggested that the dividing line between heterosexual and homosexual was increasingly blurred.
Kinsey argued that many of the sexual categories Americans lived by were meaningless, claiming that "such designations as infantile, frigid, sexually over-developed, under-active, excessively active, over-developed, over-sexed, hypersexual, or sexually over-active . . . refer to nothing more than a position on a curve which is continuous. Normal and abnormal, one sometimes suspects, are terms which a particular author employs with reference to his own position on that curve." In the postwar United States, as normal and abnormal threatened to lose all meaning, sex was both a pressing social issue and a rhetorical site for public discussions of American culture and identity. Literally, sexuality was surveyed, mapped, and theorized as never before. Metaphorically, sexual behavior was framed as a matter of politics, cultural change, and public policy.
In his analysis of "that quite recent and banal notion of 'sexuality,'" the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault points out the importance of examining how and why a culture's common wisdom about sex changes over time. The object of historical inquiry, he argues, is "not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said." As Foucault reminds us, discussions of sex are always about more than bodily behaviors. Postwar Americans made extensive use of sexuality as a category that expressed and explained other kinds of social concerns, demonstrating his assertion that modern identity included an injunction to catalogue and speak of sex.
A new language of sexuality—in which "sex" moved from a static, biologistic measure of the differences between male and female to a broad category that encompassed sexual practices, moral concerns, and social problems—reflected profound changes in the cultural meanings of sexuality. This transformation of sexual discourse was reflected not only in the proliferation and popularity of examinations of American sexuality but also in the ways in which sexual information was managed and categorized. Before World War II, articles about sex cited in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature were primarily medical in nature, with most sources falling under the category of "SEX (Biology)" and dealing with topics like venereal disease or sexual selection in the animal kingdom. After the war, the number of entries under "Sex" and its various subheadings expanded rapidly, demonstrating a quantitative increase in the production and dissemination of popular information about sex. The taxonomy of the Readers' Guide also changed, reflecting profound shifts in the ways sexual knowledge was organized and the expansion of terms for sexual acts. The number of categories nearly doubled, from eleven in 1939 to twenty in 1953, and new subheadings such as "Sexual Behavior" and "Sex Relations" accounted for an increasing share of works cited. After 1950, a new category, "Sexual," was added to accommodate the flow of articles that treated sex as an adjective rather than a noun, a cultural phenomenon instead of a biological condition or act. By 1957, new meanings had replaced old: the category of "SEX (Biology)" had vanished, reflecting an utterly altered sexual vocabulary.
The third term I highlight, character, weaves throughout postwar literature on national identity and sexual and social change, uniting a cultural critique of the present with nostalgia for a simpler and idealized past. In their best-selling sociological treatise The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman and Nathan Glazer suggest that changes in personal relationships, work, and consumption were crafting a new—and to many, sadly diminished—type of American character. Nineteen-fifties authorities often contrasted this contemporary brand of American character to that of earlier periods, alluding to the self-sufficiency of frontier settlers or the moral certainty of the Puritans. As the historian Karen Dubinsky observes, "Nation-building required more than the formation of political and economic infrastructures. In the 'human nation,' the proper sort of citizens, subjects with 'character,' was necessary." Postwar nation building relied upon and incorporated notions about what kinds of sexuality were likely to aid or hamper national interests. Character—usually understood as sobriety, commitment to labor, upward economic and social mobility, and dedication to both family and civic duty—was essential to the American democracy and civic life. It was also, according to social scientists, in decline.
The term resonated on other important levels as well, referencing a number of powerful forces that shaped postwar culture. Character sometimes connoted sexual chastity, a definition to which a Canadian journalist writing about the second volume alluded when she noted that "Americans are sensitive about the sexual character of their women." The concept of character also played on the tension between group identity and individualism, a theme examined by many social scientists of the era. Individualism was one of the most crucial differences between American democracy and Communism, and warnings about the dangers of conformity often reminded the public of the need to understand themselves and encourage their personalities to flourish. At the same time that individuality was lauded, however, Americans were also appealed to as members of a group and praised for their civic-mindedness and "togetherness," whether measured on the level of family, community, or nation.
The term American sexual character thus suggests the ways in which a range of postwar discourses—having to do with the family, national security, popular culture, consumption, work, racial difference, and political affiliation, among others—borrowed from a common vocabulary. Wilhelm Reich, a former disciple of Freud whose writings attracted the attention of both American admirers and the state, urged disciples to strive for "genital character," a state of physical, mental, and sexual health free from the repressions and neuroses that plagued most modernists. Social and cultural advance or decline, he believed, largely depended upon the genital character of a people, since "the character structure is the congealed sociological process of a given epoch." Few went so far as Reich in drawing these links, but numerous mainstream mental health and social science professionals associated sexual beliefs and behaviors with the psychological health and character of the nation. As sex became viewed as a key to civic as well as personal identity, social scientists and mental health professionals argued that specific forms of sexual behavior either contributed to or endangered the health of the individual, one's familial and social relationships, and the body politic and were thus constitutive of the national character. As a result, the trope of character was crucial to postwar debates about sexuality and national identity, often serving as a bridge connecting the two. The emerging "American sex revolution," one well-known sociologist warned, not only threatened individual happiness but also posed grave dangers to nothing less than "the well-being of the nation itself."18
Sexual and Social Change
The nation's changing sexual patterns were discussed by people across the political spectrum, including self-defined sexual liberals, libertarians, and conservatives. In postwar debates over sexuality, however, traditional political labels were not always reliable or helpful. The midcentury political consensus known as cold war liberalism was a flexible and extensive category, and in battles where the cultural and the political merged, seemingly similar concerns could emerge from vastly different places. Conservatives and liberals alike, for example, at some moments worried that Americans lacked basic sexual knowledge, and at others lamented the omnipresence of sexual information in the mass media. Both those who identified as sexual freethinkers and those who embraced traditionalism critiqued Americans' alleged materialism and consumerism and complained that the modern focus on sex threatened to rob it of emotional meaning.
Along with a host of conservative social scientists who argued that national and international stability depended upon an immediate desexualization of American mores and morals, liberals like the sociologist David Riesman deemed the national focus on sex to be a new and particularly dangerous form of consumerism that distracted modern Americans from their civic duties. In an assessment of the assumptions and motives of postwar authorities who produced information on American sexuality, an important distinction emerges between sexual pessimists, who foresaw the decline and collapse of the nation in changes in the sexual status quo, and idealists, who envisioned a new sexual order as liberating and empowering. Those who believed that sexual behaviors outside marriage were potentially dangerous generally agreed that public attention to matters of sex was pathological, while believers in sexual liberalism cast the same behaviors as a welcome reversal of puritan repression. The definition of sex as a liberatory force, along with the belief that truths about sex can be unearthed and examined, was an important concept in the twentieth-century United States.
In the years after World War II, political and sexual respectability were closely linked and the social and political order that many saw as crucial to national stability was based upon deeply polarized gender roles and a conservative deployment of sexual energy. When the liberal sexologist Albert Ellis charged that "most Americans are sexual fascists," his choice of terms underlined the connections many saw between private behavior and the nation's moral and political character during the cold war. So too did charges that sexual investigators, or certain sexual acts, were un-American or Communist. Sexual deviance, whether understood as homosexual activity, promiscuity, interracial sex, or any other arrangement that violated the prescribed path of monogamous sexual expression within marriage, was coupled rhetorically with political subversion. At the same time, the marital bond and the sexual satisfaction identified with it were viewed as cornerstones of family happiness and national stability. The tension between these two themes—American sexuality as a sign of cultural disintegration and political weakness or as the locus for familial and social cohesion—shaped postwar discourse on sexuality. Whether commentators on American sexual character championed new forms of sexual dissent or called for a return to traditional practices and beliefs, they shared a firm belief that Americans' sexual behavior could and did shape their moral character, civic roles, and political future.
Americans had worried and written about sex before, of course, and observers had long drawn connections between the national interest and sexual behavior by punishing sexual expression that took place outside marriage or between "inappropriate" partners. The social purity movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, agitation for marriage reform in the 1920s, and intermittent campaigns against prostitution all defined various forms of sexual misconduct as pressing social problems and sought to correct them through education, moral suasion, and punishment. In her work on racial and sexual violence, the historian Lisa Duggan argues that legal and medical discourses work to mobilize "a specifically American version of normative national sexuality" based on proper gender roles, whiteness, and respectability.
The specifics of what counts as "normative national sexuality" have varied: in the early nineteenth century, class- and race-based notions of respectability were crucial to individual reputations and community maintenance, while more recently the AIDS crisis has rendered concepts of health and disease central to normative sexuality. Americans after World War II, however, outstripped earlier generations in the fervor with which they made sexuality a legitimate topic and the extent to which they insisted on its relevance to postwar social problems. Experts disagreed, often vehemently, about exactly what was wrong with modern sexuality, but virtually all commentators who addressed the subject diagnosed grave problems with American behavior and mores. Sex surveys since the turn of the century had focused most often on bohemian urbanites or on marginalized groups such as prisoners, the poor, and the "feeble-minded," reflecting investigators' conflicts over whether sexual behavior could best be understood by viewing the normative or the abnormal. Kinsey's postwar studies, and the public debates about sex that they fostered, instead addressed the private behavior of "average" Americans. Nonmarital and nonreproductive sexuality had often been the subject of moral panic, but in the postwar United States even marital heterosexual behaviors were studied and interrogated, believed to reveal vital information about the state of the nation.
A crucial development shaping postwar culture was the rise of a national mass media and a public receptive to its claims. As the number and variety of media outlets expanded after the war, so too did the parameters of allowable news. Popular magazines openly discussed homosexuality and sexual techniques, and experts complained that Americans were obsessed with sex. The psychiatrist Albert Ellis lamented the "average" citizen's ignorance in his book The American Sexual Tragedy, while the conservative Reader's Digest issued the plaintive query "Must we change our sex standards?" Articles in women's magazines counseled, "We must face the facts about sex," asked "Do Americans commercialize sex?," and encouraged readers to "check your sex I.Q." As the historian Joanne Meyerowitz argues, the media's discussions of Americans' sexual behavior sometimes "expanded the process by which some readers identified new options for themselves in the popular culture."
Debates about American sexuality also reflected competing claims to knowledge and authority. As older definitions of normalcy and deviance came under attack in the wake of new research, the qualifications required to be an authority on sex changed. Physicians, psychiatrists, pulp novelists, sexologists, social scientists, homophile activists, and self-styled typical Americans, among others, presented competing narratives and claims about sexuality. The vast majority of published authors writing about sex were white male professionals, but as the parameters of "sexual expert" became more fluid, especially by the late 1950s and early 1960s, traditionally disenfranchised voices were increasingly vocal in debates about sex. In one collection of articles on the Kinsey Reports, for example, authorities included not only representatives from medicine and psychiatry but also a theologian, a literary critic, and the anonymous "Mrs. W.," who spoke as a wife and mother. The public and private figures who spoke of sex had various motives, which included criticizing specific groups or behaviors, diagnosing social ills and prescribing correctives, titillating, and making money. In this torrent of analysis, sexual definitions and meanings intertwined with other topics that concerned Americans during the postwar years, ranging from the possibilities posed by the new affluence and leisure to the problems presented by changing gender roles, race relations, and definitions of the family.
This book chronicles the ways in which national identity, sexuality, and "character" intersected in postwar culture, interrogating the spaces where these terms construct, complicate, and contradict one another. Sex was an important term in postwar civic discourse, as existing and ideal relationships between people and nations borrowed from, and were configured as, domestic and social relationships. Nationalism, a recent theorist argues, "is inseparable from gender and sexuality," since "sexuality plays a key role in nation-building and in sustaining national identity" even as the powerful rhetoric of national identity "becomes the language through which sexual control and repression (specifically, but not exclusively, of women and homosexuals) is justified, and masculine prowess is expressed and exercised." Just as much of the burgeoning postwar literature of sex drew on and articulated concerns about the nation, so too did narratives of nationalism rely upon ideas about sex. Gendered and sexualized descriptions of the United States and other nations abounded in postwar culture: journalists and social scientists worried that the nation was "weak" and "soft," while State Department policy makers drew upon a rhetorical system in which the nation was depicted as stalwartly male. European countries were viewed as feminized sexual conquests or potential marriage partners, and the USSR was represented as an aggressive sexual competitor. More literally, experts compared American sexual behavior to patterns found in other countries and grimly concluded that the nation's mores were unique and often destructive.
The postwar United States thus offers a particularly dramatic case study in what Foucault terms "the way in which sex is 'put into discourse[,]' . . . the forms of power [it takes], the channels it takes, and the discourses it permeates.">Rather than a private behavior that could escape surveillance, sex—even when carried out in private—was increasingly understood to be a public act fraught with social consequences. Authorities argued repeatedly that sexual disarray did not merely harm individuals but was a national danger. The American Social Hygiene Association cautioned worried citizens that through "the right use of sex" they could build solid families and a united nation. But what was the right use of sex, and who decided?
Historians of gender and sexuality have usually focused on the experiences of specific groups, asking, for example, how lesbian and gay communities changed after the war, or whether sexual liberalism empowered or harmed women. This book takes a different approach, examining how postwar Americans debated the topic of American sexuality and what role it played in their discussions of other national problems. Many of reformers' suspicions about modern sexuality—for example, the belief that changing sexual norms would lead to mass marital failure, the disappearance of heterosexuality, or a decline in American character—were vague threats, impossible to measure. The concerns and anxieties that these reformers articulated, however, were very real, and battles over such topics were fought bitterly by all concerned. Americans' hopes and fears about sex mattered, regardless of how realistic or fantastical, how prescient or paranoid they were. "Culture," as the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has phrased it, "consists in the way analogies are drawn between things, in the ways certain thoughts are used to think others."For postwar Americans, national identity was configured in sexual terms. By looking both at what activities or ideas constitute sex and at the cultural status of sexuality at a given moment, one can trace the ways in which ideological battles about sexuality mirror and mask other social changes. In the postwar United States, American sexual character was a legitimate topic in its own right, as well as a trope for other social and cultural problems. Contesting definitions of how sex should be regulated and managed and who was qualified to speak about it aired in the popular and scientific presses. Responses to the Kinsey Reports brought together debates about national identity, consumption and consumerism, family and gender roles, and racial and political liberalism.
In examining postwar concerns about sexuality and national identity, the most important documents that I draw on are of course Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). I see these two reports as a Rorschach test for postwar Americans: Kinsey's statistics were and are capable of many interpretations, and my focus here is how these dry numbers were given meaning. Commentators on the reports were variously struck by the project's sheer volume, the novelty of hearing how thousands of ordinary Americans actually conducted their sex lives, and the tension between titillation and objective science that the studies created. Beyond these factors, though, the reports' immense popularity and controversy stemmed from something else: the studies offered a set of data through which critics, experts, and casual readers could address the sexual and social changes surrounding them. For American readers, the Kinsey Reports were sex, stripped of emotional nuance and physical momentum and distilled into numbers and tables.
The Kinsey team's findings served as the basis for many different kinds of claims about American sexuality and national character, and their repeated use by authorities who wished to comment on social problems makes them an ideal point from which to explore gender and sexual roles during the 1950s. The reports were important not only for the new data they presented but also because they reaffirmed and provided evidence for ideas already found elsewhere in popular culture. In fact, it was the ways in which the reports wove together the familiar with the startlingly new that made them such compelling cultural touchstones, capable of supporting dramatically different agendas. At once scientific documents, signs of the changing limits of public discourse, metaphors for changing patterns of sexual behavior, and sites for projecting cultural hopes and concerns, the reports confronted Americans with a complex and often unflattering self-portrait.
Kinsey's work spurred a host of popularizers, detractors, and imitators, and their work makes up the next tier of my primary sources. Responses to and appropriations of the studies were many, from scholarly symposia to joke books and novels, from articles in women's magazines and confessionals to news coverage in scientific journals and newspapers. The reports were a leitmotif in postwar culture, and I engage a wide range of sources throughout this book, including work on postwar national character; advice literature regarding dating, marriage, and sexuality; mass-market literature popularizing Kinsey's findings; reviews of and commentaries on the reports; social science literature; articles from psychiatric journals; and fictional and film sources.
Ideas about American sexual character in the postwar United States were part of a powerful discourse that imagined the nation as middle class, white, and well assimilated to the dominant culture. As postwar industry and increased access to higher education expanded, many Americans whose ethnic or religious identities had kept them on the margins of the American mainstream in previous generations took on or secured middle-class status, culturally and economically. Americans who were working class or nonwhite, along with those who transgressed gender boundaries or violated moral codes, served as the outsiders against whom the expanding middle class defined themselves. With these demographic and cultural changes in mind, I attempt throughout the book to consider the blind spots and silences of available sources. Some of these spring from the ways in which the postwar authorities I read compartmentalized their discussions of American sexuality. Although these authorities addressed a wide range of issues in their analyses of social and sexual change, some sexual issues and experiences received relatively little attention: incest, intergenerational sex, and rape and other forms of sexual violence, for example, were most often framed as criminal matters rather than incorporated into discussions of everyday adult sexuality. Other silences in my sources stem less from postwar experts' organization of knowledge than from their assumptions about what narratives, categories, and people mattered. Sexual literature facilitated some viewpoints more than others, and authors were predominantly male, overwhelmingly white, and drawn primarily from elite groups like scientists, cultural critics, educators, and journalists. Virtually all of them also had to negotiate issues of respectability and prurience, positioning their work as sober fact, lurid sensationalism, and every combination in between. In interrogating their work, I have tried to consider the multiple roles of and silences about class, racial, and other differences in postwar literature on national character and sexuality, along with the ways in which these authors' analyses were shaped by the subjects they chose and audiences they anticipated.
About the Book
Beginning with a brief portrait of the reports and the cultural moment into which they emerged, the book moves from a general overview of the place of sexuality in postwar social thought to more focused readings of sources that target and analyze specific problems and populations. Each chapter examines a different facet of the overarching discourse of American sexuality and national character. The topics on which I focus—which include the two Kinsey Reports on women and men, the politics of marriage, and the changing meanings of heterosexuality and homosexuality for Americans—played a distinctive role in the burgeoning postwar discourse on sexuality. Each chapter provides a case study of what the political historian Kyle Cuordileone calls "the way erotic imagery and gendered dualisms can structure a historical narrative," and in each I draw on a different set of sources to paint an interlocking portrait of postwar anxieties about American sexual character.
Chapter 1 sets the stage by examining postwar social scientists' concerns about the state of American character and offers an overview of how they united concepts of national identity, character, and sexuality. Experts declared various crises in American sexuality, compared the sexual mores of the United States to those of other nations, and outlined theories accounting for what many referred to as the "sexualization" of national culture. Assessing the ways in which many of their worries about leisure, affluence, and other major social problems with little apparent connection to sexual behavior in fact drew on and spoke to anxieties about the changing meanings of sex and gender, I argue that the cultural project of rethinking and centering sex offered postwar Americans an avenue through which they could debate the meaning of being American.
Chapters 2 and 3 examine how the married pair served as the central figures in discussions of sex during the 1950s. What was the relationship among the statistical male and female of the reports, actual American men and women, and the ideological formations of "man" and "woman," most often represented as a white-collar husband and suburban housewife? Through an analysis of the differing ways the Kinsey Reports on American men and women were received, these chapters examine postwar authorities' psychological and cultural explanations of masculinity and femininity, especially the ways in which they related sexual behavior to normative gender roles.
The final two chapters consider in turn the two most widely discussed types of sexual relationships, marriage and homosexuality. Chapter 4 illuminates the ways in which Americans saw marriage as changing and analyzes the place of marital sex in debates about healthy and unhealthy marriages. Experts offered a model for modern marriage that stressed egalitarianism, sexual knowledge, and reliance upon professional advice. In examining the ways in which advice books described and valorized heterosexual intercourse as the cornerstone of modern marriage, I illuminate the connections that experts during the 1950s made between sexual and gender roles. Chapter 5 turns to the changing cultural meanings of same-sex sexual activity during and after World War II. I argue that homosexuality, which received unprecedented national attention after the appearance of Kinsey's statistics, was depicted in the mainstream press as simultaneously alluring and dangerous. As experts debated the apparent increase of homosexuality, many articulated a deep concern that Americans were particularly susceptible to it, linking same-sex sexuality to broader concerns about American character.
In the epilogue, I consider how different sexual subjects, such as the average American, the married couple, the modal man or woman, and the homosexual, were constructed by and participated in the overall discourse of American sexual character during the 1950s. I also discuss important sex surveys after Kinsey's and offer some suggestions about how conceptions of American sexual character have operated in more recent discussions of national identity and sexual behavior.
The cultural project of collecting data about sexual behavior and discussing its significance offers experts and their audience—both in the postwar United States and today—the opportunity to discuss the meaning of being a modern American. As researchers dissected American sexuality, they expanded the role of sexual topics in civic discourse and extended the meanings of sex. The often-paradoxical stock characters they created—the impotent or philandering husband, the frigid or adulterous wife, the latent homosexual, and the modern American dangerously susceptible to the manipulations of the media or in search of therapeutic understanding—enacted narratives of sexual change and possibility in the postwar era, and continue to do so today.