OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Book examines fascinating history of sexuality

10/14/1999

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A growing number of American school children are forming clubs and taking vows of abstinence until marriage, a kind of "retro" attitude toward sexuality that reflects the country's puritanical underpinnings.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Internet, a virtual smorgasbord of pornography.

Such extremes reflect complicated Western sexual attitudes and their historic revolution, summed up in a new book called "Sexuality." Published by the Oxford University Press, it was edited by Robert Nye, the Horning Professor of Humanities at Oregon State University.

An internationally recognized expert on the history of sexuality, Nye spent much of the last two years working on the book. For his efforts, he has been both praised and vilified. The book has been called fascinating, erudite, admirably comprehensive, and insightful. Yet Nye has been called homophobic by some outraged critics and accused of "pandering to the homosexual agenda" by others.

Such contradictions go with the territory.

"Sexuality has become very politicized," Nye said, "and to study it, you run the risk of being typecast as having certain feelings one way or another."

Part of the Oxford Readers series, "Sexuality" includes 150 short excerpts from essays or articles written by an astonishing variety of people, including Plato, Sigmund Freud, Germaine Greer, H.G. Wells and Christine Jorgenson, as well as dozens of top scholars in the field. Together, the essays provide an overview of the whole breadth of the history of Western sexuality.

Nye said the historical framework provided by the book should help readers better understand the basis for sexual attitudes and behaviors today. At the same time, he added, it is difficult to judge past behaviors through late 20th century eyes.

"Sex wasn't a subject for public discourse in the West until the 1960s, when more open discussions convinced people that there was a sexual revolution going on," Nye said. "But really, America is very puritanical and hypocritical about sex, which complicates teaching today. Students, when they take human sexuality courses, feel slightly naughty.

"That's a shame, because sexuality is such an important topic and one that is constantly evolving," he added.

"Sexuality" is divided into four sections that look at early history, the discovery of sexuality at the turn of this century, the 20th century sexual body, and the sexual revolution of the 1970s.

The devotion of an entire section to the turn of the century reflects the remarkable events that took place during a period from roughly 1885 to 1910. It was the era of Freud, of specialization in the medical profession, and of a growing urban society that spawned both social mobility and anonymity - ingredients for a sexual awakening. During that time, all of the modern "perversities" - from masochism and sadism, to exhibitionism - were discovered, identified and named.

That doesn't, of course, mean that those behaviors didn't previously exist, Nye said.

"That's what makes this field so interesting," he said. "Things existed as tastes, desires or practices, but people didn't really know them as perversions because there was not yet our modern social context for their existence. The reaction tended to be punitive, the behaviors treated as a disease. The people who exhibited these behaviors were scorned, ridiculed and often put in jail. But they also provided building blocks of our modern sexual understanding."

Nye said heterosexuality was labeled at the turn of the century and, interestingly, was identified after homosexuality. Heterosexuality was then defined as strong desires for persons of the opposite sex. It was considered "abnormal" to desire someone other than a spouse, to want sex for purposes other than procreating, and to experience pleasure during sex.

"There still are vestiges of those attitudes in existence today," Nye said.

One of the most influential factors in sexual attitudes in the 20th century has been, of all things, technology, Nye said. Sex had traditionally been linked indirectly to death through disease, unlimited family size and poverty. Then came "the pill," which gave people more control over sexuality and weakened the link between sex and death, while enhancing the link between sex and pleasure.

Such generalized viewpoints are only guidelines, said Nye, who said the difference in sexual attitudes among people "are extraordinary." There are differences based on cultures, socio-economic class, family type, geography and other factors.

There are also, he said, a multitude of different sexual behaviors.

"We tend to define things so broadly, labeling people 'heterosexual' or 'homosexual' when there are, in fact, probably hundreds of different forms of sexuality," Nye said. "These things make us uncomfortable, so we rarely talk about them. I happened to see an MTV discussion with teens about sex and it probably was the most frank, bold conversation about sexuality that I have ever seen on television.

"The idea that we all have 'this thing' - this sexual desire - in the same measure and strength, and expressed in the same way, is absurd," Nye said. "We know that now, but only just recently. And things are still changing."

Where sexual evolution will go next is a matter of sheer speculation, according to the OSU professor. There could be major shifts in legal, philosophical or ethical attitudes that parallel or exceed the effect that AIDS has had on the so-called sexual revolution.

"There also could be extraordinary retreats into previous behaviors like abstinence," Nye said. "You simply can't use the present as a basis to judge the past or predict the future. It can't be done."