The Sex Lives Of Sex Researchers

Saturday, July 19, 2014: 10:50 AM
Room: Booth 60
Oral Presentation
Janice IRVINE , University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
The Sex Lives of Sex Researchers

As sexuality studies develops as a field, recent biographies feature some prominent figures. In addition to several texts on Alfred Kinsey, these biographies include those of Michel Foucault, Richard von  Krafft-Ebing, Jeannette Foster Howard, the first librarian at the Kinsey Institute, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Some of this work is superb scholarship. Some might be considered “pathography,” Joyce Carol Oates term for “the technique of emphasizing the sensational underside of its subject’s life.”

 Pathographies of sexuality researchers spin for perversion. For example, James Miller’s biography of Michel Foucault links Foucault’s work to a range of unconventional sexual proclivities like SM. And biographer Thomas Maier begins his book with Virginia Johnson losing her virginity, portrays her as a sexually conniving secretary and delights in exposing surprising aspects of the researchers’ sex life together. Historian James Jones biography of Kinsey perhaps most typifies the genre. Jones claimed that Kinsey’s research was driven by his own “inner demons” which allegedly included homosexuality, masochism, and a range of sexual compulsions such as masturbating with objects inserted into his urethra.

This paper examines a number of biographies of sexuality scholars, and explores the dilemma biographers face in writing about the sex lives of these researchers. I suggest that, despite increased acceptance and even excitement about the academic study of sexuality, sexual stigma is a persistent theme in the stories about researchers themselves. Biographers use sex to frame the story, locating sex research in a brew of perverse desires and practices, and contending that the researcher’s deviance colors or discredits the scholarship.