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Sexual neurosis

Posted Nov 18 2008 12:11am

This week's "Times Literary Supplement" reviews a work labeled "American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports," by Miriam G. Reumann. As an American who rather likes sex, this was the first piece I read.

The reviewer opens:

One of the oddest contradictions, in a country riven by contradictions, is how the United States--the world's most powerful and confident nation--is at the same time the most insecure, the most anxious, the most terrified of national collapse. One manifestation of this is an obsession with that slippery and quite possibly non-existent thing, national character.

Reumann examines the shocked reactions in 1950s America to Kinsey's reports about male and female sexuality. Evidently, the report on womens' sex lives, and Kinsey's sections regarding homosexuality, scandalized the cultural and political powers that be in our country. According to the reviewer, Reumann believes that she can get a grip on Americans' perceptions of our national character by examining those reactions:

"[I]t is axiomatic then (as it is now) that American sexual character was national character. Americans could be defined by what they did sexually. From this it followed that private sexual acts were in fact political acts.

There is a suggestion in the review that we as a collective have been concerned about declining masculinity (at least in the past), and the reviewer specualtes that we are anxious about sexual issues because we are a nation of immigrants and not a homogeneous people; therefore, we have deep-rooted insecurities about cohering as a nation. The reviewer goes on to say (correctly) that the 1950s were a period of intense anxiety due to the Cold War, changes being brought about in society due to our sudden wealth, and early feminism. Also, the reviewer notes, sex-related issues remain as political issues here. However, the reviewer concludes that:

The fact is there doesn't seem to be any real connection between sex and politics, or "national character" or the strength of a nation, or any of the other issues raised by the voluminous material gathered here. Certainly no cogent argument for this is provided.

All very interesting. I've not read the book, and I probably won't, but it seems a stretch to argue that American national character is defined by sexual character. How is "national character" defined, and who defines it? I think we Americans have much more flexibility on these questions than the citizens of, say, Japan or the U.K., where the relative homomgeneity of the populations and the much longer national histories deeply influence the answers. One of the neat things about being an American, in my opinion, is that each of us can see something slightly different when we view the stars and stripes. On the one hand, people like James Dobson and Boyd K. Packer might agree with the hypothesis of the book, as they argue that gay marriage is an offense to God that will destroy the institution of marriage and that society will crumble as a result. In that respect, our national character is tied up with our personal sexual behavior from a largely religious perspective. On the other hand, people of a more liberal bent could view America's history as one of gradual inclusion and generosity--as an imperfect society that adapts to changing circumstances and cultural norms. In that view, our national character really isn't tied to sexual behavior at all.

The United States of America. Energetic, contradictory, neurotic, powerful, and the place I call home. Gotta love it.
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