Libido: Reviews: An American Obsession
An American Obsession:
Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society

By Charles-Gene McDaniel

While same-sex relations have existed from time immemorial, the term homosexuality was not coined until 1868. The German-Hungarian nobleman and writer Karoly Maria Benkert first used the term to describe the scientific theory posited by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1864. These men were interested in bringing greater understanding to the phenomenon of homosexuality to help repeal laws making same-sex relations illegal. Paradoxically, however, scientists and medical doctors have sought "scientific" explanations of homosexuality in order to try to treat it and eliminate it. Their efforts often have resulted in more severe treatment of homosexuals and lesbians than efforts of the sex police to wipe out what they viewed as an abomination, an effort that continues, although somewhat diminished, to this day.

Jennifer Terry, associate professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University, has produced an encyclopedic history examining the moral crusade resulting from scientific inquiry in the 19th century to contemporary debates over biology and genetics and homosexuality. If homosexuality is a medical condition, these crusaders posit, then it is therefore fixable, curable. Their efforts to bring this about are a chronicle of horrors. Their "scientific" explanations read like the myths of primitive peoples created to explain the unknowable.

The problem arises from the faith of Western cultures, especially American, in science and medicine. American doctors in particular have assumed an arrogant omniscience, assuming that the letters M.D. after their names give them carte blanche to speak authoritatively about anything and everything. The fact is, though, that physicians know very little about sex. Medical curricula include miniscule education about it beyond the plumbing aspects. And doctors being conservative in nature project their own narrow condemnatory attitudes to matters of sexuality. Until recently American medical consumers have contributed to this idolization of the M.D., unquestioningly placing doctors on a pedestal. More media attention to the fallibility of doctors, not to mention the development of managed care, has helped bring about a realization that doctors, like the rest of us, are imperfect human beings. Rather than relieving suffering, they have been the cause of it, especially as regards homosexuality.

The theory that homosexuality is a manifestation of a diseased nervous system was purveyed most prominently in 1886 by the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who argued that homosexuals should be treated medically rather than punished or jailed. He warned by masturbation could, in fact, lead to homosexual liaisons, which would mean that about 100 percent of the male population would be available.

Havelock Ellis, another prominent theorist, in 1895 recommended abstinence as the only viable way to control homosexuality, a position reflected today in the "reparative therapy" efforts of the Christian right and some psychoanalysts. Ellis was particularly disturbed by lesbianism and was dismayed by the social acceptance of affection between women. Abstinence, he argued, would not remove the "inversion" but may render it "comparatively harmless, both to the patient herself and to those who surround her."

Sigmund Freud, the titan of psychoanalysis, held a relatively benign view toward homosexuality. His followers, on the other hand, have been in the modem vanguard of those seeking to "cure" homosexuality, especially in the period after World War II. Men especially who have sought help because of conflicts over same-sex desire have left the couch even more conflicted when the analysts could have helped them accept their sexuality and lead happier, more productive lives. Other psychiatrists and psychologists have subjected homosexuals to electroshock treatment, lobotomies, castration and other horrors worthy of Hitler's Nazi tortures in their misguided desire to homogenize sexual desire. It might be argued that their zeal reflected their own subconscious conflicts about their own desires.

Although the landmark studies of Alfred Kinsey were flawed, it was these that marked the beginning of greater public, if not medical, acceptance of variations in human sexual expression.

Terry's book represents an extraordinary amount of research and is well, sometimes humorously written. In the epilogue she is critical of some of the contemporary gay science involving genetic research as well as the anti-gay research. If she is to be faulted it is in the fact that she questions the motivation of Simon LeVay, whose lover died of AIDS, and others for their biological determinism theories, while failing to record that the virulently homophobic psychologist Paul Cameron was ousted from the American Psychological Association for his hare-brained claims about homosexuals and that the equally homophobic psychoanalyst Charles Socarides is the father of a gay son, a prominent attorney in President Clinton's administration.

These are minor flaws. Terry's book is essential reading as a record of medical and scientific persecution of homosexuals as well as understanding of the culture that fomented these pathological attitudes toward a minority.

An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modem Society by Jennifer Terry (University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-79367-2. 537 pages, with illustrations, paperback, $ ?).

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