09 June 2006

Kinsey, Sturgeon, and "The Sex Opposite"

Continuing where we left off with some thoughts on sexology and science fiction, let's consider some of the similarities between Alfred Kinsey and Theodore Sturgeon.

The Kinsey Scale was not the first time a continuum theory of sexuality was proposed. Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld, Sigmund Freud, and Havelock Ellis each proposed a theory of bisexuality as the core state of human sexuality, which to some extent or another brought them toward a continuum theory. As the field of endocrinology developed, biological research confirmed the variability of sexuality in humans and other animals, while at the same time anthropological work by people such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead revealed varying attitudes toward sexuality and gender in different cultural contexts. Mead developed a continuum model of masculinity and femininity, as did the psychologists and intelligence researchers Lewis Terman and Catherine Cox Miles.

Much of the above information comes from Jennifer Terry's An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Terry says of these theories and studies:
As in the earlier inversion model, homosexuals were imagined as intermediate creatures situated between normal males and normal females. But the crucial difference in models generated by research from the 1930s was that even normal men and women were discovered to have qualities and characteristics previously associated only with the "opposite" sex. By signifying a middle position between the poles of masculinity and femininity, homosexuals were situated conceptually in greater proximity to the norm than earlier models of inversion had permitted. For if the difference between the sexes was a matter of degree and not kind, then the homosexual could be conceptualized as sharing many qualities with the rest of the population. But ... such news did not alter the popular perception that homosexuals belonged to a distinguishable and pathological group, set apart from the normal healthy population. A case can be made ... that conceiving of homosexuals as similar to heterosexuals worried many people. This worry led to renewed efforts to determine and police the differences between, on the one hand, heterosexuals who were deemed to express normal gender characteristics and sexual desire and, on the other hand, those who were assessed as abnormal because they showed "sex variant" tendencies. (176)
Then came World War II, which had all sorts of effects on conceptions of gender and sexuality (as had World War I in similar ways) -- as the military's need for more and more soldiers increased, people who had previously been banned from service, including homosexuals, were allowed in. Meanwhile, on the home front, women participated in work previously reserved for men. Kinsey worked on his research throughout this time, and in 1948 published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which showed that homosexual behavior was far more common than generally acknowledged. Kinsey noted that "there is only about half of the male population whose sexual behavior is exclusively heterosexual, and there are only a few percent who are exclusively homosexual." Just as noticeable as the statistics were Kinsey's attitudes -- he did not condemn the behaviors he reported as degenerate, pathological, or perverse.

Of course, Kinsey came in for plenty of criticism, both of his statistics and of his attitudes. As the Cold War and McCarthyism filled the public consciousness, "perversion" became linked with Communism. Terry notes that
Cold War homophobic purges were as much about gender transgression as about homosexuality per se. Arthur Schlesinger's The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) warned against effeminacy in all areas of government policy-making, which he believed was increasing with the breakdown of clear distinctions between masculinity and femininity. The "vital center" was characterized by a "new virility," a crucial change from the "emasculated" ruling class of Henry Wallace's Progressive ranks. In Schlesinger's words, communism was "something secret, sweaty, and furtive like nothing so much, in the phrase of one wise observer of modern Russia, as homosexuals in a boys' school." (336)
And then there was Theodore Sturgeon, who, just as Kinsey's work was being released and gaining notoriety, published one story after another that portrayed love as a many-varied thing, and offered compassionate (if sometimes simplistic or condescending) portrayals of characters who did not fit into rigid stereotypes of sexuality or gender.

There are a number of Sturgeon stories I could discuss here -- "Bianca's Hands" and "The World Well Lost" would also be appropriate -- but I want to offer a few thoughts on his story "The Sex Opposite", originally published in the Fall 1952 issue of Fantastic and available in E Pluribus Unicorn and Selected Stories. It's not one of Sturgeon's best stories -- the plot is awkward, the writing is comically hardboiled, the characters are simplistic. But the ideas it expresses, and the time of its publication, make it work well for this discussion.

"The Sex Opposite" was one of Sturgeon's earliest stories specifically about sex and sexuality. Its basic structure is that of a mystery story: Two people have been killed in Central Park, and a medical examiner named Muhlenberg and a (female) newspaper reporter named Budgie try to piece together what happened. At first, Muhlenberg doesn't want to reveal any information to Budgie, but as she continues to press, he lets her know that the couple was not a romantic couple, but rather conjoined twins. A fire breaks out in the morgue, and Muhlenberg discovers that the corpses have been destroyed before an autopsy could be performed. On his way home that night, he stops at a bar for a drink and meets a woman with whom he feels a profound connection. They return to his apartment, read poetry to each other, listen to records, and then she tells him to meet her the next day at a seedy bar "down in the warehouse district", and she leaves. The next night, when he goes to the bar, Budgie is there, and tells him about having spent the day with a man who made her feel tremendously happy and fulfilled, but whom she never touched. Moments later, the man appears. Except when Muhlenberg sees him, he sees the woman he met the night before. The rest of the story is an explanation of the nature of the twin who was killed in Central Park: it was, as originally thought, two beings, but they had been in the midst of reproductive syzygy -- "A non-sexual interflow between the nuclei of two animals" -- when they were pulled apart and killed by muggers. The creature arranges for the muggers to be killed in a fight outside the bar while Muhlenberg and Budgie watch, then wipes their memories clean and disappears, leaving them with a profound love for each other.

Thus, the creature embodies what humans would consider two separate genders at once. It tells Muhlenberg and Budgie that its species has been responsible for creating the feelings that produced most of human culture. Budgie asks the creature why they have stayed hidden for so long.
"'We have to hide,' the other said gently. 'You still kill anything that's . . . different.'"
A species that had brought so much creative force to humans -- creatures of tremendous power and beauty -- must hide away because of the murderous human fear of anything "abnormal". The abnormality here, though, is one that is presented as being entirely natural -- it is contextualized with a story of paramecia, which reminds readers that nature provides various models of sex, gender, and sexuality. At the same time, there are some hints that nature may not have to be the only limit to pleasure, because both Muhlenberg and Budgie experienced a kind of joy with the creature that they had never experienced with a human before. In the end, what matters for everyone in the story is that joy, a kind of love that is ideal and magnificent, a love that transcends culture, morality, and even species.

Kinsey would have found much to agree with in that attitude.

Soon after "The Sex Opposite" appeared, Kinsey published his second study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Meanwhile, a young ex-G.I. named George Jorgensen was in the midst of the surgeries that would allow him to become Christine Jorgensen, who would be, for a brief time, among the most famous women in the world. In How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, Joanne Meyerowitz writes that
Jorgensen eventually moved from current event to yesterday's news, but as other stories of sex change appeared and reappeared, the media reminded the public that manhood, womanhood, and the boundaries between them were neither as obvious nor as impermeable as they once had seemed.
Kinsey and Sturgeon both contributed to this reminding, one through science and one through fiction.

4 comments:

  1. Okay, now somebody needs to make a short film called Sturgeon that parodies Kinsey.

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  2. Good idea! Sturgeon's penchant for nudism would be a particularly fine element to explore in the film. I'll get Meghan McCarron to work on it...

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  3. When was Sturgeon's Venus Plus X published? 1960?

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