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Another stab at sexual theory.

The Role of Theory in Sex Research. Edited by John Bancroft Dr John H.J. Bancroft was Director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University from 1995 to 2004. He is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Bancroft received his B.A. in 1960 and his M.D.
. Bloomingtofi, IN: Indiana University Press Indiana University Press, also known as IU Press, is a publishing house at Indiana University that engages in academic publishing, specializing in the humanities and social sciences. It was founded in 1950. Its headquarters are located in Bloomington, Indiana. , 2000, 366 pages. Cloth, $49.95.

In 1998, The Journal of Sex Research released a special issue on theory in sexual science (Weis, 1998a). In the opening article, I noted that there has never been a strong tradition of metatheory met·a·the·o·ry  
A theory devised to analyze theoretical systems.
 (critical evaluation of theory) in sexuality research similar to several other disciplines (Weis, 1998b). The special issue was an attempt to begin such a tradition. It was organized around the notion of conceptual frameworks with articles on evolutionary psychology evolutionary psychology
The study of the psychological adaptations of humans to the changing physical and social environment, especially of changes in brain structure, cognitive mechanisms, and behavioral differences among individuals.
, social exchange theory, symbolic interactionism Symbolic interactionism is a major sociological perspective that is influential in many areas of the discipline. It is particularly important in microsociology and sociological social psychology. , social learning theory, and systems theory. There was also an article on theory in sex therapy, as well as one summarizing the rift between social constructionism For the learning theory, see .
Social constructionism or social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts.
 and essentialism essentialism

In ontology, the view that some properties of objects are essential to them. The “essence” of a thing is conceived as the totality of its essential properties.
. Each of the authors provided a critical assessment of his/her theory, in addition to presenting a historical summary. I believe that this was the first issue of a professional journal ever devoted to a critical evaluation of sexual theory.

With the publication of The Role of Theory in Sex Research, a collection edited by John Bancroft, we have another effort to critically evaluate sexual theory. Bancroft has taken a different approach entirely. This book includes the proceedings of a conference held at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana Bloomington is a city in south central Indiana. Located about 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis, it is the seat of Monroe County. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, Bloomington had a total population of 69,291, making it the 7th largest city in Indiana. , from May 14-17, 1998. The principal objective of the conference (and the book) was to "seek useful discourse among researchers from different epistemological backgrounds" to facilitate interdisciplinary research in the future. Bancroft wanted to foster dialogue that would serve to bridge the gap between social constructionists and biomedical bi·o·med·i·cal
1. Of or relating to biomedicine.

2. Of, relating to, or involving biological, medical, and physical sciences.
 essentialists. As is the case with any anthology, some sections of the book accomplish these goals more than others.

The conference followed a particular format. Two original papers, presenting a mini-theory on a selected topic, were delivered. Papers were presented in five specific areas: (a) sexuality across the lifecycle, (b) sexual orientation sexual orientation
The direction of one's sexual interest toward members of the same, opposite, or both sexes, especially a direction seen to be dictated by physiologic rather than sociologic forces.
, (c) sexual risk-taking, (d) adolescent sexuality, and (e) policy and culture. These were followed by what are called discussion papers, which were responses to the original papers. This series of presentations was then followed by a general discussion by everyone attending the conference.

Original papers were delivered by Anke Ehrhardt, Anthony Walsh, Daryl Bem Daryl J. Bem is a social psychologist at Cornell University, and the originator of the self-perception theory of attitude change. Bem received a B.A. from Reed College in physics in 1960. , Gilbert Herdt Gilbert Herdt (born February 24, 1949) [1] is an American cultural anthropologist who specializes in sexuality and gender identity-based cultures. His studies of the 'Sambia' people -- a pseudonym he created -- of Papua New Guinea analyzes how culture and society create , John Gagnon Dr. John Gagnon of the State University of New York at Stony Brook is a sociologist and sexologist. Gagnon and William H. Simon developed the concept of sexual scripts, which posits that a person's sexual behavior and experience of that behavior is influenced by their subjective , John Bancroft, Constance Nathanson, Joseph Lee Rodgers, and Richard Parker. Discussants included Sarah Hrdy, Leonore Tiefer, Heino Meyer-Bahlburg, Gary Dowsett, Jay Paul, Meg Gerrard, Caroline Bledsoe, Dennis Fortenberry, Claire Brindis, and Robert Michael.

The first section on sexuality across the life cycle serves to highlight one of the principal themes of the book: that debates about whether certain sexual phenomena are inborn inborn /in·born/ (in´born?)
1. genetically determined, and present at birth.

2. congenital.

1. Possessed by an organism at birth.

 or learned are misleading, erroneous, and counterproductive. Such arguments posit a false dichotomy. Ehrhardt proposed what she calls a biopsychosocial model of sexual development. Here, early social/environmental experiences are seen as influencing neural (brain) development. In response, Hrdy presented a useful description of modern biology and how biologists think. This is necessary reading for anyone who believes that biology is deterministic. Tiefer stressed the importance of context and gender in sexual development. She also questioned whether the goal of a unified (grand) sexual theory is realistic. Answering her question at present strikes me as premature.

The topic of sexual orientation proved as difficult for the conference participants as it always has been for sexual scientists generally. The reader will be able to grasp the sense of contention here. Bem presented a mini-theory he summarized as "the exotic becomes erotic" to explain the emergence of sexual orientation. Herdt described his work with the Sambia and argued that the concept of sexual life-way would be more descriptive and accurate. He also noted that the Sambia demonstrate that sexual desire can be and is modified by culture. Meyer-Bahlburg was strongly critical of both of these papers, arguing for a psychoendocrine perspective. Dowsett was critical of all of his colleagues and argued persuasively against the very concept of sexual orientation. His account of the Montreal dancers is illuminating in this regard. In fact, there was considerable debate by people attending the conference about whether sexual orientation will be a useful concept for sexual scientists in the 21 st century. Some questioned whether any trans-cultural theories can be built. As a reader, I was struck by the inability of the participants at this point to strive toward Bancroft's theoretical "bridges."

Gagnon presented a fascinating paper on risky sex, but one that clearly (and not apologetically) falls within the social consructionist camp. He noted that the label, risky sex, connotes persons who are out of control and engaging in wild and dangerous practices. He argued that this serves to legitimize le·git·i·mize  
tr.v. le·git·i·mized, le·git·i·miz·ing, le·git·i·miz·es
To legitimate.

 the effort to control sexual practice, and it assumes a rational calculus surrounding sexual conduct. In contrast, Bancroft presented a paper that could well serve as a model of what worried Gagnon. He immediately raised questions about individual propensities that make people either more or less likely to take risks. Gagnon's "out of control" sexuality has, indeed, sprung to life. Paul argued that Bancroft's model was too reductionist re·duc·tion·ism  
An attempt or tendency to explain a complex set of facts, entities, phenomena, or structures by another, simpler set: "For the last 400 years science has advanced by reductionism ...
 and that the concept of risk is, at best, situational. Here again, there seem to be few theoretical bridges. Gerrard closed this portion of the conference with a plea for interdisciplinary efforts and a caution against theories that incorporate everything "in the kitchen sink."

The papers on adolescent sexuality and public policy are, for me, the least interesting in the book. There are two reasons for this. The first is that adults almost never can discuss adolescent sex without problematizing it and attempting to control it. The second is that academics never seem to grasp how social policy is formulated or how to change it. Certainly, the conduct of scientific research does neither. Nathanson presented a paper in which this gap between scientific evidence and both policy and political debate is highlighted. She noted that many of the social myths about teenage pregnancy teenage pregnancy Adolescent pregnancy, teen pregnancy Social medicine Pregnancy by a ♀, age 13 to 19; TP is usually understood to occur in a ♀ who has not completed her core education–secondary school, has few or no marketable skills, is  and much social policy is directed at poor Black women. She cited abstinence education as a moralistic mor·al·is·tic  
1. Characterized by or displaying a concern with morality.

2. Marked by a narrow-minded morality.

 example. In fact, Nathanson argued that adolescent sexuality is symbolized by both the political left and right as a crisis of urges that must be controlled.

Rodgers presented a paper that could serve as Nathanson's example. He began by noting that there is no grand sexual theory. I want to mention that he was also the only participant in this conference to specifically speak in favor of metatheoretical analysis. It would be fair to suggest that his presentation of what he called a "social contagion Contagion

The likelihood of significant economic changes in one country spreading to other countries. This can refer to either economic booms or economic crises.

An infamous example is the "Asian Contagion" that occurred in 1997 and started in Thailand.
" model of adolescent sexuality was both controversial and actively opposed by many at the conference. Rodgers did attempt to explain the way in which this label was being used, and he argued that it did not necessarily imply that teen sex is "diseased." Rather, the model seeks to explain how sexual intercourse sexual intercourse
 or coitus or copulation

Act in which the male reproductive organ enters the female reproductive tract (see reproductive system).
 spreads through partners in the adolescent network. Me thinks he doth doth  
v. Archaic
A third person singular present tense of do1.
 protest too much. Despite his disclaimers, Rodgers does explicitly acknowledge that he believes adolescent sexual behavior

Main articles: Human sexual behavior, Adolescence, and Adolescent sexuality
Adolescent sexual behavior refers to the sexual behavior of adolescents.
 is a serious social problem, and he explicitly endorses a social policy agenda that would serve to postpone sexual activity as late as possible. Thus, in the end, he really did employ a disease model to explain adolescent sexuality. Still, he made two points that theorists need to incorporate into theories of teen sexuality. One is explaining the role and importance of sexual partners as they influence sexual development. The other is the finding that the earlier onset of sexual intercourse among Black females can be explained almost entirely by their earlier age of menarche menarche /me·nar·che/ (me-nahr´ke) establishment or beginning of the menstrual function.menar´cheal

The first menstrual period, usually during puberty.

There were strong reactions to this paper by Rodgers. Fortenberry argued that the dyad dyad /dy·ad/ (di´ad) a double chromosome resulting from the halving of a tetrad.

1. Two individuals or units regarded as a pair, such as a mother and a daughter.

 is seldom used as the unit of analysis in adolescent research. Moreover, the continuing focus on the problems of teen sexuality has left us with little understanding of the broad repertoire of adolescent behavior or its impact on later life. Brindis noted that we do not teach adolescents sexual negotiation skills. I was struck by the realization that most of these people could not discuss adolescent sexuality without reference to it as a social problem, many without resort to ideas about controlling it. Several participants in the general discussion made this exact point. There was apparent conflict between these persons and those who openly advocated a greater social control of adolescents. I have been listening to this social debate my entire life. Not only did the conference participants fail to reach consensus, but I am also troubled by the apparent lack of any theory of social policy.

The conference closed with separate papers by Richard Parker and Robert Michael. Each provided summaries of the conference as a whole and their impressions of the importance of a conference on sexual theory. I do not want to spoil the ending for readers, so I will limit my comments to a few highlights. Among other points, Parker spoke of the value of opening lines of communication "Lines of Communication" is an episode from the fourth season of the science-fiction television series Babylon 5. Synopsis
Franklin and Marcus attempt to persuade the Mars resistance to assist Sheridan in opposing President Clark.
 between disciplines to refine sexual theory. Michael argued that social policy always produces latent functions. In the end, the general discussion seemed to focus on prospects for funding future sex research. John Gagnon spoke of the need to stress health, health, and health in funding requests, rather than pleasure, pleasure, and pleasure. Anke Ehrhardt countered by noting that sexuality researchers need to find a way to operate in the consumer culture. So, perhaps, we need to learn to sell, sell, and sell.

On balance, this is an important and thought-provoking book. Sex researchers have rarely published this sort of assessment of theory, and there have been few professional conferences devoted to this topic. Bancroft has provided a genuine service to the profession by inviting an impressive array of sex researchers to focus on these concerns and address serious questions about the theories used in sex research. Most readers should find this both weighty and meaty reading. It also serves as a fine statement of where sexual theory stands as we begin a new century. Most of its weaknesses are really weaknesses of sexual theory itself.

The 1998 special issue of The Journal of Sex Research provided a specific perspective on metatheory and used this to build articles around it. Some would, no doubt, criticize the decision to use conceptual frameworks as an organizing theme, but that decision did give the special issue a clear focus. Here, Bancroft allowed the participants in this conference much greater flexibility. This does give the book a rather free-floating context. On the other hand, there is no shared definition of theory, or even an attempt to build one. Further, there is no consensus among the conference participants about the meaning of theory. That conclusion may serve as the best summary of the current state of sexual theory. Perhaps we should ask Bancroft to schedule another conference.


Weis, D. L. (Ed.). (1998a). Special issue: The use of theory in research and scholarship on sexuality. The Journal of Sex Research, 35, 1-123.

Weis, D. L. (1998b). The use of theory in sexuality research. The Journal of Sex Research, 35, 1-9.

Reviewed by David L. Weis, Ph.D., Bowling Green State University Bowling Green State University, at Bowling Green, Ohio; coeducational; chartered 1910 as a normal school, opened 1914. It became a college in 1929, a university in 1935. , School of Family and Consumer Sciences, Bowling Green, OH 43403; e-mail:
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Title Annotation:The Role of Theory in Sex Research
Author:Weis, David L.
Publication:The Journal of Sex Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2002
Previous Article:Enlarging the landscape of sexual pleasure.
Next Article:Misconceptions promote confusion: author's response to book review. (Letter to the Editor).

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