SSL Interview: Miriam Reumann

I will not mince words here. I like Miriam Reumann's book. I've read a fair share of long dry books as I was researching for this movie. Yes, many were quite useful, but honestly Reumann's book was one of the most useful and most informative, and it was not a bit dry. It was fun, and quirky, and tells a unique story about an iconic time in American history. In fact this is such a well-researched and interesting book that as I was looking through it to find questions I wanted to ask her, I found it a little hard to come up with any. I kept reading a few lines and thinking, "wow – that’s so interesting," but there just wasn’t a question because the book was so thorough. It’s just a really great read. 

This book, American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports  is actually the main inspiration for a section of the movie. Part of the story Reumann tells involves America's "discovery" of the female orgasm in the period after WWII, and she does a fantastic job of discussing the expectations, worries, and talking points  surrounding this new idea that women (married women of course) could and in fact should orgasm. The middle section of our movie Science Sex and the Ladies, considers the impact of this cultural shift on our current understanding of female sexuality (here's a clue - surprisingly little has changed). The historical point of view I was able to take from this book  really helped me illustrate the stark differences between the status quo perception of female sexuality and the perspective of female sexuality that Science Sex and the Ladies promotes.

However, as I said before, this book is chock full of great info, and it tells many other stories too - about marriage, masculinity, and homosexuality among other things. The larger idea in the book goes something as follows: The cultural climate after WWII facilitated a unprecedented public discussion of sex, and in fact, sex became a matter of American "character." How Americans dealt with sex was often discussed as related to the very core of what America was like as a country. Although there were disagreements among experts at the time (were Americans too repressed or too promiscuous?), there was widespread agreement that these questions were utterly important to the American way of life. Screw the 60's. This was the real American Sexual Revolution. 

I thought it was important to interview Reumann in this SSL interview series, because, outside of the fact that aspects of her book have added unique insight into the movie we've made, I also appreciate that her work is an intensely researched and incredibly innovative look at America’s relationship to sexuality. Deeply held assumptions about gender, that she clearly reveals to be important influences on the cultural discussion of sex, are  as pervasive today as they were in the post WWII period. Her discussion is progressive, thoughtful, and relevant to a more realistic understanding of female sexuality.

I contacted Miriam Reumann earlier this year and was happy to find that she was funny, engaging, and happily open to an interview. We eventually worked out a time, and I conducted an interview over email. I wrote a question. She answered. Then I wrote another question. The email thing was her idea, and I loved it. I am 10 times more relaxed writing than talking, so I had a great time, and I think she did too.

How did you get interested and started in the type of research you did for American Sexual Character? 

In grad school, when I started thinking about dissertation topics my parameters were pretty broad: I knew that I wanted to do something in the early or mid 20th century, and that I was interested in gender and sexuality. One of my professor/mentors, Anne Fausto-Sterling, said in passing one day that there was very little work on Kinsey, so my interest was piqued. I knew the general narrative about the Reports (huge, shattered common perceptions, important and controversial, etc., etc.) but realized that I’d never actually read any of either Sexual Behavior in the Human Male or Female, so I checked out incredibly thick and heavy copies from Brown’s library. Now, I wish I could say that looking at them filled me with exciting and original ideas, but the reverse was true – I found them so incredibly dull that I instead wondered how on earth anyone had ever seen these studies as remotely sexy, or threatening, or even readable! That, as it happens, wasn’t a bad question, and so as the dissertation research – and later the book – evolved, my central concern remained how they were USED, as opposed to what they actually found, or meant. That turned out to be useful in keeping me focused, since it meant I didn’t have to get mired down in the kinds of debates about accuracy or representativeness that Kinsey’s biographers cared about, and it also meant that I got to look not only at sources like serious journalism but also wacky popular culture – for years, I looked at every Kinsey artifact that cropped up on ebay, and lots of them, like cartoons or film posters, made it into my research. That said, I also got pulled in lots of unexpected directions, like when I discovered foreign policy analyses from the 1950s that focused obsessively on American sexuality as a key to our success or failure in the Cold War, and the central concept and title just flowed from there.  

I'm impressed you read through both the Kinsey reports. I have looked a tiny bit through them, but really couldn't bring myself to do any more than skim slightly and to read books like yours - that were about them. From reading American Sexual Character, it really does seems as though you went though an insanely immense amount of resources. How long were you researching and what were some of the most surprising or interesting things you came across?

I'm sure there are still large sections of both reports that I've never actually "read" - very few people then actually read them either, just pulled out whatever numbers and statements seemed most relevant or helpful to their beliefs.

   On the "immense amount of research" issue, I plead guilty - and you should be glad that the book version is much more streamlined than the dissertation, which had to be bound in 2 volumes because it was so embarrassingly long! I probably could have written the same basic dissertation in a year or 2 less if I'd trusted more in my own observations and felt less commitment to look at as much as possible. Some of that simply reflected that this was my first big intellectual project; it is probably also relevant that I did my grad work in an interdisciplinary program (American Studies) and was very conscious of having to make sense of how these different conversations (between sociologists, physicians, clergy, politicians, etc., etc.) linked up. At the time I thought that meant citing endless sources; nowadays, I trust I have a much better sense of when enough is enough. Lastly, of course, there simply was a huge amount of stuff on Kinsey, and a lot of what I used was things that I stumbled across rather than being able to find through, say, the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, since they didn't index pulp magazines and the like (again, hooray for ebay, one of a pop culture historian's best friends).

   I spent about 8 years on the dissertation, and, as noted above, it was probably longer than really needed (although I was about average for my department in terms of time to completion). There were certainly times when I researched less and wrote more, put the whole thing aside to work at side jobs for more money, or - more than once - got overwhelmed and just disengaged. As for sources, some of the most helpful material came late in the process, when I finally got to the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, which didn't happen until I was revising the dissertation into a (different and much better) book. By that point, I could use it more to support my sense of where I was going rather than as brand new ideas. Most surprising was probably the cartoons I featured in the book, which did a fabulous job of crystallizing many of the kinds of fears and reactions that I was finding in much more "serious" sources. Also, I ran across a number of material culture items that I couldn't feature in the book because they were so ephemeral, my only access would have been to buy them (and, really, who needs a Kinsey toilet paper holder, or bobble-head? Okay, maybe I regret not purchasing the bobble-head

You really should have purchased the bobble head :)

Marie Robinson pops up in the book several times. She seems like an interesting character, and I’m sure you’ve read a lot from her. What is your personal take on what kind of person she was and what kind of figure she was to that era?

  I’ll ask the same question of Paul Popenoe, and if you don’t mind, could you comment about what you know of Abraham Franzblau (“...It is as though the broad plateau of ecstasy can be reached only after climbing over the top of a high hill. In a happy marriage, the female lives up near the top and can reach the peak with ease…")? We actually had actors play all 3 of these people to convey some of their quotes from your book on frigidity and marriage. The one who played Franzblau was curious about him, and I didn’t have much to go on, so I thought you might be able to help out.

 I didn’t do a ton of biographical research on commentators, even though some of them popped up a lot! Those three are each fascinating, and each also, I think, speaks for a particular niche.

  Marie Robinson, as a female MD, probably had a pretty hard time positioning herself as an expert in postwar debates on sex, and to me that helps explain the way in which she authorized her writing as a maternal act, based on concern for young women who could easily make a sexual mistake that would doom their lives. That was, of course, still largely true for the middle-class young white women who were her subject and the target audience for her books (well, their mothers would have been the main purchasers). Despite writing books that sold well and reached a wide audience, she never quite appeared in the top category of sex experts of the era, who were overwhelmingly male and usually had university scientific credentials. But her work quite possibly reached more people, through being excerpted in places like the Readers’ Digest. So, I see her as an interesting example of the “type” of the concerned yet educated/professional mom, who was called on to speak for many women.

  As for Popenoe, he – and the legacy he left that continues through his son – was and is much more widely known, and has been discussed by a lot of historians (Wendy Kline’s book, Building a Better Race, is good on his popularization of eugenics, along with the work of other historians of medicine). He, to me, usually was called on (in regard to Kinsey’s work and mid-century sexuality in general) to fill the role of the good cop/bad cop, predicting to the public that Behavior A will result in happy marriages, healthy children, and good mental health, while Behaviors B through Z will not.

  Franzblau has been much less well documented. Like you, I find his theory of sexuality as a marathon in which women are located in the home stretch (Heartbreak Hill?) hilarious, but my memory of his other ideas isn’t vivid after all this time. I think he represented a very Americanized and partial version of Freudianism, which is a big theme in much of the heated negative psychiatric response to the Reports. (I just pulled up my long-ago notes on his book The Road to Sexual Maturity, and see that he did a lot of arguing with deBeauvoir on female nature, and also described any interracial couple as an example of “blemish mating” and maintained that women who steal other women’s men are actually repressed lesbians. There may be a reason I’ve blocked my memories of his work). Franzblau, who also wrote on modern Judaism, also raises the issue of religion and its place in the postwar sexual debates that I chronicled in the book. In retrospect, I think that I didn’t pay enough attention to the really wide range of attitudes towards Kinsey’s work and sexual change in general that there were – it was easy to bring in some of the fire-and-brimstone voices, and I did note that many mainstream Protestant pastoral counselors, among others, were cautiously in favor of greater sexual information and education, but there is a much more complex and interesting story there waiting to be told.

 Am looking forward to seeing/hearing these voices appear in the movie! 

"Blemish mating," huh?
 If you don’t mind, could you tell us a little about the research relating to sex studies of the 20s/30s that you are currently working on?

 Yeah, "blemish mating" is just . . . words fail one. 

 Sure, historians love to talk about that! While finishing the Kinsey book, I got interested in what had come before him: Kinsey was invested in seeing his own work as utterly original, and so downplayed American research prior to his as poorly done, inadequate, etc. At the same time, though, it was increasingly clear to me that he relied on earlier work in human sex research and also on a network of supporters that included many of the advisers who had conducted it, mostly in the 1920s and 30s before he really got going. So, I thought it would be interesting – perhaps just as a brief article-length piece of research – to examine these studies, some of which were funded but never published.

 As I got going, I discovered a lot more examples than I had known of, and was lucky enough to work with an archivist who dug up a collection of sex histories taken in that period by Dr. Adolf Meyer, head of psychiatry at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins, and known as probably the preeminent educator in psychiatry at the time and also very active in the mental hygiene movement).

 So, I’m currently working on this generation of sex researchers, from the well-known, like Robert Latou Dickinson, to the forgotten, like Meyer, who has become the center of my work. The material is so rich and complicated that I’ve been working very slowly (teaching 4 courses a semester as an instructor doesn’t help with that). Meyer’s sex histories, taken primarily from his students, range from a few sentences to close to 30 detailed pages, and cover everything you can think of – the subjects’ upbringing, sex ed, fantasy lives, education, various kinds of experiences, moral beliefs, etc., etc., etc.

 I’m still figuring out where they fit, but do feel clear on two main things. First, there was a big struggle in the early 20th century between 2 groups of human sex researchers; those who wanted to focus on quantitative evidence and count acts (as in Kinsey’s eventual approach) and those who distrusted numbers and preferred to privilege narratives, stories, collected through individual life histories. Secondly, the sex histories that Meyer collected, which he hoped would bridge this divide by allowing him to correlate individual studies with larger numbers, speak to the post-WWI era as a really confusing one for the middle- and upper-class young men (plus a few women) whose histories he collected. The transition between what you might call Victorianism and modernity was fraught, with distinctly different values systems and behaviors coexisting among men in the same cohort, as the histories feature men who boasted about their varied sexual conquests (including a great deal of same-sex activity, especially during wartime) right next to those who were deeply conflicted and others who denied any sexuality whatsoever and railed at the modern expectation that they should exhibit desires at all. So, fascinating stuff, but slow going, in part because it involves actual individual participants rather than the broader social and cultural patterns I was looking at in the first book.


 ***Thanks again to Miriam Reumann. I really appreciate that she took the time to do this. If you get a chance, and you like history or fun or books that are good, check out
American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity in the Kinsey Reports.


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