Book Review: The Sociology of Sex: An Introductory Reader (Revised Edition) (Edited by James M. Henslin and Edward Sagarin)

Although this book is a recommended read for anyone interested in sex research, it’s important to remember that the nature of sex research differs depending on disciplinary focus.

The Sociology of Sex: An Introductory Reader (Revised Edition) is a 1978 anthology of sex research that analyses various dimensions of sex, sexuality and gender, thereby providing novel insights on a range of issues ranging from prostitution to abortion, from homosexuality to sex education (to name a few). Although this book is a recommended read for anyone interested in sex research, it’s important to remember that the nature of sex research differs depending on disciplinary focus. Thus, although sex research has been and continues to be, a primary area of interest for biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists, it was much later that sociology, a discipline that emerged in the 18th century, brought sex and sexuality studies into its fold. To this end, the introductory chapter rightly states:

“the focal concern in the sociology of sex flows from this universal fact of cultural heritage: namely, how human culture and social participation shape the human sex drive. To what extent? In what ways? And with what consequences for “being human”?” (Chapter 1, Page 2)

The chapters following the introductory chapter address each of these questions, with each subsequent chapter devoted to a unique area of sex research. Just as the concluding chapter calls attention to the history of sex research, so too the second chapter outlines the history of changing sexual morality and mores in the United States (from World War 1 to the 1970s). Aptly titled “The new Sexual Morality”, this chapter highlights how American society changed its previously orthodox attitudes towards virginity, premarital sex and non-marital cohabitation. The discussion of premarital sex is continued in the next chapter, which analyses and evaluates four theories of sexual behaviour. What this chapter discovers is that sexual activity is governed by a multitude of factors, not limited to child socialization and family organization. It is incumbent on sex researchers to draw interlinkages between these variables and more to fully understand the subtleties of sexual activity.

Chapter four, Michael Gordon’s chapter on the history of the American sex manual was one of my favourites. In it, he analyses American education literature from 1930-1940 to depict how social understandings of sex evolved over time. Interestingly, 19th-century literature hardly spoke about sex behaviour, with greater emphasis placed on “sexual physiology” or the study of sexual organs. It was much later that sex came to be viewed as a recreational activity, rather than simply a procreative one.

Chapter five and six focus on issues of abortion and forcible rape respectively, while chapters seven and eight focus on sexual policing and the sociological aspects of the vaginal examination respectively. These chapters are exclusively centred around the woman’s body and the female sexuality and illustrate how existing social structures, cultural attitudes and non-state actors, such as the police, interact with the female body as it navigates through experiences ranging from abortion to sexual assault, from vaginal examinations to consensual sex in public spaces. The latter chapters on prostitution, stripping and homosexuality use a mix of interviews, surveys and literature reviews to provide novel insights on the lives of people whom society regarded as “deviants” at the time of the study.

The Sociological quarterly has rightfully called this anthology “a provocative collection” because it brings to light the stories, narratives and biographies of diverse men and women across space and time who lived in an American where sexual inhibition and repression was the norm. Although this anthology provides immensely useful information to sex researchers across disciplines, it should have also included a few research papers with heterosexual men and transgender people as primary sites of investigation. Therefore, a paper highlighting heterosexual men’s attitude towards rape, or a paper focusing on transgender people’s experiences with hormonal therapy would have made this already eclectic piece even more comprehensive.

In addition to gender diversity, the inclusion of other forms of diversity, such as race and ethnicity are also important considerations for robust social science research. Although the race and ethnicity of the research subjects weren’t explicitly highlighted in most papers, it should have. We would have then had a truly intersectional and identity specific understanding of sex that would have delineated the differences in the lived experiences of people belonging to these variegated social groups. Thus, how are social attitudes towards homosexuality experienced differently by Latina women as compared to white women? Also, how are African American women in the prostitution industry treated differently when compared to white women? What about heterosexual and homosexual male strippers? These are questions that need further probing.

Sociology is no doubt an interesting field of inquiry, and the sociology of sex further enriches this already robust discipline. In the concluding chapter, Edward Sagarin not only lays out the impediments to sex research, which are ethical, ideological, social and normative in nature but also prescribes solutions to overcome these hurdles. Despite being a research-oriented book, the premises and conclusions made by the authors are easy to understand and extremely interesting to read.

One does not need a sociology background to understand the claims laid out in this book. Furthermore, it would be interesting to read a similar anthology made specifically for the Indian subcontinent to better understand how sex, sexuality and gender intersect with caste, class and religion as they uniquely manifest in India. Such an anthology would go a long way in not only addressing long-standing taboos surrounding sex, sexuality and gender in our country, but also allow public policy experts, social workers and academics to augment their understanding of these and many other social issues that are both a cause and consequence of the norms, taboos and cultural practices emanating from the quaint Indian understanding of sex, sexuality and gender.

About the author

Kanav Narayan Sahgal

Kanav is currently pursuing his Master's in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He identifies as queer for personal and political reasons and is extremely interested in addressing various forms of contemporary social issues and inequalities through his writing. An unapologetic nerd and gym rat, you will most likely either find him lifting 12 kilo dumbbells in the gym, or reading Foucault in the library.
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