Who’d want to be a man?

Adam Phillips

  • Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire by Lisa Diamond
    Harvard, 333 pp, £18.95, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 02624 7

The scientific study of sexuality – unsurprisingly, perhaps, a flourishing academic field – aims to help us sort out what we might want from what we can have. Given how widespread sexual curiosity tends to be, it’s always interesting to see what science can get up to when it researches sex; what calling this particular area of research ‘scientific’ adds to, or takes away from, this common pursuit. At its most minimal the so-called science of sex makes us wonder what sex would be if it wasn’t embarrassing, and if there was no more to expose than the facts of life.

Questionnaires, analysis of statistical data and the measurement and description of physiological responses are the stuff of this kind of scientific research. And even though, as Lisa Diamond says, ‘there are no “safe” scientific findings,’ the research usually wants to provide us with facts we can’t argue with but just have to face. What makes the findings unsafe (like sex) is that no one can ever know what their consequences will be, or what they will be used for. Scientific method can be just another rhetoric of prejudice and punishment, bigotry without hysteria used to whip up the hysterical bigotry that is always lurking. It isn’t surprising that we want science to inform the prejudices we prefer: what is surprising is that we could ever believe in prejudice-free inquiry. We may call the science we like good science, but scientific methods and scientific findings can’t easily disentangle themselves from the various uses to which they may be put – think of the harm scientific research has done to homosexuality. No scientific proof has ever been in a position to decide what would be made of it. Sex and science, inclined to take each other too seriously, to want too much from each other, expose each other’s limitations.

What Diamond proffers as her ‘goal’ in this book is to present her findings about the nature and development of contemporary female sexuality ‘as accurately and completely as possible, making explicit the conclusions that they do and do not support’. If she is straightforward about some very unstraightforward things – ‘female sexuality in all its diverse and fluid manifestations’ – it’s because she manages to tell us what she has found without needing to know where that leaves us. She wants the traditional liberations of science – ‘the wellbeing of all women will be improved through a more accurate, comprehensive understanding of female sexuality’ – without assuming that the evidence will tell us what to do. She never pretends that science speaks on our behalf.

Sexual Fluidity is an account of a research project that changed direction: Diamond found something she hadn’t been looking for. All she had originally set out to study was ‘variability in women’s sexual pathways’, but it was soon clear that ‘variability’ didn’t do justice to what she was hearing from the women she interviewed, and that previous research in these areas had been flawed in ways that limited the scope of the stories women had to tell about their experiences. None of the previous research, for example, included more than one follow-up assessment interview, and the follow-up took place after a relatively short interval. Earlier studies had ‘focused only on adults who had self-identified as gay/lesbian/bisexual back in the 1970s and 1980s’, whereas she wanted to find out about women who were coming out now, women who had ‘grown up with much greater exposure to ideas about same-sex sexuality than had previous generations’. They would, she thought, be less likely to experience variations in their sexual development as resulting from repression or ignorance, and they would be less impressed by the available sexual categories. And last but not least, previous studies, of which Kinsey’s is the most famous, ‘relied primarily on numerical measures of sexuality’, whereas Diamond wanted to conduct ‘in-depth interviews, during which women could be prompted, with the assurance of confidentiality, to reflect on and reveal such deeply personal information’. As a result the book has many riveting accounts by women of their own experiences of sexual attraction and distraction. Diamond never makes her interviewees sound less interesting than her conclusions about them.

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