Saturday, December 8, 2012

When You've Got a Ph.D., Everything Looks Like an Intervention

I'm now well into Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS (Ohio, 2008).  The author, Marc Epprecht, also wrote Hungochani, a highly-praised book on homosexuality in Southern Africa which I have on my shelves but haven't read yet.  In Heterosexual Africa? Epprecht takes on the doctrine, spread by Africans and non-Africans alike, that homosexuality is unknown in Africa, with an emphasis on the impact it has had on responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  In many ways it's a valuable book, and I suspect I'll be writing more about the book in the next few days, but one sentence on page 117 brought me up short, and I want to discuss it now.

In his chapter focusing on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Epprecht surveys the quasi-scientific literature on modes of transmission, which he says ignored male-to-male sexuality almost entirely; at best, this literature mentioned the possibility merely to dismiss it.  What research did mention (usually male) homosex was itself ignored, as though it had never been published.
In an article on African AIDS patients in Europe, from 1981 through 1985, for example, Jean Sonnet and H.Taelman ... noted that one out of forty-two patients in their study admitted to not being heterosexual. The WHO study noted above found even more. Out of 117 African African patients in Europe who were tested in the first nine months of 1986, 5 percent were found to have contracted HIV through homosexual or bisexual transmission, and a further 1 percent either that way or though intravenous drug injection ... 
So far, so bad.  Epprecht repeatedly stresses the inadequacy of terminology like "heterosexual" and "homosexual" for traditional cultures in Africa, invoking the authority of queer and post-colonial theory; he even has wit enough to recognize that "sex" is problematic, since most societies, including the "West," tend to recognize only penis-in-vagina penetration as "sex."  Even that doesn't work outside English-speaking parts of the world, and researchers working in other languages with informants whose first language is not a European one, are often unclear about the languages they use to elicit information.  In this case I have the added difficulty that Epprecht is paraphrasing his sources, though since they were in European languages "homosexual" or its cognates were probably used.

Even among white Americans and Europeans, however, there's considerable ambiguity about a phrase like "not being heterosexual."  Does it mean that the subject is exclusively homosexual in his or her desires and behavior, or simply not exclusively heterosexual?  Considering the number of Americans who don't consider themselves homosexual because they've never been penetrated although they have penetrated many other males, or who have been penetrated but it doesn't count because they "avidly" penetrate females, some more care, if not precision, with terms is desirable here.

"Homosexual or bisexual transmission" is even worse.  Bisexual transmission would require a rather exotic sex life, even for the decadent West: it would mean that both a male and a female partner were involved (simultaneously?) in transmitting the virus to the recipient.  If he got it from a male, it doesn't matter whether he or his partner were "bisexual," which I suppose is what was meant by "bisexual transmission."  As Kinsey wrote in 1948, the word bisexual "should, however, be used with the understanding that it is patterned on the words heterosexual and homosexual, and, like them, refers to the sex of the partner, and proves nothing about the constitution of the person who is labeled bisexual [657]."

Which brings me, in more ways than one, to the sentence by Epprecht that made me see red, emboldened below:
These figures are very low compared to the epidemic in Europe and America.  But they can more usefully be compared to what Alfred Kinsey found in American men in the days before gay rights (that is, 4 percent admitting to homosexuality as a predominant orientation).
I had been wondering why Epprecht hadn't mentioned Kinsey before in this book, aside from a passing allusion seven pages earlier.  Kinsey understood the problems of studying human sexuality better than every researcher Epprecht discusses in this book (including, I fear, himself).  Long before AIDS, Kinsey rejected Western notions of sexual essence that ignored the widely differing experiences and practices of men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women.  He didn't, as far as I know, ask any of his interviewees whether they were homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. (If he had, most of the heterosexuals would have had no idea what he meant, and would probably have said no.)  He didn't ask them if they'd had homosexual (or heterosexual) experiences.  He asked them what they had done, and with whom.  He was, if I recall correctly what his colleague Wardell Pomeroy wrote, ready to use non-clinical vernacular terms for sexual acts when the interviewee didn't understand clinical terms.  (Asking a farmer or a convict how many times he'd received fellatio, for example, would probably have drawn a blank most of the time.  I kinda wonder if some of the later sex surveys dodged this little problem by not interviewing lower-class or uneducated subjects.)  In short, Kinsey grappled with the very problems that stymied researchers during the AIDS epidemic four decades later, in large part because they'd ignored Kinsey as outdated and irrelevant.  He recognized that many people had a lot of same-sex experience without thinking of themselves as homosexual or bisexual, and he recognized that this counted against the notion of homosexual or bisexual persons, not against their experience, which he rightly considered primary.

But what bothered me about the sentence I quoted above is that Epprecht -- who, you'll recall, has spent over a hundred pages denying the validity of homosexuality as an identity for purposes of studying sexuality in Africa -- is still trying to impose homosexual and bisexual identity on Westerners.  His reference to Kinsey (without a citation in the text or endnote) is incorrect.  It is false that 4 percent of males admitted "to homosexuality as a predominant orientation."  Kinsey didn't use the word "orientation" (to be scrupulous, he used it once in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, in a different sense) in connection with homosexual or heterosexual experience.  What he found was that 4 percent of his male sample had exclusively homosexual outlet throughout their adult lives.  If he asked them how they "identified" (also a word that would have made no sense in that context in the 1930s and 1940s), it wasn't a factor in his numbers or in his homosexual-heterosexual scale.  Additionally, he found that another 6 percent of his male sample had at least as much homosexual as heterosexual outlet for at least three years of their adult lives.  This meant that 10 percent had predominantly homosexual experience for at least three years of their lives; it's the source of the popular claim that Kinsey found that ten percent of the population was gay or lesbian.  Thirty-seven percent of males had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm during their adult lives; I guess they were "not heterosexual." (This includes the 4 percent and the 10 percent, which I mention because I've encountered people who tried to add all the percentages together: 4 percent plus 10 percent plus 37 percent and so on.)

The point I want to make here is that if you're writing about the diversity and fluidity of human sexuality, Kinsey is fundamental.  True, his work was flawed in certain respects, most of which he knew full well (the absence of people of color in the sample, for one).  But he mapped out the understanding and approach that would be vital during the AIDS pandemic, and had to be largely reinvented from scratch because the researchers had ignored him.  Even thirty years into the pandemic, research professionals keep rediscovering that OMFG, there are totally men who have sex with other men and they aren't gay!  Anyone who treats this as a new revelation has just informed you that they don't know what they're talking about, and need to go back to sex-research kindergarten for remedial study of the basics.  Until they do, they are wasting money and time and human lives.