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An Introduction to the Many Meanings of Sexological Knowledge

Ira L. Reiss, Ph.D.



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Welcome to this treasure chest of sexological knowledge and understanding. You will find in this volume a wealth of information concerning sexuality in a very wide range of human societies. To introduce this extremely rare and valuable Continuum Complete International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, I will not review the fascinating reports of these authors. Instead, what I shall do is to try to afford the reader some perspective on the many ways that this knowledge can be understood and used. I will focus on three controversial aspects of cross-cultural work where scientific fads and fashions have tended to limit how that knowledge is presented. Having a broader view of these three aspects of cross-cultural studies should help the reader to utilize the accounts of sexuality in this Encyclopedia more completely.

I will first deal with the question of how our personal values and other assumptions about the world enter into the way we do our scientific work on sexuality, and what we can do about it. Secondly, I will deal with the current emphasis upon stressing the uniqueness of each society and the criticism of the search for cultural universals. And thirdly, I will deal with the important question of taking the “insider” and the “outsider” perspective when studying a society’s sexual customs. By discussing these three controversial areas and suggesting possible resolutions, the reader should be better prepared to make his or her own judgments on what is valuable in sexological knowledge.

Issue One: Science, Values, and Assumptions

There are those who still perceive of science and society as properly separated by an impenetrable wall. In this “positivist” view, the scientist is protected from “bias” by his or her withdrawal from taking sides on any of the basic value disputes in a society. As a result, we supposedly get a “value-free” and “pure” form of knowledge rather than a “biased” or “value-laden” point of view. That is still a popular view concerning science and society. Nevertheless, I contend that that sort of sharp separation of science and society is based upon an erroneous view of the way science really operates in society.

In my view, science cannot be separated from society, for it is an institution existing in a human society and conducted by human beings. Science, and its practitioners, can no more avoid the influences of the broader society than can the mass media, corporate business, government, religion, education, or the family. Further, the very support of science by a society depends on people’s believing that science is useful to the solution of the problems of that society. The high value placed upon physical science emanates from the advances it has produced in valued areas such as health, industry, and warfare. Denying this connection to society does not produce a lack of bias in science. Instead, it may produce an inability to be explicit about one’s values to others, and perhaps even to oneself.

Most obviously in the social sciences and in sexual science, where we seek to understand the way humans behave and think, there can be no meaningful separation of science from society and its values. But this does not mean that we cannot avoid bias in our scientific methods. Rather, if science is to maintain its claim to being fair, reasonable, logical, precise, and cautious, then it must acknowledge the possible values of the scientist and learn how to prevent them from overwhelming our scientific methods. Scientists cannot prevent bias in their work by simply claiming to be value-free. Rather, as I shall seek to illustrate, scientists must do it by demonstrating that they are value-aware. Let me illustrate my meaning with a research project I was involved in not long ago.

In 1988, a colleague, Robert Leik, and I set out to develop a probability model that would compare two strategies for reducing the risk of an HIV infection (Reiss & Leik 1989). The two strategies to be compared were: (1) to reduce the number of sexual partners or (2) to use condoms with all partners. Although utilizing both strategies simultaneously is clearly the safest way to reduce the risk of HIV, a great many people seem to choose to do one or the other. The model we built compared the risk in these two strategies using a very wide range of estimates of several key factors: (a) the prevalence of HIV, that is, the likelihood of picking an infected partner; (b) the infectivity of the HIV virus, that is, the likelihood of becoming infected with HIV if one picked an infected partner and had unprotected sex with that person; (c) the failure rate of condoms, ranging from a low of 10% to a high of 75%; and (d) the number of partners ranging from one to 20.

What we found was virtually unqualified support for the greater probability of avoiding HIV infection by using condoms rather than by reducing partners. In almost all cases, even if one had only one or two partners over a five-year period, if one did not use condoms with them, one had a higher risk of HIV infection than someone with 20 partners who did use condoms. This was true even if condoms were assumed to have a failure rate between 10 to 25%. Our conclusion was that those giving advice and counsel should recommend condom usage as the more effective tactic.

Now this project with its probability model was surely a scientific project, and the results of testing our models seemed unequivocal. Nevertheless, although the great majority of the scientific community fully endorsed and used our findings and suggestions, a few scientists did not accept our interpretation of our results. We received criticism from scientists who said that people will not use condoms to prevent HIV infection and so our findings were meaningless in the real world. There were others who said that publishing our results would encourage people to increase the number of partners and that would lead to more HIV infections. Some other critics raised the question whether having more than one partner and using condoms was worth even the very small increased risk that we described.

This difference of interpretation of our findings is not a result of the poor scientific judgment of our critics, as much as we might have liked to think that. Rather it was basically a consequence of some scientists’ not sharing our values and assumptions about the world in which we live. Specifically, our critics did not accept our view that people will use condoms to protect themselves. Instead, our critics believed in a more emotional than rational view of human sexual choices. They held this view despite the evidence that gays have greatly increased their condom usage and even teenagers indicated similar dramatic increases in the late 1980s (Reiss 1990; [Reiss & Reiss 1997]). Other critics rejected our assumption that motivations for having more sexual partners have very little to do with the publication of an article like ours. Finally, unlike some of our critics, we made no assumptions about whether condom-protected sex with several partners was worth the increased risk involved.

Our critics and we clearly had different assumptions and values regarding sexuality, and that was the reason why they questioned our evaluation of the evidence from our model. They did not disagree with the results of the model, but they disagreed with our assumptions about sexuality. The reader should note that the assumptions we make about sexuality are not only factual assumptions, but they embody value judgments. For example, we valued people who learn how to protect themselves, and supported the moral right of people to make their own personal choices regarding the number of partners that they have.

We might not have become so fully aware of our assumptions if our critics had not spoken out, revealing that they made different assumptions and had different values about sexual behavior. The critics would never have undertaken our study because, lacking the belief that condoms will be used to prevent HIV infection, why should one study that strategy? Also, as one scientific journal editor wrote to us, his values would stop him from publishing an article that seemed indifferent to the norms of sexual monogamy. These differences in values and assumptions do not just enter into the choice of research projects, but as is apparent here, they enter into the very interpretation of the meaning and worth of that research.

The important point here is that no scientist can undertake a research project without making some set of assumptions regarding human behavior. And those assumptions also influence how to interpret the validity and worth of the findings. As our critics demonstrate, our interpretation that recommending condoms is the safest path to take is not one that inevitably follows from our probability model’s evidence. Our recommendation of condom use follows only if you also share our assumptions about human behavior. The great majority of sexual scientists do share our view and so they agreed with our interpretation. Where all scientists share the same assumptions, we are the most likely to be blind to the fact that we are even making any assumptions. Without the critical response, we would not have become so aware of our own assumptions, and of those of our critics.

To believe that science operates in a vacuum devoid of values and assumptions about human behavior is to delude ourselves as scientists. Further, unless we realize the assumptions we are making, and put them forth explicitly, we will be unable to comprehend fully one basis upon which we are judging the worth of our scientific work. Only by becoming more value- and assumption-aware will we be able to be more even handed and fair in evaluating and understanding the basis of our scientific judgments. Such awareness makes the scientist more thoughtful about what assumptions will be accepted, and more conscious of the possibility that we must be sure not to allow these assumptions to bias our gathering of evidence.

The recent findings concerning causes of homosexuality offer another illustration of the point I am making here. The 1993 work of Dean Hamer published in Science created a public storm of interest. Hamer and his collaborators reported that they found on the long arm of the X-chromosome a possible location of a special set of genes that were present in 33 out of 40 families with two gay brothers. The support this finding found depended in part on the background assumptions of the particular scientists. Those who, like biologist Simon LeVay (1990), stress biological factors as determinant of human behavior, are more willing to conclude that biological factors are key pieces in the homosexual puzzle. Other scientists in social science fields where nurture is stressed more than nature, make assumptions about humans that lead them to be hesitant to accept Hamer’s work as anything more than mostly speculative at this point.

There are also values associated with any position on nature and nurture. Whether we are a biologist or a sociologist, if we oppose the status quo in society, we are more likely to want to emphasize the plasticity of human inheritance. In addition, those scientists who feel that seeing homosexuality as strongly biologically determined would lessen societal prejudice, may also be more likely to accept biology as definitive. Conversely, those who, like myself, oppose prejudice, but who note that prejudice continues against groups with known biological differences such as blacks and women, do not feel pressure to endorse biological etiology.

One very important conclusion from these and other examples is that our assumptions and values can easily have an impact on our interpretation of research findings. But that does not mean that we should conclude that all sexologists are “biased” or all research on sex is “unfairly” interpreted. Rather, what it says to me is that all members of a society, including scientists, have values and make assumptions about human sexual behavior. Better than pretending that we can be neutral and value-free, we should openly assert our assumptions and values so we can check each other’s scientific work and promote a clearer, and more balanced and fair-minded evaluation of the worth of our research results.

Bias or distortion of evidence is unacceptable in scientific work. We seek to use the most reliable and valid measures, to publish our results for criticism by others, and to follow rules of careful reasoning and fair gathering of evidence. Making our scientists more “value-assumption aware” will help us minimize the times when these unstated assumptions overwhelm our science. We cannot eliminate assumptions, but we can demand that they be made explicit, and require scientific rigor regardless of what assumptions are made. Then we can, as scientists, reach consensus on which explicit assumptions we are willing to accept, and thereby decide what will be accepted as knowledge in our science of sexuality. When you read the accounts in this book, try to discern the author’s assumptions. Finding assumptions is not by itself an indication of a flawed account. Rather, it is a way of giving you deeper insight into the meaning of that author’s account.

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Issue Two: Scientific Fads about Cultural Universals

There is little question that during the past several decades, the anthropological and sociological work on different societies has stressed the uniqueness of cultures and criticized attempts to find cultural universals (Suggs & Miracle 1993). If we apply our awareness of the place of assumptions in scientific work, we may surmise that this emphasis is a result of assuming that people and societies are basically different and do not universally share any significant characteristics. Further, that assumption may be based on the value judgment that stressing how different we are builds tolerance, whereas emphasizing universal traits among different societies encourages people to criticize the society that is not like their own.

All our views are but partial views of whatever reality is out there. If we all share the exact same assumptions about the world, we will never become aware of what these assumptions are, and we will not be alert to the possible biasing of our scientific evaluations. It is in this sense that accepting but one narrow view of what is worth pursuing, and making that a compulsory position, is dangerous to the growth of sound scientific methods and to the careful evaluation of evidence.

In opposition to the current scientific fad of stressing differences, David Suggs and Andrew Miracle, in their overview on cross-cultural sex research, point to the need to find commonalities in societies around the world. They say: “We need more work on sexuality from those research strategies that are specifically oriented toward seeking an explanation of ‘Culture’—as opposed to ‘cultures’” (1993, 490).

They cite my 1986 book, Journey into Sexuality: An Exploratory Voyage, as one of the few attempts to find such commonalities while not denying the importance of cultural differences. In that book, I set out to try to locate the key areas of our social life that, in any society, most directly shape our sexuality. I started with the assumption that, unless the evidence indicated otherwise, we can assume that, “with careful attention to the social context, intercultural comparisons can be made” (Reiss 1986, 7). After examining a large number of cultures, I developed my Linkage Theory, which asserted that sexual customs in all societies were most crucially linked to the power, ideology, and kinship segments of that society. This I called the (PIK) Linkage Theory.

I did not ignore differences in the way individual societies create such linkages. To be sure, a class system in America may be very different from a class system in Kenya. But that does not prevent us from saying they both have a class system and examining how that class system relates to existing sexual customs. So I would say to the reader, look for the important differences among the cultures described, but also compare societies and see if you can detect some commonalities among the cultures, such as I suggest in sexuality being linked to power, ideology, and kinship systems in every society (Reiss 1989; [Reiss 1986, 2006]). I believe that finding commonalities in our sexual lives can enhance our tolerance for the cultural differences that exist. We can better identify and have empathy for a people with whom we believe we share some important similarities.

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Issue Three: The Insider and the Outsider Perspective

In the last few decades, the emphasis in cross-cultural work has been on what Kenneth Pike has called the Emic or “insider” approach and less on the Etic or “outsider” approach. The concepts of Emic and Etic were first put into print by Kenneth Pike in 1954 and have since become common jargon in anthropology. Some anthropologists, like Marvin Harris, have made modifications in Pike’s concepts but still utilize them (Headland, Pike, & Harris 1990). Let me try to clarify these very important terms and relate them to a third and final issue concerning how we view other societies.

The originator of the concepts of Emic and Etic, Kenneth Pike, indicated his current meaning in a 1990 book, when he said:

I view the emic knowledge of a person’s local culture somewhat as Polanyi views bicycle riding. A person knows how to act without necessarily knowing how to analyze his action. When I act, I act as an insider; but to know, in detail, how I act (e.g., the muscle movements), I must secure help from an outside disciplinary system. To use the emics of nonverbal (or verbal) behavior I must act like an insider, to analyze my own acts, I must look at (or listen to) material as an outsider. But just as the outsider can learn to act like an insider, so the insider can learn to analyze like an outsider. (Headland, Pike, & Harris 1990, 33-34)

Although it is a bit of a simplification, Emic can be seen as the insider view constructed by people in a culture, and Etic the outsider view constructed by science seeking to understand that culture. The recent fad in social science, as I have noted in my discussion of the emphasis placed on cultural uniqueness, is to emphasize the Emic view. The possibility of an Etic view that can conceptually compare and find commonalities in different cultures is too often overlooked and/or criticized today.

I support the essential worth of both Emic and Etic approaches and I reject the notion that we must give priority to an Emic or an Etic view. Some of the support for promoting the Emic view comes from those who feel that we should not make invidious comparisons of cultures and should rather just accept them. I, of course, share the tolerance values behind such an approach. But as a social scientist, I must be allowed to compare and contrast and to develop understandings that go beyond just saying all cultures are unique. I must also add that there are societies, like the Nazi society under Hitler and many other totalitarian reigns of terror that exist today in our world, that I do not want to tolerate. I want more than the insider view of a people on which to base my understanding of a society.

Another point to be aware of in this debate is the fact that there is much that people in any society do not understand about their own culture. How many people in Western society understand enough to be able to suggest workable solutions to the many social problems they see in their society? One of the major values of any science is to afford a broader perspective on a social problem area. It is true that the outsider view that scientific explanation can provide will be based on some assumptions about human beings, but the attempt will still be to evaluate carefully and fairly the evidence relevant to that perspective. This is precisely what Robert Leik and I were trying to do when we compared the two strategies for reducing HIV infection. Our assumptions were clear, and we attempted to evaluate fairly the choices in light of those assumptions.

If we opt only for the insider’s views and deny the possibility of an outside scientific explanation that goes beyond the insider’s views, then we are reducing ourselves to the role of stenographers writing down what people believe, and stopping there. I think an Etic science perspective is far too valuable to toss away that easily. True, science has limitations in its assumptions and in its fads and fashions. But science presents us with the opportunity to arrive at a consensus as to how to understand most effectively, and perhaps change, a particular sexual problem. Such a scientific consensus will never be the total picture of reality, but it will be valuable in our search for solutions. It offers something beyond what the partisan person can offer in his or her Emic viewpoint, and I would therefore reject any postmodern, relativist attempts to play down the value of an Etic perspective in sexology or in any science.

Readers of this International Encyclopedia should keep in mind the Emic and Etic distinction, the relative advantages and limitations of these vantage points, and watch for efforts by the authors to balance these views. Some authors are native to the country they are writing about. Others are not native and write from an outsider’s perspective, even though they may have lived in the country for many years. Being aware of the vantage point from which the individual contributors to this Encyclopedia speak will help the reader make the most advantageous use of the information presented.

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Quo Vadis, Cross-Cultural Sexology?

Let me try to sum up the implications of my approach to cross-cultural sexual knowledge and its value to you in reading this Encyclopedia. First, I would suggest that seeing how science and value assumptions interact should make us more likely to want our science of sexuality to do more than present abstract knowledge. We will want science to deal with the problem areas that mean the most to us. This sort of post-positivist view of sexual science makes science a major helper in reconstructing or reinventing ways of living that can promote the resolution of the many sexual problems that confront us.

True, there may well be conflicting solutions proposed by scientists with different value assumptions, such as I encountered with my probability model on HIV infection. But we can still examine scientifically what will best help to resolve problems from the viewpoint of the set of assumptions most of us in a community will endorse. Further, people with different assumptions can put forth different tactics to resolve social problems. We can examine the reasoning and evidence relevant to competing assumptions. We can choose based on what type of world we want to create.

The scientific search for evidence to examine our solutions can still be rigorous and will be scrutinized, particularly by those who do not fully accept our assumptions. I see the future as favoring this movement towards a sexual science that helps us create the type of world we consensually agree we want. I see the problem-resolution aspect of sexology as very important, because it will promote the value of sexual science in the minds of the public, and that will help fund the important research and theory work we want to do.

On the second issue of commonalities: If you accept my position on the legitimacy of searching for cultural universals as well as for cultural variability, then we in sexology can search for common elements in our sexual lives in societies around the world. In the over 200 societies I examined in my 1986 book, I found universal condemnation of what that society judged to be “excessive” sexual force and to what that society saw as “undue” sexual manipulation (Reiss 1986, 1990; [Reiss & Reiss 1997]). So we have at least a minimal cross-cultural area of ethical agreement on what sexual acts ought to be prohibited: sexual force and sexual manipulation. Of course, within this area of agreement there are quite different definitions of what is “excessive” sexual force and what is “undue” sexual manipulation. But within any society, we can, as sexual scientists, seek to find what changes in custom would best avoid that culture’s conception of “unacceptable” force and manipulation.

In Western cultures, I believe we would agree that avoiding force and manipulation is best accomplished by promoting preparation for sexuality that emphasizes honesty, equality, and responsibility between the sexual actors. I have developed the evidence and reasoning on this in a recent book (Reiss 1990; [Reiss & Reiss 1997]). Western cultures are moving towards an ethical standard that accepts a wide range of sexual acts, providing they are honestly, equally, and responsibly negotiated. As the accounts in this Encyclopedia will reveal, there surely are significant differences even within Western societies as to how to define unacceptable force and manipulation, and also on defining what is meant by honesty, equality, and responsibility in sexual relationships and how to achieve that. But at least there is some common ground for such a dialogue to take place, and I believe sexologists should take the lead in examining and researching this vast area of possible ethical agreement.

Although non-Western societies are pursuing the same goal of reducing unacceptable force and manipulation, there are many significant differences in the ways that these societies may seek to control these outcomes. Promoting honesty, equality, and responsibility in sexuality may not be so popular in some of these societies. So clearly individual attention to particular societies is needed. But I stress that it is in the search for universals here that we are led to explore cultural differences. These are not opposing goals.

Finally, in line with my position on the insider and outsider approaches, I encourage taking both an Emic and an Etic approach so as to gain more complete answers to the sexological questions that interest us. The insider view is essential for any successful resolution, because it is people that must put into action any resolution to a social problem. But we must also go beyond individual viewpoints, for it may well be that in unintended ways we promote the very outcomes that we then condemn as problems. Our conflicted and negative view of sexuality in America is a cause of the very problems that our conflicted and sex-negative people then condemn (Reiss 1990; [Reiss & Reiss 1997]).

If we who have devoted our career to the study of sexuality cannot state what our assumptions are and offer useful resolutions to our shared sexual problems, then who can? A famous American sociologist, Robert S. Lynd (1939, 186) many years ago made this very point about social science in general:

Either the social sciences know more than do the ‘hard headed’ businessman, the ‘practical’ politician and administrator, and the other de facto leaders of the culture as to what the findings of research mean, as to the options the institutional system presents, as to what human personalities want, why they want them, and how desirable changes can be effected, or the vast current industry of social science is an empty facade.

The cross-cultural analysis of sexual customs in this encyclopedia should help us to understand and to cope better with the dramatic changes occurring in sexual customs in so many societies today. I have discussed elsewhere other reasons why we need to make our assumptions explicit and thereby make our sexology more problem-resolution centered (Reiss 1993). All I need add here is that the more society feels that sexology can aid in resolving our sexual problems, the more our field will be valued and will flourish. I hope we who are sexologists will resolve our internal disputes on issues like those discussed in this chapter by taking the broader and more eclectic view of science and its role in society that I have presented. While doing this, we must hold to the great value of scientific method—we must reject the nihilistic and relativistic conclusions that some who would dismiss science altogether promote today [(Reiss 2006)]. I hope that as you read the fascinating chapters in this book, the key issues and ideas I have put forth will help you to obtain a deeper insight into human sexuality. I wish you all: Bon Voyage to the many societies described herein!

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References*

Hammer, D. H., S. Hu, V. L. Magnuson, N. Hu, & A. M. L. Pattatucci. 1993 (July 16). A linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation. Science, 261:321-327.

Headland, T. N., K. L. Pike, & Marvin Harris, eds. 1990. Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publishers.

LeVay, S. 1993. The sexual brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lynd, R. S. 1939. Knowledge for what? The place of social science in American culture. New York: Grove Press.

Reiss, I. L. 1986. Journey into sexuality: An exploratory voyage. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Reiss, I. L. 1989. Society and sexuality: A sociological theory. In: K. McKinney & S. Sprecher, eds., Human sexuality: The societal and interpersonal context. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Reiss, I. L. 1990. An end to shame: Shaping our next sexual revolution. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Reiss, I. L. 1993 (February). The future of sex research and the meaning of science. Journal of Sex Research, 30:3-11.

[Reiss, I. L., 2006. An insider’s view of sexual science since Kinsey. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]

Reiss, I. L., & R. K. Leik. 1989 (November). Evaluating strategies to avoid AIDS: Number of partners vs. use of condoms. Journal of Sex Research, 26:411-433.

[Reiss, I. L., & H. M. Reiss. 1997. Solving America’s sexual crises. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.]

Suggs, D. N., & A. W. Miracle, eds. 1993. Culture and human sexuality: A reader. Pacific Grove, CA: Books/Cole Publishing Co.


*[Editors’ Note: References bracketed here and in the text were updated in September 2006.]