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An Interpretation of DesireReview - An Interpretation of Desire
Essays in the Study of Sexuality
by John Gagnon
University Of Chicago Press, 2004
Review by Gerda Wever-Rabehl, Ph.D.
Apr 19th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 16)

Early on in An Interpretation of Desire: Essays in the Study of Sexuality, Gagnon tells us that "research on sexual conduct…is itself a form of sexual conduct".† Gagnon elaborates on this point at length in the essay Sex Research and Social Change (pp. 25-58) but reminds the reader of it throughout the book. Rather than being neutral, theories are, he says, "not descriptions of the world, but instructions to scientists about what to observe in the world" (p. 132). Theories are cultural products, firmly situated in a time and place that desires, prohibits or permits research on sexual conduct. Thus, research reports on sexual conduct can not be seen as the results of disinterested inquiry but rather as representing the ethics and politics of the social context in which the research took place.

While it is true that research on sexual conduct offers new or alternative ways of seeing sexual conduct, which in turn influences the sexual conduct itself, this process, Gagnon notes subtly, is not necessarily the result of the public's acceptance of scientists' explanations. More often, communities refuse to conform to scientist's predictions and further challenge their explanations by, in Gagnon's view, offering "more promising versions of their own motives" (p. 63). While many commonly refer to these processes as 'vulgarization', Gagnon centralizes the complexities, novelties and discontinuities intrinsic to sexual conduct and the particular socio-historical contexts in which it takes place. In fact, Gagnon makes the complex entanglement of social, cultural and linguistic forces in gender and desire his central position. Reconsideration: The Kinsey Reports (pp. 88-94) and Gender Preferences in Erotic Relations: The Kinsey Scale and Sexual Scripts (pp. 99-129) are just two examples of essays in which Gagnon's keen sensitivity to the complex dialectical between changes in thinking and changes in conduct shines through.

For Gagnon, all social action- including that of researchers and their subjects- is scripted. This concept of scripting unifies the wide variety of topics covered in An Interpretation of Desire. Examining sexual conduct from a scripting perspective allows Gagnon to organize and link together what people think, what they do and how socio-cultural contexts affect them. In the essay called Scripts and the Coordination of Sexual Conduct (pp. 59-87), Gagnon characterizes the sexual script as a rather loose plan, which includes the participants in the situation, their qualities, the motives for what they do or don't do, and the sequence of the (verbal and non-verbal) actions. The relation of the 'script' to actual behavior is complex and indirect. And, as it is with social scripts, the bulk of the elements contained in sexual scripts are much more grounded in complex sociological and historical processes, than in the necessities of biological reproduction. And while scripts are learnt in specific contexts, they have to be detached from this context to contribute flexibility to a new situation. Gagnon illustrates this point with a delightful piece of prose- a fictional story of two novice lovers. He also explores other applications of scripts such as sexual scripts in therapeutic interventions (acutely aware of the complex interchange between words, culture and knowledge, Gagnon reconsiders this designation and suggests the term 'sexual reeducation' instead) applied to various forms of sexual dysfunctions. He is skeptical of the standards of connoisseur-ship used to measure the level of satisfaction achieved through this 'reeducation'. He wryly notes that the level of satisfaction attained "may well be the council of despair- the couple covertly agreeing that what they have attained is the best they can hope for in the circumstances" (p. 85).††††

In an essay called "science and the politics of pathology " (pp. 95-98), Gagnon further deconstructs our impoverished sexual vocabulary and its underlying assumptions. Gagnon explores terminology like 'sexual orientation', 'homosexuality' and 'heterosexuality' and displays the assumptions embedded in these commonly used terms as rooted in the deep-seated Western conviction that deviance is rooted in a defect in the anomalous individual. Accordingly, the main goal of science, being an integral part of this culture, has traditionally been the search for the roots of the differences between the problematic and the unproblematic. In sex research, "homosexuality", is commonly thought to be the deviant opposition of "normal" biology (i.e. "heterosexuality"), caused by a fundamental, singular defect, biological in origin. The search for the biological origins of the deviant is, according to Gagnon, so firmly drafted into our cultural make-up that nothing short of a miracle can prevent contemporary research to continue on its path to find the biological and irreversible origins of same-gender erotic desire.† To Gagnon, this scientific preoccupation, supported by defect-theories to explore same-gender erotic desire, will inevitably foster more violent forms of scientific intervention. Gagnon envisions the role of science alternatively as one in support of gay men and lesbians. This vision requires, maintains Gagnon, that science move away from its main obsession to find a 'cause' for a singular, biological essence labeled "the homosexual" and to move towards a recognition of the complexity of gender and desire instead.

Gagnon theorizes sexuality as the sketching of a map (p. 132). This task has less to do with the charting of newly discovered terrain, and more with the construction of a vision. And the resulting collection of essays An Interpretation of Desire is a delightfully diverse map, covering multiform aspects of the sexual terrain in equally diverse ways. Written with the intellectual sensibility befitting a lover, Gagnon guides the reader on trails of prose, analysis and ironic wit (a few of my favorite samples are included here) through the complex terrain of diverse expressions of desire. He does this in the keen awareness that the map he envisions, as well as his guidance, are also constrained and limited by social, cultural and linguistic forces.

French philosopher Luce Irigaray once remarked that while philosophy is commonly taken to mean, "love of wisdom"; it perhaps ought to be understood as "wisdom of love". An Interpretation of Desire, the thoughtful contemplation on the diverse ways in which we express and live desire, is indeed a text on the wisdom of love.


© 2005 Gerda Wever-Rabehl


Gerda Wever-Rabehl holds a Ph.D from Simon Fraser University, and has published extensively in the areas of social science, philosophy and philosophy of  education.


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