Sunday, July 02, 2006

Vern Bullough, 1928-2006

On June 21 the distinguished historian of sex Vern L. Bullough died in Los Angeles after a short illness. The importance of this milestone has gone generally unnoticed in the mainstream media. In fact Bullough is the only American scholar of sex who may be fittingly spoken of in the same sentence as Alfred C. Kinsey. Both men were driven by a sense of urgency. In part this commitment reflected personal traits of ambition, perhaps even of vanity. Both men were alert to the many pitfalls that must attend the forthright and thorough exploration of a subject only recently regarded as beyond the pale. Kinsey, the older man, bore these threats directly, Bullough in a more scattered, but still tangible form.

In fact the achievement of the two men was complementary. Kinsey, trained as a natural scientist, assembled an incomparable database of the sex lives of men and women. As backup he assembled a formidable library of printed texts at the University of Indiana, affording comparisons with other times and climes. In the end, however, his findings are valid only for men and women who came to maturity in America in the first half of the twentieth century. And not even for all of those, for the two Reports omit the material that Kinsey’s associates had gathered for African-Americans. Even extending this perspective a century earlier, as Kinsey’s disciple C. A. Tripp attempted in his book on Abraham Lincoln, turned out to be a hazardous undertaking.

Trained as a medievalist, Bullough was always attentive to variations in sexual behavior as conditioned by historical situations and by culture in the broad sense. Thus a pattern that might be true of Baghdad in the tenth century, would not be true of the historic Chinese capital of Xi’an in the same period—-nor would it probably be true of Baghdad in the nineteenth or twentieth century.

Vern published at least fifty books, some in collaboration with his wife Bonnie, a scholar in her own right. Bullough’s masterpiece Sexual Variance in Society and History (1976) sets out many of these variables, showing a remarkable surefootedness in dealing with the several historical eras. The disparate materials are interpreted in terms of a basic dichotomy between sex positive and sex negative societies. Medieval Islam ranks as sex positive, while Christian Europe at the same time was sex negative. This contrast, while useful as an organizing principle, may be overdrawn.

The concept of sex negativity was in fact highly relevant to the American society in which Vern Bullough had grown up. He resolved to fight this narrowness with the weapon he wielded best: knowledge. As far as I could detect from knowing him over the years Vern Bullough (unlike Kinsey) had no personal homosexual component. Once after a stay at a gay archive in which the employees had the reputation of being aggressive in their sexual solicitations, he lamented that he had never been propositioned. Not that he would have accepted, but he thought that it would be nice to be asked. This lack (if that is what it is) only seemed to spur him further in detailed and objective efforts to understand same-sex love.

For many years Vern Bullough was an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union. To his sorrow the ACLU refused to take up homosexual cases, regarding us as simple criminals. In the early 1960, together with several lawyers, Vern pressured the California chapters to change their policies. They did this, and their approach became the national policy of the organization.

I am grateful to Vern for his ongoing support. This help became particularly salient some years ago, when I was forced to abandon work on a project to record the lives of the gay and lesbian pioneers who were active before 1969. Vern took the project over and completed it splendidly in 2002 as Before Stonewall (Harrington Park Press).


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