Interview w/ Hegarty, Pettit, & Serlin

In 1922 the National Research Council’s Division of Medical Sciences, together with the Bureau of Social Hygiene and the Rockefeller Foundation, established a Committee for Research in Problems of Sex (CRPS). The committee went on to operate for more than four decades, funding a variety of projects related to problems of sex, broadly conceived. This included projects that spanned the fields of morphology, physiology, and psychology, and perhaps most famously included funding for Alfred Kinsey’s work on human sexuality.

The just released August issue of History of Psychology, includes several articles that detail some of the less discussed work funded by the committee. Together, these articles make up the issue’s Special Section: Beyond Kinsey, Sex and American Psychology. The section’s introduction is provided by Peter Hegarty who then goes on in his article to discuss the work of Catharine Cox Miles on the psychology of sex. Next, David Serlin discusses psychologist Carney Landis’s work on the importance of touch in the sexuality of physically disabled women, while Michael Pettit discusses Frank Beach’s investigation of the queer life of the lab rat. The section ends with commentary by Alexandra Rutherford. (Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below the interview, while full details on all the articles included in this issue of History of Psychology can be found in an earlier AHP post here.)

AHP had the pleasure of interviewing each of the authors, whose articles comprise this special section, about their work. The full text of this interview follows below.

Peter Hegarty (left) is a social psychologist with interests in the history of psychology and LGBT psychology at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom.

AHP: Your article focuses on the work of the little known female psychologist, Catharine Cox Miles. Briefly, who was she and why has she often been overlooked in the history of psychology?

PH: Catharine Cox was a talented Germanist who was honored for her relief work in Berlin with the Society of Friends in the aftermath of World War 1. Her PhD was a ‘historiometric’ attempt to determine the childhood IQs of famous figures from historical sources. After some time spent in clinical psychology in the 1920s, she returned to Stanford where she worked with Terman on the measurement of ‘masculinity-femininity.’ She married psychologist Walter Miles – who was recently widowed – shortly after returning to Stanford, and was known as Catharine Cox Miles thereafter. The Miles couple collaborated on research on cognitive aging. They moved to Yale during the Terman-Miles collaboration, where Catharine was the only Professor of Clinical Psychology during the 1930s. She wrote handbook chapters on sex – which I analyze here – and on gifted children after her departure from Stanford. She also wrote a case history of a person with an intersex condition for an edited book marking Terman’s retirement. After World War II, Catharine and Walter Miles spent some time living and teaching in Turkey.

It would be wrong to say that Miles has been “forgotten.” Certainly her work is frequently enough mentioned in histories of intelligence testing and her career has been mentioned in histories of women psychologists of her generation. However, there has been a tendency to conflate her views with those of Lewis Terman, her PhD advisor. In this article I hoped to bring out aspects of Miles’ thought about sex that distinguished her views from Terman’s.

AHP: Although Miles and Lewis Terman co-authored the CRPS funded volume Sex and Personality, they did not agree on many aspects of the psychology of sex. Can you tell us about some of these differences?

PH: In this article, I argue that there was an epistemological tension between them. Miles was an ideal student for Terman as he aimed to expand the study of gifted children with “historiometrics” because of her background in German languages and literature. Terman’s correspondence with Miles suggests that he would allow her more time for library research, while reporting to the CRPS that this component of the masculinity-femininity research would be more cursory. As the timeline for the project became protracted, Terman reported to Yerkes that his working relationship with Miles had become strained. Terman also appeared to think that she had wasted much of her time engaging in library research. Large sections of Sex and Personality were written by Terman and E. Lowell Kelly and aimed to test the hypothesis that gay men had “gender inverted” personalities. Terman’s colleague Normal Fenton hoped that the test could be used to detect and normalize boys suspected of homosexual interest in the California juvenile system. Miles correspondence with Terman suggests that she was skeptical of Kelly’s understanding of sexological accounts of homosexuality, and of the German literature in particular.

AHP: Were Terman’s views on sex more compatible with the CRPS aims than were Miles’s views?

PH: This is a good question, and one goal of the Special Feature is to call attention to tensions within the projects funded by the CRPS. Among psychologists who studied human sexual behavior – rather than animal sexual behavior or human sexual physiology – Terman was uniquely successful in garnering funding from the CRPS. For example, he later secured money for studies of marital happiness, including a study of marital happiness among the participants in his gifted cohort. In the article I describe how Miles 1935 chapter on “The Psychology of Sex” shows four points of divergence from Terman’s views about sex during this period; attention to the particular of female embodiment, an appreciation of the emerging genre of the sex survey, inclusion of sexual compatibility within the definition of marital happiness, and skepticism about the hypothesis that men’s intelligence was more variable than women’s.

David Serlin (left) is Associate Professor in, and Chair of, the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego who works in the field of disability studies.

AHP: Who was Carney Landis and what led him to undertake research on the sexuality of physically disabled women?

DS: Carney Landis was an important if neglected researcher in the history of mid-twentieth-century US psychology. Although he is not as well-remembered as he should be, many people do recognize his name as linked to his now-infamous graduate studies, conducted at the University of Minnesota in the early 1920s, in which he theorized about whether or not facial expressions were universal and if there were any structural principles to what we would now call affect. He asked his research subjects to respond to abject phenomena – witnessing the decapitation of a rat, or smelling nauseating fumes, or touching a bucketful of frogs while blindfolded – and analyzed their affective responses.

By the 1930s, Landis moved to New York City to become associate professor of psychology at Columbia University and an affiliate of the Psychiatric Institute of New York. His major contributions involved conducting clinical research and writing textbooks on psychopathology; personality disorders and neurotic behavior rank high among his many areas of interest. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, though, was methodological; Kinsey, among others, cited Landis as an example on the effective use of oral histories and other interview techniques.

Interestingly, although Landis came of age intellectually in the furtive interwar era of US sexuality research, I would argue that Landis was not interested in sexology per se. The Personality and Sexuality of the Physically Handicapped Woman is unique among his oeuvre; he never worked on the topic of disabled women, or on disability for that matter, ever again. From what I’ve gathered from my research – and my article was never meant to be professionally comprehensive – Landis and his colleague, M. Marjorie Bolles, undertook this research project because they believed these women would serve as an ideal research population for studying psychosocial development. Landis and Bolles started from the thesis that disability was intimately linked to deficiencies in personality, and from there followed the logic that gathering and analyzing the women’s psychosexual profiles might provide a critical lens through which to understand these deficiencies. All of the women were living or had lived in segregated institutions, and few of them had any “mature” sexual experiences or any sexual experiences at all. So for someone like Landis, the study held endless possibilities for tracing (and, ultimately, confirming) that neurotic behavior and sexual immaturity were produced by the social isolation that resulted from the disabled women’s physical difference.

AHP: Why did the CRPS opt to fund this research?

DS: I haven’t done enough research to say what was behind the CRPS’s motivations for supporting this unique research project, which was unprecedented in any decade in the twentieth century until the 1970s. Unlike the prostitutes, criminals, and homosexuals who captured most of the CRPS’s attention and funding, the disabled women in Landis and Bolles’s study were not targets of social programs for rehabilitation or remediation. I suspect that the vogue for studying personality disorders, especially among those in marginal social groups that dominated much of 1930s psychology research, combined with Landis’s reputation for taking a unique approach to the study of human behavior, must have persuaded the CRPS that there was something intrinsically valuable to be gained from studying this particular population.

AHP: How did the importance of touch figure into the subjective sexualities of these disabled women? In what ways did Landis’s own beliefs about the nature of sexuality serve to silence the women that were interviewed?

DS: As a scholar who works in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies, I am painfully aware of the relative invisibility of disabled subjectivity in modern histories of medicine or modern histories of psychology, especially those subjectivities that were made to disappear under the sign of objective science. What could be more invisible, in the historical record, than the subjectivities, let alone the sexual subjectivities, of disabled people—especially disabled women? Sometimes disabled subjectivities disappeared through deliberate acts of institutional erasure and overt forms of violence. And, as in the case of Landis and Bolles’s work, sometimes subjectivities disappeared because of the common misperception that one particular modality of intersubjective communication, such as touch, does not have the same status in the historical record as that of oral testimonies or visual evidence. I would argue, however, that in trying to create a historical record for people with disabilities, especially those who endured institutionalization, any evidence of subjectivity that challenges invisibility serves as a catalyst for rethinking how we write about disabled people’s subjectivities.

Touch was certainly not a prevailing psychoanalytical category in the 1930s, and it was also not identified explicitly as an important topic of study for Landis and Bolles, either in their initial research or in the book that concluded it. Except for masturbation, there was simply no vocabulary for talking about the psychic or affective dimensions of tactility that would have enabled psychologists in the 1930s and 1940s to address touch’s complexity. I think this is because the open-endedness of touch did not easily fit within conventional sexual categories that were prevalent in the prewar period. Typically, touch is understood as a one-way street. It is something that involves only an active agent, that is, the person doing the touching. The recipient is almost never considered, except in cases of overt sexual danger, in which case she or he is identified as a victim. Touch – whether through a single touch, or a sustained touch, or different kinds of touches – is always a two-way street, and its meanings are always unstable.

As I studied the original research data that Landis and Bolles generated for this study, it became clear that many forms of touching were taking place in these institutions that never made their way into the published book. Complex, intersubjective forms of touch, of which there was tremendous evidence, couldn’t be quantified easily, if at all, under the typical erotic categories in the Freudian canon. Some of the questions that emerged in examining the data were: can we talk about touch as “heterosexual” or “homosexual”? Does the sexual identity or sexual orientation that one might impart to the phenomenon of touching refer to the toucher, the touchee, or the area of the body that’s being touched? Furthermore, does the sexual object choice of the person who’s doing the touching command the meaning of the touch, or does it belong to the person who’s receiving the touch? Or is it all of the above?

For good early-twentieth-century Freudians like Landis and Bolles, the meanings that touch evidently held for these disabled woman operated under the radar. Suddenly touch became the elephant in the room and the key to unlocking what made The Personality and Sexuality of the Physically Handicapped Woman both so frustrating and so fascinating. That’s precisely what Landis and Bolles missed in their interpretation of their subjects’ oral histories, and why I found their work such a compelling topic to write about.

Michael Pettit (right) is an historian of the human sciences and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada.

AHP: Why did Frank Beach come to pay attention to the atypical sexual behaviour in rats that other comparative psychologists had previously dismissed? And, what kind of response did his writings on bisexual rats receive?

MP: I don’t have a good biographical explanation of why Beach rather than another scientist paid attend this kind of behavior. I do have a couple of historical explanations. His exposure to the natural history tradition at American Museum of Natural History encouraged Beach to catalogue variety of behaviors. Furthermore patronage from the CRPS and contact with Kinsey encouraged him to collect, curate, and make public these cases. In some ways Beach’s views were heterodox and challenged the ideas of American psychoanalysis, but there is a longer history of ideas about bisexuality at birth and a developing heterosexuality (e.g. Freud himself). Beach’s views were later challenged by advocates the organizational-activational hypothesis. They held that the brain of mammals became sexed prenatally due to in the exposure of the organism to the hormonal environment of the womb and that this neural organization became active with the onset of puberty.

AHP: In your article, you highlight the fact that the rat served as an instrument to be managed just like any other. What were some of the consequences of adopting this approach to laboratory organisms?

MP: One of things that interests me as a historian is how model organisms function in the behavioural sciences. There scientists work with animals in vivo. Historically at least, they animals have been grant individualized identities. My research is animated by the questions: What happens when standardized organism start behaving in unstandardized, unexpected ways? How do differently scientist view and theorize such behaviors differently? At different historical moments, different behaviors are often seen as significant rather than mere artifacts.

AHP: The connection between Beach’s research on sex with non-human animals and Alfred Kinsey’s work on human sexuality is not something that is not often discussed. How did Beach and Kinsey become friendly and in what ways did their respective research serve to compliment the other?

MP: A couple of other scholars, such as Anne Fausto-Sterling and Donna Drucker, have also made this connection. Beach and Kinsey first met in 1943 as mutual beneficiaries of the CRPS patronage at an event organized at American Museum of Natural History. For Kinsey, Beach was an ally within the discipline of psychology at a time when his sexology was attacked by both psychoanalysts and psychometricians. Because Beach was conducting animal work, he was more legible to the zoologist. For Beach, he met Kinsey at a time when his department at Museum was threatened with closure since its trustees questioned whether experimental work on lives animals belonged in an institution dedicated to natural history. Kinsey was an ally within biology.

AHP: You note that Beach later came to question to the validity of making cross-species generalizations. What effect did this have on the larger influence of his work?

MP: Beach (if he is remembered today) is probably best known for a critique rather than an experimental finding, theory, or model. In 1950, he expressed a worry that psychology had become overly reliant on a single animal model (the rat) and focused on a single kind of behavior (learning). During his time at the museum, he became interested in European ethology and served as a conduit between it and American experimental psychology after the Second World War. Ironically, he cited the criticism Kinsey leveled against his version of comparative psychology in the 1940s to question sociobiology’s models of human behavior during 1970s.

Special Section: Beyond Kinsey, Sex and American Psychology.

“Beyond Kinsey: The committee for research on problems of sex and American psychology,” by Peter Hegarty. The abstract reads,

This introduction to the Special Section of History of Psychology argues for greater attention to psychological research on sex in the decades before the publication of the Kinsey volumes. Drawing on scholarship by Adele Clarke, Donna Haraway and Wade Pickren, this introduction argues for the centrality of the psychological research projects funded by the Committee for Research on Problems of Sex (CRPS), chaired by psychologist Robert Yerkes after 1921. The three individual papers all speak to opposition to the functionalist approach to sex often attributed to Yerkes’ CRPS.

“Getting miles away from Terman: Did the CRPS fund Catharine Cox Miles’s unsilenced psychology of sex?” by Peter  Hegarty. The abstract reads,

Psychologist Catharine Cox Miles (1890–1984) is often remembered as the junior author, with Lewis Terman, of Sex and Personality. Written with support from the Committee for Research on the Problems of Sex (CRPS), Sex and Personality introduced the “masculinity-femininity” personality measure to psychology in 1936. Miles has been overlooked by some historians and constructed as a silent, indirect feminist by others. Private letters show that Terman and Miles had different assumptions about the need for library research work to precede the empirical work for Sex and Personality. Miles’s 1935 chapter on the “Social Psychology of Sex” shows that her theoretical formulation of sex differed from Terman’s in its emphasis on female embodiment, respect for the emerging tradition of the sex survey, and its opinions about the determinants of marital happiness, and the variability of intelligence. Ironically, CRPS monies wired to Terman may have funded Miles to develop this early formulation of the psychology of sex.

“Carney Landis and the psychosexual landscape of touch in mid-20th-century America,” by David Serlin. The abstract reads,

In the last quarter of the 1930s, Carney Landis, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University affiliated with the Psychiatric Institute of New York, headed a Committee for Research in Problems of Sex-funded research project in which he conducted interviews with 100 women between the ages of 18 and 35 who self-identified as physically disabled. Landis interviewed the women about their sex lives, their sexual identities, and their relationship to their bodies and published the results in 1942 under the title The Personality and Sexuality of the Physically Handicapped Woman. The book represents conventional psychosexual presumptions about disabled women’s stunted personality and frustrated sexuality stemming from the absence of a Freudian “sexual moment.” Yet, the original research notes, housed at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, reveal that many of these women engaged in acts of erotic touching that played a far more dynamic and complex role in the development of their sexual subjectivities than Landis or his researchers could recognize. This article examines how touch and tactility produced meanings for Landis’ research subjects and thus illuminated forms of sexual subjectivity not regularly associated with either histories of disability or histories of sexuality.

“The queer life of a lab rat,” Michael Pettit. The abstract reads,

The laboratory rat is an important, if neglected, actor in the history of sexuality. From the 1920s and 1940s, a series of reports emerged from American psychology laboratories detailing instances of spontaneous “reversals” in sexual behavior within their rat colonies. Frank Beach, then at the American Museum of Natural History, developed a model for the “nature” of sexuality that stressed that all organisms had the neurological capacity to perform behavior of either sex. Beach enrolled his emerging specialty, behavioral endocrinology, in support of Alfred Kinsey’s controversial findings. Both scientists highlighted the multitude of potential sexual outlets pursued by organisms and the prevalence of nonprocreative sexual behaviors. This article draws on elements of queer theory to elucidate how the landscape of the comparative psychologist’s rat colony with its organisms, apparatus, practices, and rituals served an integral function in the redefinition of sex in the 20th century. Queer theory calls into question easy proclamations about what counts as natural or normal by drawing attention to the presumed binaries that frequently govern the classification of sex. The maintenance of the colony required the careful management of sex with its obstruction devices, hypersexualized indicator animals, segregation cages, and castrated rats injected with hormones. Moreover, Beach’s own writings indicate how his own domestic life became entangled with the sex lives of the rats. An irony animates this Rockefeller-funded sexology: Research funded to elucidate the mechanisms underlying heterosexuality came to question its innateness and universality.

“Problems of sex and the problem with nature: A commentary on ‘Beyond Kinsey’,”Alexandra Rutherford. The abstract reads,

In this commentary on the three articles in the special section ”Beyond Kinsey: The Committee for Research in Problems of Sex and American Psychology,” I focus on the implications of each author’s analysis for understanding scientific constructions of sex and sexuality by examining the complex intersection of sex and nature. I show how each paper illuminates the ways nature was deployed by researchers investigating one of the most intimate yet most political aspects of being human. What did they count as “natural” when it came to sex and sexuality? What did they exclude or overlook? What political and moral work did the rhetoric of “the natural” do?


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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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