At the 1965 meeting of the American Histor¬ical Association, Vern Bullough was introduced as “the historian who specialized in whores, queers, and perverts, but who could also do some ‘real’ research occasionally.” Thanks in large part to Bullough, historical research about prostitution, homosexuality, and other marginalized sexual behaviors is no longer considered less than “real” research.
Bullough was born in Salt Lake City and raised in Utah during the depression and World War II. He received his B.A. from the University of Utah (1951), M.A. from the University of Chicago (1951), Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (1954), and B.S. in nursing from California State University at Long Beach (1981). He held teaching positions at Youngstown University (1954–1959) and California State University at Northridge (1959–1980); was Dean of Natural and Social Sciences (1980–1990) at the State University of New York College at Buffalo; and was Distinguished Professor of the State University of New York (1987–1993). More recently, Bullough served as an adjunct professor at CSU Northridge and the University of Southern California. Bullough opened up the study of sexuality for professional historians, who had been reluctant to touch on this traditionally taboo topic. In 1970, he helped organize and participated in the first session on sexual topics ever held at an American Historical Association conference. Bullough wrote or edited over twenty-five books and hundreds of journal articles on sexual topics, often working with his first wife of forty-nine years, Bonnie Bullough (1927–1996), and later with his second wife, Gwen Brewer. He wrote about prostitution, gender, homosexuality, cross-dressing, medieval sexuality, the history of sexual science and medicine, and pornography. In 1994, the Bulloughs together produced Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia, the first encyclopedia about sexuality to appear in English in over thirty years. (Vern himself contributed thirty entries to this volume and was coauthor of another entry.) Vern collaborated with fellow historian James Brundage in editing two volumes devoted to medieval sexuality: Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church (1982) and Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (1996). The Bulloughs published extensively in nursing.
Although History of Prostitution appeared in 1964, Bullough considered his first important work on sex and gender to be The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes toward Women (1973; revised in 1988, with Brenda Shelton and Sarah Slavin, as The Subordinated Sex). This book was the first overall historical survey about women; only later did feminist scholars publish heavily in this area. In both Prostitution and Subordinate, Bullough took the approach common to all his writings, describing the historical forces that formed our customs and social beliefs and that still affect our attitudes. Some of Bullough’s writings on women’s issues focused on fertility and contraception. He pointed out the influence of biological and medical factors on patterns of male-female inequality and how advances in science and medicine allow contemporary women to overcome prior limitations. Bullough’s Sexual Variance in Society and History (1976) broke new ground in presenting a comprehensive and sympathetic history of homosexuality and other stigmatized sexual practices, such as transvestism and masturbation. Bullough documented how sexual behavior throughout history and across cultures has varied widely despite local official doctrine. Bullough always emphasized the complexity and “mes¬si¬ness” of real life and real people. Inevitably, there are contradictions between legal, religious, or political policies and writings and the thoughts and behaviors of ordinary people—tensions often oversimplified by historians.
Sexual Variance was soon followed by the 1977 book, Sin, Sickness, and Sanity, one of the earliest contemporary pieces of scholarship to survey thought about sexuality over various historical periods. The Bulloughs demonstrated how a medical model developed in the nineteenth century that characterized as sickness those aspects of sexuality such as masturbation, homosexuality, nudism, and contraception that had been classified for centuries by Christian thought as sinfulness. Ongoing sexual research and theorizing in both the sciences and humanities has undermined many of these characterizations. By understanding the past, the Bulloughs maintained, we can discover the sources of our sexual attitudes and be in a position to separate the wheat from the chaff. The book was revised in 1995 and retitled Sexual Attitudes: Myths and Realities.
Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender (1993) grew out of Bullough’s long interest in gender and homosexuality (see also his anthology, Before Stonewall). It was the first comprehensive historical work on the subject of cross-dressing. In defending the view that cross-gender tendencies should be more widely tolerated because within limits it is “normal” behavior, the book showed that dressing across gender boundaries has been widespread throughout history and that it comprises a complex set of psychological and social phenomena with no simple explanation. Cross-dressing is a candidate for therapeutic intervention only when it becomes a dysfunction; that is, when it involves intolerable interference with one’s personal life or occupational responsibilities.
In much of Bullough’s writing, he alluded to the impact of medicine and sex research on Western attitudes and culture. In Science in the Bedroom (1994), he focused entirely on the history of sex research, starting with medicine in ancient Greece, continuing through the European predecessors of American work (for example, Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchâtelet, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Havelock Ellis), and concluding with Alfred Kinsey and his successors, Evelyn Hooker, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson, among others. Developments in scientific knowledge have gradually eroded misconceptions about sexuality, but it has taken decades, even centuries, for attitudes to change. Again, Bullough documented that sexual science has challenged traditional Western assumptions that sexual activity is a major cause of illness and crime. In Science in the Bedroom, Bullough depicted sex researchers as complex human beings. For example, Ellis found sex fascinating and troublesome in his Victorian youth: among other things, he was attracted to urolagnia. Ellis went into medicine because he thought it the only profession in which he could safely devote himself to that forbidden topic. Family-planning educator Marie Stopes’s interest in studying sexuality resulted from the failure of her first marriage, annulled on the basis of nonconsummation.
Bullough was active in numerous humanist organizations since the 1950s and was a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. In his writings, two central tenets of humanism come across strongly: a commitment to critical reason and factual evidence and a toleration of diversity in ideas and behaviors. He wrote repeatedly that by employing history to uncover and understand beliefs and behavior we can trace the sources of mistaken ideas and bring more accurate findings to bear on our own dilemmas. Similarly, the scientific process of continual collection and critique of data helps us avoid misconceptions and plan our futures more rationally. Bullough’s interweaving of the data and methods of science and the humanities was valuable in breaking down boundaries between disciplines. Literature and creative writing (including pornography) can be rewarding sources of information about past sexual behavior and attitudes.
Bullough was not an empire builder; he never promoted through his writings any glamorous new theory about sexuality. “What is needed,” he wrote, “is not more theories but a more modest study of past attitudes”—and, of course, of behavior. He based his own studies on diverse sources, increasing the reach and wealth of both history and sexology. Bullough found religious writings, creative writing, and ethnological accounts to be illuminating sources of historical information about sexuality—the last two often overlooked by historians. He sometimes characterized such historians as producing mere “historical poetry,” i.e., history derived from groundless assumptions and eager theories rather than real written records. In developing and promoting historical research about sexuality, Bullough also stimulated other disciplines to realize the significance of history for their own studies.
Bullough, Bonnie, and Vern L. Bullough. “How We Got into Sex.” In Personal Stories of ‘How I Got Into Sex’: Leading Researchers, Sex Therapists, Educators, Prostitutes, Sex Toy Designers, Sex Surrogates, Transsexuals, Criminologists, Clergy, and More . . . , edited by Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough, Marilyn A. Fithian, William E. Hartman, and Randy Sue Klein. Amherst, N.Y.: Prome¬theus, 1997.
Bullough, Vern L. History of Prostitution. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1964.
———. “Problems of Research on a Delicate Topic: A Personal View.” Journal of Sex Research 21:4 (1985): 375–86.
———. “Research and Archival Value of Erotica/Pornography.” In Libraries, Erotica, & Pornography, edited by Martha Cornog, 99–105. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1991.
———. Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
———. Sexual Variance in Society and History. New York: Wiley, 1976.
———. The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
Bullough, Vern L., ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park/Haworth, 2002.
Bullough, Vern L., and James Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York: Garland, 1996.
———, eds. Sexual Practices & the Medieval Church. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1982.
Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia, Penn.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
———. Sin, Sickness, and Sanity: A History of Sexual Attitudes. New York: New American Library, 1977.
———. Sexual Attitudes: Myths and Realities. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1995.
———, eds. Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1994.
Bullough, Vern L., Brenda Shelton, and Sarah Slavin. The Subord¬inated Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Martha Cornog is the editor of Libraries, Erotica, & Pornography (1991), which won the American Library Association’s Eli M. Obeler Award for Intellectual Freedom in 1992. A version of this essay was published in Sex from Plato to Paglia: A Philosophical Encyclopedia, edited by Alan Soble (Greenwood, 2005).