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The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation (Ideologies of Desire) [Paperback]

Edward Stein
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 17, 2001 0195142446 978-0195142440
In recent years scientific research and popular opinion have favored the idea that sexual orientations are determined at birth. In this book, philosopher and legal theorist Edward Stein investigates scientific research on sexual orientation and shows that it is deeply flawed. He argues that this research assumes a picture of sexual desire that reflects unquestioned cultural stereotypes rather than cross-cultural scientific facts, and that it suffers from serious methodological problems. He then asks whether sexual orientation is amenable to empirical study and if it is useful for our understanding of human nature to categorize people based on their sexual desires. Perhaps most importantly, Stein examines some of the ethical issues surrounding such research, including gay and lesbian civil rights and the implications of parents trying to select or change the sexual orientation of their children.

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The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation (Ideologies of Desire) + Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation + Same Sex, Different Politics: Success and Failure in the Struggles over Gay Rights (Chicago Studies in American Politics)
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Editorial Reviews Review

Is there a "gay gene"? What if there is? And what does "gay" mean, anyway? Philosopher and queer studies instructor Edward Stein asks these questions and far more, delving deeply into our feelings about gender and sexuality in The Mismeasure of Desire, a deep but accessible examination of how we classify and study sexual orientation. Stein is that rare postmodern philosopher who explains his terms simply and strives for clarity in thought and prose; readers scared off by his background in the humanities will find his book as sensible as any science text. He divides his subjects into sections on metaphysics, science, and ethics, each building on the last.

First turning his attention to the construction of gender and desire, Stein takes great pains to define his terms so that they satisfy our intuitions yet maintain the rigor required of them by his philosophical operations. This territory has been explored fairly well over the last 30 years, but he finds new paths well worth further pursuit. Next he examines the social and biological research pertaining to sexual orientation; not surprisingly, he finds much fault therein, as much (if not all) of it rests on thoroughly disreputable and homophobic foundations. These assumptions are brought out of the closet and don't stand up well to scrutiny, lending power to Stein's concluding ethical arguments that we should at the very least demand more of researchers looking into sexual orientation, and perhaps curtail such research altogether. The powerful, heady ideas in The Mismeasure of Desire will keep you thinking for years to come. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The vast majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people believe that their sexuality is an inborn trait, whereas scientists favor theories of genetic or hormonal causation, psychologists point to environmental factors and most cutting-edge queer theorists are convinced that sexual orientations are constructed by historical and social factors. In a refreshingly daring work, philosopher Stein (Without Good Reason) raises metaphysical, methodological and ethical questions that challenge all sides of the debate with an eye toward reevaluating previous studies and developing new criteria for future research. Deploring the lack of cross-cultural research, he argues that much of what we think we know about sexual desire is wrong. Stein's decision to separate his review of past scientific and psychological research (often aided by clever parables) from his discussion of philosophical and ethical considerations leads to a great deal of unnecessary overlap, as does the author's redundant style (e.g., "Natural selection involves selection... "). While the general reader may benefit from the recaps, more sophisticated readers who have followed the debates over many of these studies in newspapers and journals will find the pace tedious and discover little that is new. Stein is at his best when querying the wisdom of undertaking such research at all. However, he so frequently refrains from taking sides that his analysis raises more questions than it answers. Illustrations. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Ideologies of Desire
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (May 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195142446
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195142440
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #480,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth the challenge March 30, 2000
How ironic that I finished this book on the same day that a new study came out linking finger length to sexual orientation.
This book is one of the most challenging I have ever read ... not only was it slow going at times while I struggled to grasp new ideas and concepts, but challenging in terms of getting me to look at my preconceived notions about sexual orientation in completely new ways.
I admit there were times when I almost gave up on The Mismeasure of Desire. First because of the dry, academic style in which it is written. Later I grew frustrated with Mr. Stein taking up pages to explain a concept only to watch him "tear down" that concept in the next chapter. Now that I've finished The Mismeasure of Desire, I'm happy I stuck with the task of reading it. I find myself initiating conversations with friends about the ideas that are presented in the book and I find that I'm thinking about being gay in much different ways than when I first started this book.
On the whole, this is a fascinating overview of the issue of sexual orientation and the research to study and define our "desires." My only major complaint with the book is the final section on the ethics of sexual orientation research. The issues raised in the chapters in this section could easily be expanded into an entire book. As it is, it feels like Mr. Stein breezes through some of these issues that could stand more in-depth study.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A serious look at issues in sexual orientation November 4, 1999
This book is a serious look at the issues involved in thinking about sexual orientation. For example, while we all have a basic understanding of ideas like "gay" and "straight", coming up with an adequate definition that works for all the different kinds of people in the world is not as easy as it might seem at first glance. The point of this book is to take it beyond first glances to a clearer understanding. Such fundamental definitional questions have implications for any discussions of related issues, such as gay rights legislation (who is actually covered by these protections?) and scientific research on sexual orientation (just what are we trying to measure?). How can we claim to know what causes a person to be "gay" unless we first know which people that term is supposed to describe?
There is also a less philosophical discussion of research methodologies and problems that arise specifically in doing research on an aspect of human nature that many people try to keep secret. For example, it's not clear that all the subjects in various experiments were "gay" at all, even by a simple definition. Obviously, if this is true, the results of such research are close to worthless, and yet the popular press generally ignores these crucial problems.
Because it is a serious book, it is not light reading; you have to stop and think about what Stein is saying. But he explains the ideas clearly and uses effective examples to guide even the novice through all the hidden assumptions in discussions of sexual orientation. I recommend it to anyone interested in thinking critically about these issues.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most groundbreaking work on the subject yet March 16, 2002
I recommend this book to everyone I talk to. It's simply outstanding.
Scientists will always seek to order the chaos, and philosophers will always seek to say that chaos can never be fully ordered. One may trim a hedge and box it into a container, but it is always alive, ever changing and growing. The best scientists can hope for is to catalog the waypoints.
I wrote an essay on this subject for a lesbian and gay studies class back in 1997, knowing nothing of postmodernism, and knowing only that I was bi, and didn't seem to fit gender categories either, and was continually frustrated by people's attempts to label me. At the time, I was considered a radical, and my professor sought to discredit all of my anecdotal evidence by saying I was too young to know what I "really" was yet.
That this book exists vindicates me on both a personal and professional level, and I hope will help all the rest of us "freaks" who exist outside the boxes come to terms with the idea that our chaos is the way things are meant to be, and that we should always refuse attempts at being ordered.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent, thought-provoking, lucid November 5, 1999
By A Customer
Edward Stein is a brilliant philosopher and writer in the best traditions of philosophy: he tries to help us make sense of our most deeply held values and interests. On every page of this book I found something to challenge and provoke my thinking. I predict that it will take some time for the controversial hypotheses and arguments about sexual orientation to become fully assimilated in our collective thinking about these topics, but once they do, they will forever change the terms of our conversations about innateness, choice, identity, sexuality, and value. The world needs more books like this.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars confusion discovered November 2, 1999
Stein's book is an extremely well-written piece of literature. He manages to discuss issues that are normally excruciatingly difficult to put together logically and does so in layman's terms. Beyond just his ability to speak about the topics of coming out and questioning why we as a society question homosexuality, he really forces the reader to question personal beliefs. Do I understand what it means to come out? Do I believe that homosexuality is essential or constructed? Why? Can I fight the counter arguments? The whole time you don't really no where he stands either. It is a very good overview for the person who is trying to discover what it all means. It will drive you to question yourself and teach you how to argue for what you believe. Anyone who has any questions about homosexuality or what it means to society should read this book. Even if you don't agree with everything he says at least you will think about it first. Also, I really loved the chapter about Zomnia. How silly are own constructions are!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting but a hard read
I found this to be a dry read but very interesting nonetheless. A great insight into theories reasoning why we are sexually oriented the way we are. Read more
Published on May 26, 2011 by James Holsworth
4.0 out of 5 stars Seriously? Anglo-American Philosophy?
Stein claims his training and background is in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, which serves as his "methodology" and template. The bibliography gives truth to that lie. Read more
Published on November 24, 2007 by D. S. Heersink
5.0 out of 5 stars A Critical Look at Sexuality
Stein's examination of how we define sexuality, deal with desire and how we examine and study human sexuality all come under the microscope of this amazing, smart and well-written... Read more
Published on July 8, 2007 by Jerry G. Prochazka
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging and well done
THE MISMEASURE OF DESIRE is a scholarly work examining the current trends in research on the origins of sexual orientation and the ethics of using the information we glean from... Read more
Published on December 28, 2000 by Joan Mazza
2.0 out of 5 stars Wise or foolish?
Stein claims that by applying philosophy to the study of sexual orientation, he has shed light on the subject, but it seems rather that he has muddled the issue by introducing... Read more
Published on January 30, 2000 by Martin Chatham
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive critique of assumptions about biology and sexuality
A clearly written, calm, thorough and incisive critique of the prevailing assumptions about biology and sexual orientation. Read more
Published on November 5, 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating
It's too bad that the reviewer from Seattle found Stein's book less inspiring than she'd hoped. If she found it tough going, it's because the issues themselves are complex and... Read more
Published on November 4, 1999
1.0 out of 5 stars The MisMeasure of UNdesire
The Preface began, "Many people find sex pleasurable. Many people also find talking about and thinking about sex to be fun and interesting. Read more
Published on October 28, 1999
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