David Sonenschein

Fifty years in sex research, 1961 - 2011

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Sonenschein has academic training and professional field experience in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. He has had academic minor concentrations in philosophy and comparative religion as well.

His primary areas of scholarship have been sex research and American popular culture, and his writings have appeared in such publications as Anthropological Quarterly, Social Forces, Psychiatric Opinion, The Journal of Sex Research, The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Culture, Sexual Behavior, Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, Public Opinion Quarterly, and others. He has served on editorial boards of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, the American Studies Association of Texas (ASAT), and the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS). He is currently Book Review Editor for The Independent Scholar, the on-line Quarterly of NCIS, and webmaster for ASAT.

Sonenschein has taught university courses in Introductory Anthropology, Culture and Personality, Contemporary American Society, and Human Sexualities. He fled the academia in 1973 but continues research, writing, and publishing as an independent scholar.

Sonenschein is primarily known for ethnographic research on male homosexual culture and relationships, and for his sociocultural approach to pornography. His years of sex research, begun in 1961, include several years (1966-1968) as a staff researcher at the Institute for Sex Research, founded by Alfred Kinsey, at Indiana University. Working with William Simon and John H. Gagnon, his main project was a study of gay community life in Indianapolis and Chicago. He also interviewed on a study of college youth, and did in-house research on pornography and other sexualities.

In 1969, he was requested by the President's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography to do a study of women's erotica which was published in their 1972 reports as “The Romance Magazine.” One of the first works to critically examine the child sex abuse hysteria appeared as a solicited chapter, “Children, Sex, and the Media,” in the book Forbidden Fruits: Taboo and Tabooism in Popular Culture, edited by Ray B. Browne of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. His 1998 two volume study of the panic, Pedophiles on Parade, was called “the definitive study” by one reviewer. His published projects have included a study of Madalyn Murray O'Hair's “nut mail,” documentary book publication of pre-Stonewall oral histories of gay men from 1967, and studies on youth-adult sexual relationships.

Sonenschein has specialized in ethnographic studies, that is, the direct observation and questioning of groups and individuals in lived social contexts, and in the analysis of cultural artifacts, images, and texts. He has become known for his critical research of important but volatile issues, and for his challenges to irrational popular moral panics concerning human sexualities. In the contexts of a steadily degenerating political environment and a moribund scientific establishment, such empirical work has demanded a parallel level of data driven rational activism, and he continues to counter homophobia and the child sex abuse hysteria. Now largely retired from active field research, he continues to present occasional professional papers and book reviews.

What Others Have Said About His Work...

“Sonenschein ‘broke the silence’ as never before by arguing explicitly for the value of an ethnographic approach to the study of homosexuality.” -- Kath Weston, Annual Review of Anthropology, 1993.

“His analysis of the homosexual’s language is brilliant. ... [He] reveals two important facts about homosexual slang largely ignored in previous research.” --Thomas Fitzgerald, Journal of Homosexuality, 1977.

“Some of our most powerful taboos center on children and sex, and David Sonenschein’s essay (‘Breaking the taboo of sex and adolescence: children, sex, and the media’ [in Forbidden Fruits, ed. Ray Browne, 1984] is one of the most provocative in this rich collection.” --Marshall Fishwick, Journal of Popular Culture, 1987.