Brain Pickings

Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead on the Fluidity of Human Sexuality in 1933

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Eighty years before marriage equality, a progressive lens on human love.

Anthropology icon Margaret Mead is not only the most influential cultural anthropologist of all time, but her work also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) reveals, Mead was ahead of her time in many respects, but perhaps nowhere more so than in matters of human sexuality. Some twenty years before the DSM — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s Bible — would classify homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” more than forty years before the “diagnosis” would be retracted, and eight decades before the dawn of marriage equality, Mead defied society’s constricting conceptions of gender identity and sexual roles.

In early April of 1933, en route to get married to New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune, Mead writes in a letter to Ruth Benedict, whom she considered her lifelong soulmate:

We’ve talked a lot of nonsense about sex — we’ve mixed up an interest in turning sex into a form so specific it is like a fight with manliness being well-sexed — I don’t believe any of it, anymore. I think specific sex is a form which is primarily suited to a clash of temperaments — between people who can’t communicate with each other — and is utterly and absolutely inappropriate between people who do understand each other. The kind of feeling which you have classified as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” is really “sex adapted to like or understood temperaments” versus “sex adapted to a relationship of strangeness and distance” — To think one goes with man-woman relationships, or that if it’s within a sex it’s because one person belongs in the other sex, is a fundamental fallacy. I believe every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse “homosexual” sex expression, and specific climax — according to the temperamental situation. To call men who prefer the diffuse expression “feminine” — or women who seek only the specific, “masculine,” or both “mixed types” is a lot of obfuscation.

Complement with Susan Sontag on love, sex, and the world between and the extraordinary love letters of Mead and Benedict.

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