Printer Friendly

Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe.

Forbidden History is an anthology of fifteen articles selected from the 1990 and 1991 volumes of the Journal of the History of Sexuality. It concentrates heavily on the period since the eighteenth century, although two pieces (one on syphilis and the other on infanticide) address early modern sexuality as well. The volume presents cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives: here we find contributions from history, literature, anthropology, social policy, and the fine arts. One explicit purpose of the collection is to "engage scholars interested in complex gender issues and their relationships to the control of certain forms of sexual behavior, especially those that were perceived at various moments in time as deviant". And the final word in that sentence neatly summarizes the content of the articles: they investigate what was once called deviance. Syphilis, infanticide, AIDS, sodomy, prostitution, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, masturbation, and pornography all have their place in this rogues' gallery of forbidden sexualities. Another major objective is to demonstrate how the definition of deviance changed significantly over the centuries. The several authors debate how major shifts in Western patterns of sexual behavior occurred, and how perceptions of that behavior also varied. Not surprisingly most of the essays are written from the social constructivist point of view, but one also finds, for example, in Gert Hekma's article on homosexual behavior in the nineteenth-century Dutch army and in Theo van der Meer's study of "Tribades on Trial," a tough-minded reassessment of the social constructivist position which, as Hekma points out, often amounts to little more than "a facile critique of an essentialism that is actually defended by no one".

A sense of vigorous debate pervades the entire volume, and the extended discussion of similar issues does much to weld together what might otherwise have been merely a spicy potpourri of historical tidbits. Happily, analysis is never submerged by a torrent of salacious and titillating detail. For example, one of most influential recent arguments about Western sexuality--that there was a major redefinition of male (and thus also female) behavior in the eighteenth century--receives extended treatment. In his study of male sodomy and female prostitution in Enlightenment London, Randolph Trumbach adds to an argument he had previously advanced about the establishment of the modem male gender role: "that most men desired women exclusively and that all masculine behavior flowed from such desire." The new orientation turned sharply away from the "old sexual culture" in which "the most daringly masculine men had had sexual relations with both women and adolescent men". This shift (which is, of course, intimately related to the one Lawrence Stone posits in tracing the rise of companionate marriage) represents a major transformation in European sexuality. Other contributors to the volume pick up on the same theme, although they do not wholeheartedly embrace Trumbach's thesis. Hekma, for one, takes issue with Trumbach's periodization and with his depiction of the "queen" as the quintessential homosexual type. The several kinds of male homosexuality Hekma found to be prevalent in the Dutch army leads him to doubt the "universality" of the effeminate homosexual. Instead he argues that quite diverse patterns of homosexual behavior existed simultaneously. John Fout bases his critique of Trumbach on the decisive impact of national, regional, and local variations that, he believes, have been too often overlooked by scholars. He concedes that Trumbach might be "right" for eighteenth-century London, but then wonders why "the 'effeminate homosexual role' apparently [did] not appear until the late nineteenth century in the Netherlands or Germany?)" Fout maintains that the "queen model" probably emerged as the "product of a particular moment of crisis in gender relations and a specific set of economic and social conditions," and he thereby opposes the "linear interpretation" Trumbach favors.

The argument that a "particular moment of crisis in gender relations" triggered specific sexual behaviors and distinct attitudes toward sexuality and gender roles, is the basic interpretive point many of these observers share. Yet the larger argument--that a distinctive set of social and economic conditions determined such shifts is only avowed, never substantiated. As long as the authors stick to clearly demarcated situations and relatively short time spans--such as John MacNicol does in revealing how the voluntary sterilization campaign in twentieth-century Britain got caught "in a seamless web of shared assumptions justifying the existence of class divisions" and thus failed--their argument works well enough. When more grandiose explanations are put forward, however, things fall apart. Ruth Perry, for example, meticulously delineates how eighteenth-century society colonized the female body, and especially the breast, for domestic life as part of a new allotment of women's duties that henceforth would be decided on the basis of gender not class. But the assertion that such "can be seen as adaptations of an existing social system to the new political and economic imperatives of an expanding English empire" is an enormous interpretive leap that few will be very eager to make with her. The problem of explaining why sexual behavior or perceptions of that behavior actually changed when they did plagues a number of these articles. Trumbach offers a finely drawn picture of how male sexual behaviors altered over the century, yet he is less successful in pinpointing just what pushed these transformations along. We only get some tantalizing hints--something to do with revolution, something to do with greater political strategies--but the linkages are vague. More convincing in this regard (if also more limited in interpretive scope) is Polly Morris's study of incest as a survival strategy in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Somerset. By focussing closely on the actions of single individuals in a particular time and place, she is able to tie cause and effect together more satisfactorily.

This collection also reflects how the historiography of sexuality has evolved in recent years. Whereas once, and not that long ago either, studies of sexuality converged on the Victorians (whether the repressed variety or the "others"), now the weight of investigation seems to have been pushed back about a century. Just look, for instance, at the chronological distribution of the articles in this collection: for the period before 1700, there is one (and part of another) article; for the nineteenth century, at most four, and for the twentieth-century, three, while the eighteenth century is handsomely represented by no fewer than six contributions. The new interpretive orthodoxy (admittedly, one which certain authors in this book dispute) is that the important shifts in sexuality took place between 1700 and 1800. The articles for the nineteenth century then can do little more than quibble about whether or not a periodization that places the eighteenth century in the sexual vanguard is correct, or needs some modification. The pieces on the twentieth century present an even more fragmented image: they consider sterilization, pornography, and AIDS, yet only "talk to each other" very obliquely, if at all. This is not a criticism of these explorations of themes in twentieth-century sexuality: it is merely an appraisal of how attention has come to rest on an earlier period and how the tyranny of the model inherited from scholars of the eighteenth century seems to work like a damper on the "new" history of sexuality when it turns to the nineteenth and, especially, the twentieth century. And if this collection is any indication, the fertile field of recent sexuality still awaits tilling.

Mary Lindemann Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lindemann, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:1219
Previous Article:The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700-1900.
Next Article:The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia.
Topics:


Related Articles
Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture.
Sex and Reason.
The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia.
The Enigmatic Narrator: The Voicing of Same-Sex Love in the Poetry of John Donne.
Desire in the Renaissance: Psychoanalysis and Literature.
Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany: 1700-1815.
Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England.
Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice.
Excavating for truth and order. (Featured Reviews).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters