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Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience.

Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester UP, 1990), ix + 234 pp., $59.50 cloth.

In his concluding chapter, Ronald Hyam writes: "This study has tried to show how administrators, settlers, soldiers, missionaries and others coped with the utterly alien indigenous approaches to the management of sexuality which they encountered in different parts of the world: How they responded to uninhibited courtship practices, 'natural' sodomy, polygamy, mui tsai, cliteridectomy and so forth" (211). This is an accurate description of what Hyam does best; as a survey of different imperial contexts and periods, and British sexual attitudes and behaviors in those contexts and periods, Empire and Sexuality fills an important need--one not filled by the many more narrowly focused studies, like Kenneth Ballhatchet's Race, sex and Class under the Raj, on which Hyam relies. The survey is wide-ranging and erudite, though more daring in its subject matter than in its approach.

There are several problems with Hyam's approach, beginning with his attack on feminism ("the poverty of feminism") as a "conceptual framework ... fundamentally hostile to sex" (17). Without acknowledging that there are many shades and degrees of feminism(s), or that he himself often relies on the work of feminist historians such as Judith Walkowitz and Martha Vicinus, Hyam lumps all feminists under the sign of "feminist hysterics" whose "sour and immature views" must be opposed "by all right-thinking people" (17). At least by implication, moreover, contemporary "feminist hysterics" look back to the "fanatical Purity Campaign" led by Josephine Buffer.

What today's feminists share with the turn-of-the-century purity crusade is, Hyam thinks, enmity toward sex--that is, toward most (all?) forms of sexual expression. Quite irrationally for someone who champions the deregulation of (especially male) sexuality, Hyam treats both feminists and "Purity-mongers" (202) as the anti-liberal repressers of sex who have made the world a less free and happy place to cohabit in: "Did Josephine Buffer and the Pall Mall Gazette ever guess that their Purity Campaign was destined within a century to leave its mark on the whole world? Many people's essentially harmless pleasures are now penalized, prostitution is widely frowned upon, and in Britain and America even family photographs are being monitored" (152). This conception rather reverses the standard notion that the Victorians repressed what the modern era has liberated: the Victorians repressed, and we continue to repress. What a distortion Hyam's assertion entails, however, not only of the standard narrative of modern sexual liberation, but also of the complex interplay between sexual and women's liberation! Just in relation to the nineteenth-century legacy, was Butler's concern for the ways mainly working-class women were being sexually and economically exploited, with the apparent approval of government through the Contagious Diseases Acts, merely repressive, fanatical puritanism? If "prostitution is widely frowned upon" today, it certainly isn't because of Josephine Butler, W.T. Stead, and a few other late-Victorian puritanical reformers; prostitution has been "widely frowned upon" in many times and places because it often (albeit not always) entails the sexual and economic exploitation of women.

Hyam perhaps fails to grasp this point because he operates with a naive, conservative, white male notion of individuals as freely choosing agents in even the most thoroughly exploitative imperial contexts. This notion equates women and even children as adult men's equal partners in most situations. This is not to say that Hyam approves of violence, domination, racism, or slavery; he just thinks that sexual repression is at least as big a problem as these other repressive phenomena. He writes mainly from the viewpoint of male Britons in imperial contexts, either repressing their sexual urges or seeking new outlets for them. In general, whatever allows for the expression of sex Hyam treats sympathetically; whatever represses it, he condemns. On this view, the empire appears as a more or less benign, beckoning field of "sexual opportunity" (88 and passim). So Byron and Burton could explore pederasty and paedophilia in Greece and India; and so imperial administrators in India and Africa could acquire "concubines" and "harems" without raising too many eyebrows (including Hyam's).

Hyam rightly criticizes some alternative theses like the "sublimation" idea expressed by Wayland Young: "love's loss is empire's gain" (10). Given the accumulated evidence of sexploitation by European males in African and Asian settings, Hyam is surely right to reject any easy reliance on the idea that "the price of (Western) civilization was sexual restraint" (10). For every "asexual" or perhaps anti-sexual Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts and proscriber of masturbation among them), a Byron or a Burton can be cited. Further, evidence about the sexual behaviors of individuals is notoriously untrustworthy. Thus, the Kinsey Report, which Hyam treats as straightforward evidence, has been variously criticized since its first part was published in 1948. At times Hyam recognizes this difficulty, but does so only selectively. He doesn't trust everything he reads, but he often trusts evidence--or the lack of evidence--when caution would have served him better.

Just because someone says he is not interested in sex, or because no evidence surfaces to show that he engaged in sex, does not make it so. Similarly, a person who says he's performed wonders of sexual athleticism may or may not be telling the truth. Without independent corroboration, who can tell? Hyam spends much time recounting the stories of individuals, though he quite sensibly concludes that the connection between private behaviors and the "public performance" of imperial conquest and government is at best exceedingly tenuous (209). Much of Empire and Sexuality nevertheless reads like a historical version of tabloid scandal news: an entertaining collection of stories of sexual big game hunting--maybe not much more.

Hyam is hampered by his inability to treat the stories he deals with as stories. He seems to be on solid, conservative, empiricist ground when, in his introductory statement about "approaches," he rejects novels as evidence: "Novels give us symbolic meanings and character stereotypes. They may be ways of conveying a truth, but they are not the truth as it actually happened" (19). Historians, no doubt, must inevitably invoke some version of Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen--but surely not, after Foucault, Derrida, and poststructuralism, in so naive, nonliterary a fashion? Historians necessarily trade in stories, not in raw, unmediated facts. Hyam rejects novels, but treats as sources of fact many stories that may be partially or thoroughly fictional. So, for example, since Stephen Marcus's The Other Victorians in 1966, "Waiter's" My Secret Life has been frequently debated as to its authenticity and veracity. Hyam puts "Waiter's" name in quotation marks, but proceeds to treat his story as non fictional. "'Walter's' evidence is supported by the entire corpus of mid-Victorian erotica" (75), which may in turn support Hyam's argument about circumcision, but hardly makes "Walter" real. So, too, Hyam provides a detailed account of Kenneth Searight's account of his homosexual exploits as if it were a major piece of historical evidence. But why should Searight's fatuous poetry about "'wholesale Buggery and perverse letches'" (131) be treated any less cautiously than Heart of Darkness? Indeed, the entire range of "erotica" that Hyam tends to accept as factual should rather be treated as fictional--typical or representative of authors' attitudes, at least, and possibly of great historical significance, but not to be simply credited as wie es eigentlich gewesen.

Despite these problems, Hyam's synthesis of previous work in various contexts and periods is useful, and many of his ideas and conclusions are insightful. He is surely right to say that "the empire was as much a system of prostitution networks as it was (in Kipling's famous phrase) a web of submarine cables" (212). And he is also surely fight in his conclusion that, quite often, sexual relations across the boundaries of racial division created opportunities, at least, for love and respect--beyond mere "sexual opportunity"--that worked against violence and domination. Perhaps he is even right to conclude that "sexual interaction between the British and non-Europeans probably did more long-term good than harm to race relations" (215), though given Britain's recurrent problems with racism at home since World War II, the jury may remain out for a long time to come.

Patrick Brantlinger

Indiana University
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Author:Brantlinger, Patrick
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 1991
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