Richard Davenport-Hines, Sex Death and Punishment: Attitudes to sex and sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance, Collins, London, 1990, £20.00 (hardback), 440 + xvi pages, ISBN 0 00 217956 3
The title of this book is somewhat misleading. Far from being a wide-ranging survey doing for Britain what D'Emilio and Freedman's Intimate Matters does for the USA, it focuses rather myopically on two specific aspects of sex and sexuality in Britain: venereal diseases and homosexuality. One is inclined to suspect a certain aim at trendy topicality in the AIDS era. These two subjects are well worth historiographical attention, but the way they are here considered in detachment from a wider context is somewhat frustrating.
Frank Mort, for example, has looked at Dangerous Sexualities in a wider context of 'medico-moral politics' and attitudes to infectious disease, and attitudes to venereal disease can be helpfully studied in this way (using, for example, Bryder and Smith's recent works on tuberculosis and the stigma surrounding this ailment). Roy and Dorothy Porter have illuminatingly considered the contrasting fates of the Anti-Contagious Diseases Acts movement and that of Anti-Vaccinationism in Fee and Fox's AIDS: The Burdens of History. Similarly, attitudes to homosexuality can be usefully explored by considering more general attitudes to non-reproductive sex and views on sex as (merely) pleasure.
There is remarkably little sense in this book of the profound connections between sex and reproduction which existed during most of the period it discusses. This leads to some rather bizarre statements--surely objections to the introduction of the bidet (or, indeed, the very idea of such a thing) owed more to a belief in its contraceptive purpose than to revulsion against oral sex acts which it presumably made more salubrious. This wider context could have shed light upon attitudes to non-reproductive sex acts, and on diseases recognised as having serious effects upon posterity. A consideration, for example, of the disjunctions between fulminations against birth control, the rise of a contraceptive manufacturing industry, and the actual practice of various forms of family limitation, might have been suggestive about behaviour officially deplored and privately employed to an increasing extent. ('I shrink from it as from sodomy' one man wrote to Marie Stopes about birth control, c. 1918)
One might also wish for wider political contexts to the rise and fall of outbreaks of 'moral panic' over homosexuality, and a more exact sense of how its treatment compared with that of other offenses. If there was a rise of sodomy prosecutions during the Napoleonic Wars, how does their fate compare with groups and individuals regarded as politically subversive? And as for those receiving the capital penalty: if, out of 1920 executions, 1805-1835, there were 53 for sodomy and 400 for murder, what were the remaining 1467 for? (Presumably crimes, some of them very petty, against property.) Statistics such as these beg more questions than they answer. Davenport-Hines is concerned to show the persistence of connections between sex, death and punishment but it might be even more illuminating to see the circumstances within which this nexus flares into malign activity, rather than being part of the background of thought on the subject.
He has, however, meritoriously delved into a wide range of primary sources, even if sometimes he is less than entirely critical about their relationship to 'objective reality' (if one may invoke such a concept). For example, while he rightly takes the sleazy early eighteenth-century accounts of 'molly-houses' (homosexual brothels/meeting places) as part of a continuing problem of malignant stereotyping, he also treats them as if they were reliable reportage about the nature of male homo-erotic life in London in the early 1700s. This resembles taking Malleus Malleficarum as a reliable guide to the practices of female folk-healers in the late fifteenth century. Such representations might be helpfully compared with those of other figures upon whom 'inner demons' were projected, such as the Jew or the Jesuit. Davenport-Hines, apparently, like the Shadow, knows what evil lurks in the heart of men, in particular doctors, judges and members of Parliament when they discuss homosexuality or prostitution. He also has a tendency, perhaps justified by his thesis, to support particular arguments with evidence from periods widely separated in time.
For a book which purports to be fully aware of the way negative sex stereotyping oppresses the female, there are some remarkably misogynist statements and anecdotes, though they invoke the stereotype of woman as protective/
restrictive/punitive mother or nanny rather than depraved and sexualised whore. Companionate marriage is said to have been either 'cloying', driving men to impersonal homosexual contacts, or the failure to achieve it 'embittering', with the same result. Women doctors are condemned as having been subservient to the demands of respectability imposed by society and the male-dominated medical profession well up to the Second World War--a contention which is hardly borne out by the vital contribution of medical women to the birth control movement and the wider dissemination of sex education. There are also a couple of unpleasant anecdotes featuring women as betrayers of men to laws which criminalise both heterosexual and homosexual sodomy.
The book is written in a racy and readable style, but appears to have been put together somewhat hastily. This is a great pity, since a little more editing would have greatly improved it. There are a number of redundancies and several places where arguments are diffuse or disjointed. There are also a number of irritating inaccuracies and mistakes. 'Haruspex' was the generic term for a Roman priest divining from entrails--not an individual--and there are several other places where individuals or institutions are either misnamed or muddled.
There is a great deal of material in Sex Death and Punishment which it is very hard to come by elsewhere, without poking around in eighteenth century pamphlets or the records of the Lock Hospital. It thus serves a valuable purpose in making such material more readily available to the historian. The use it makes of this material is, however, provocative, and will, hopefully, stimulate further debates and research around this important and relevant subject.
Lesley A Hall,
Contemporary Medical Archives Centre,
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine