Historicising the History of Sexuality

Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine

[This was originally written in 2005 as an encyclopaedia article on the history of history of sexuality, but was not, in the event, published]

The history of the history of sexuality
Sources, methods, problems
What do we know about the history of sexuality?
Further Reading

The history of the history of sexuality

While there has been a veritable explosion of interest in the history of sexuality since the 1970s, the study of the history of sexual behaviour and attitudes has itself a much longer history. R. P. Neuman commented in 1978 that ‘sexual behavior has interested historians ever since Suetonius described Tiberius on Capri’, an allusion invoking the recurrent accusation of deploying the past for prurient purposes which haunts the history of sexuality. Quite apart from this somewhat dubious tradition of accounts of debauchery and ‘grandes amoureuses’, history played a significant role in the evolution of sexology which has tended to be overlooked. Early sexologists were drawing on a range of intellectual disciplines, most of which have now separated out into mutually exclusive fields. Important influences on those attempting to apply reason and scientific methods to the study of sexuality included Lecky’s History of European Morals (1869), a work which might well be claimed to have been almost as significant asDarwin’s Origin of Species (1859) to their enterprise. Lecky is now almost exclusively remembered for his much-cited invocation to the prostitute as ‘Herself the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian of virtue’. This was originally embedded within a subtle and nuanced account of historical differences in the treatment of illicit liaisons, amounting to a humane critique of Victorian severity towards sexual sin. Lecky thus manifested one of the abiding reasons for interest in the history of sexuality: the light it might shed on current moral assumptions and the prospects for transforming existing conditions.

During the nineteenth century developing sexology was also strongly influenced by anthropological/historical theories about the evolution of societies, especially the works of matriarchy theorists such as J. J. Bachofen and L. H. Morgan. These invoked the idea that sexual mores had changed radically over time, although the process was often depicted in evolutionary terms with the assumption that this had reached its peak with the domination of the white male in monogamous patriarchal marriage. Such studies, like Lecky’s, nonetheless undermined the idea that sexual institutions of the current society were unchanging manifestations of ‘the natural’. They thus modelled the use of history to prove not only that sexual mores had changed within Western Civilisation over time, but that they might not have reached a state of final stasis. This approach was therefore already some distance from the simplistic invocation of history to underwrite conservative models of sexual relations, by positing either an idyllic time when men were men, and women women, in contrast to the decadence of modern days; or telling cautionary tales of the supposed relationship between unbridled sexual indulgence and the decline of the Roman and other Empires.

The Greek ideal which played such a role within nineteenth century elite education in classics was often invoked in early homophile writings. Edward Carpenter in his apologias for ‘the Intermediate Sex’ cited in addition David and Jonathan, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, and Queen Christina of Sweden,>to counterbalance the prevalent alternative vision of the corruption and excess through which Rome was popularly supposed to have fallen

Many topics which have been the subject of more recent scholarly explorations were first touched on in Havelock Ellis’s massive seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928), which drew on his polymathic readings in history as well as the sciences, and in the works of European sexologists such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Iwan Bloch.Ellis, delving into the volumes of Select Trials at the Old Bailey, mentioned the prosecution of Mother Clap and ‘molly-houses’, and identified the foundation of the medicalized panic over masturbation in the publication of the anonymous volume Onania in the early years of the eighteenth century, examples which could be multiplied in the works of these and other contemporary authors.

Following these pioneers using history to underpin their agenda for reform, and mostly highly derivative from them, there were a number of rather sensationalist catchpenny publications with titles such asCurious Customs of Sex and Marriage, Phallic Worship, A history of prostitution. However a few dedicated antiquarians, to whom present day historians may still be very grateful, amassed information on ‘curious’ and little-researched topics. US demographer Norman Himes’ enormous Medical History of Contraception (Baltimore, 1936) is regularly raided by people looking for entertaining facts about weird contraceptive methods as well as by serious historians of fertility control. Eric Dingwall of the British Museum produced studies on the chastity belt, celibacy, and women masquerading as men: the approach may have been in the curiosities of nature tradition but at least there was some attempt at deploying the rigours of scholarship in analysing the evidence.>During the 1950s and 1960s a number of pioneering early studies, suchKeith Thomas’s article on the Double Standard, and several articles on the history of the masturbation panic advanced from the collation of intriguing odd facts about how strange people were, to the development of theoretical analyses of the how and why of the phenomena being considered.

Over the past three decades there has been a massive rise in work which could be incorporated within the definition of history of sexuality. The 1970s saw the rise of the ‘new’ history of sexuality, claimed as a product of the so-called sexual revolution, and certainly strongly influenced by the women’s and gay liberation movements, though some of the earliest works - Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians (1966), Ronald Pearsall in The Worm in the Bud (1969)>- while exploring material that would formerly have been taboo, did not manifest any particular political agenda.

By 1978 R. P. Neuman could claim that ‘Today the history of sexuality flourishes in the hazy region where demography, family and women’s history, psychohistory and the history of childhood overlap’, in spite of his perception of ‘disagreement[s] about the sources, methodologies and even the questions to be asked’ and his critique of the sometimes narrow focus and lack of interdisciplinary perspective. Relevant scholarship was going on in several areas but they were not necessarily speaking to one another, let alone cross-fertilising.

Neuman wrote just before Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality burst upon the world.Though this wasenormously influential, a number of scholars emerging from the women’s and gay liberation movements had already started working on very similar lines, and other theoretical approaches in play at the period such as Gagnon and Simon’s theories of ‘sexual scripting’, Ken Plummer’s ‘social interactionism’, and the feminist critique of masculine gender bias in many assumptions about sex, have been somewhat occluded, if not completely erased from the record, by the vogue for Foucault’s analysis. However, if the kind of loose and anecdotal studies condemned by Neuman were not wholly eradicated, it at least became necessary for serious historians to think more theoretically about what they were doing.

As tends to be the case with newly emergent fields, some of the pioneering works may now look outdated or need supplementing or nuancing in the light of subsequent investigations but nonetheless they provided questions to ask, theories to resist, evidence to work with. As might be expected, much of the scholarship has focussed on North America and Europe, although with the rise of post-colonial studies more attention is now being paid to former Imperial possessions and colonised nations. A wider range of journals is increasingly open to accepting articles dealing with topics in history of sexuality, though the disciplinary concentration is still in women’s/gender history, social history, and history of medicine and science.

Much foundational work was undertaken by independent scholars or individuals with no permanent institutional basis. There is some evidence that prejudice still negatively influences the careers of scholars working within the academy, although some may pursue the subject under the rubric of social or demographic or urban history.

Sources, methods, problems

A central difficulty in doing the history of sexuality is finding the evidence. It is usually easier to discover what people thought, or at least said, about attitudes and behaviour, than the intimate details and specificities of sexual acts. Surviving texts are often prescriptive rather than descriptive, laying down legal or religious strictures upon particular sexual interactions. Such visual and artistic evidence as remains raises numerous questions about the production, consumption, and audience of the artefacts in question. Even in societies and for periods during which substantial and relatively complete vital records have been kept, it is seldom possible to derive anything more than implications about levels of premarital intercourse or the employment of some means of regulating conception. Contemporaries in societies which licensed and regulated prostitution recognised that a substantial if unquantifiable amount of clandestine commercial sex was taking place outside this system. The question also arises whether, if some particular activity was not reported, it was not occurring, regarded as too unremarkable for anyone to comment on, or else so inconceivable that it could hardly be conceptualised. For example, the lack of social and economic power of women, their identification with the private and domestic sphere, and the tendency to assume that anyway two women could not ‘do anything’ effective erotically, means that same-sex relations between women throughout history have been largely (but nonetheless not wholly) invisible, except when depicted for the delectation of male readers and viewers. Specific cases that emerge to catch the attention of the historian often represent the atypical and exceptional, since much of the record which survives deals with behaviour defined as deviant and part of the province of the law, or phenomena falling within the sphere of medicine and classified as pathological and abnormal.

Even in contemporary societies characterized by a proliferation of sexual representations and discourses, little reliable evidence is available about what people are doing sexually. The very attempt to discover this is still often branded as unacceptable. Such investigations as do obtain support are often driven by a crisis management response to problems such as the rise of AIDS from the 1980s, or unacceptable levels of teenage pregnancy, though even such urgent pressures may not convince policymakers, one example being the famous refusal of Mrs Thatcher’s government to undertake the British sex survey eventually underwritten by the Wellcome Trust, a phenomenon which could be paralleled in other countries. Producing data about ‘normal’ or apparently unproblematic behaviours, however helpful this might be in devising strategies of education and prevention, is seldom a priority. Researchers working find that the sets of data produced even within these relatively narrow parameters are seldom comparable, either within the same or across different societies. There are also methodological problems to do with definitions (for example, the pervasive usage of ‘sex’ in large areas of the USA to exclude anything not involving penile penetration of the vagina) and terminology more generally.

How much more so is this an issue when endeavouring to elucidate attitudes and behaviour in past societies. If Foucault’s claim that ‘the homosexual’ did not exist prior to the definition ofthis category around 1870 as an identity based on sexual preference has been contested by a number of historians, who have revealed that there were men aware of a conscious identity, if not the particular name for it, existing well before then, it is still a necessary reminder that modern categories, definitions and meanings cannot be superimposed upon the past.

What do we know about the history of sexuality?

Our knowledge of sexuality in history is still extremely partial. There are islands of recovered (and often disputed) evidence in a vast sea of unexplored centuries, region, and topics. While a good deal of work on North America and parts of Western Europe during relatively modern times has been done, and there are significant studies on the classical period, the middle ages and the early modern era,there are still many major lacunae (although some places and periods have been subjected to so much scrutiny - Victorian Britain springs to mind - that possibly a moratorium should be declared).

A substantial amount of research undertaken so far has focussed upon those who deviated in some way from the assumed norms of their societies, partly due to availability of materials such as records of church and secular courts. As a result, a particularly under-examined topic is the ‘normal’ heterosexual male. The prostitute and the institution of prostitution have been the subjects of much investigation but the driving motor of the sex-trade, the male customer and his desires, remains a mystery. Changes in marriage, the rise in the practice of birth control, the altered status of women, all suggest that the ‘normal’ male was himself not an unvarying creature perennially manifesting transhistorical sociobiological imperatives.

What is clear from the work done so far is the complexity of the subject. Grand narratives covering vast swathes of history and large areas of the world, in the light of the gaps in the historiography and the multifarious stories that have been recovered, are problematic, as are simplistic moral tales of either progress or decline.

Further reading

Iwan Bloch, The Sexual Life of Our Time: in its relations to modern civilization (London: Rebman, 1908, first published as Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit in seinen Beziehungen zur modernen Kultur Berlin, 1907)

Harry Cocks and Matt Houlbrook (eds), The Modern History of Sexuality (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006)

Franz Eder, Lesley Hall and Gert Hekma (eds.), Sexual Cultures in Europe: National Overviews and Themes in Sexuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1999)

Havelock Ellis, Sex in Relation to Society, Volume VI, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Philadelphia : F.A. Davis, 1910)

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction (London: Allen Lane, 1979, first published as La volonté de savoir Paris: Gallimard, 1976)       

Magnus Hirschfeld, The Homosexuality of Men and Women (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000, first published as Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes, Berlin 1920)

William E. H. Lecky, A History of European Morals (London: Longmans, 1869)

Angus McLaren, A History of Contraception from antiquity to the present day(Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)

R. P. Neuman, ‘Recent work in the history of sexuality’, Journal of social history 11 (1977-78), pp.419-425

Leila J. Rupp, A desired past : a short history of same-sex love in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Keith Thomas, ‘The Double Standard’, Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959), pp. 195-216

Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: the regulation of sexuality since 1800 (London: Longman, 1981)

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© Lesley Hall
Last modified 4 July 2008