Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, by Randolph Trumbach. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998. [xiv], 509 pp. $35US
This long-awaited work by Randolph Trumbach is a veritable tour-de-force of historical reconstruction and analysis . The final judgement on this massive project cannot be pronounced until Volume 2 has appeared, but the riches contained herein are plenty to be going on with, and indeed, require some time for adequate digestion.
Trumbach posits - and convincingly substantiates - significant changes in sexual mores during the eighteenth century. His focus is on London, the obvious location for new trends to manifest, for which copious archival resources survive enabling the reconstruction of sexual narratives for a range of social groups as well as both genders. He provides a dense account of the areas indicative of changing sexual mores: libertinism and prostitution; the vast increase in venereal diseases (a small quibble is Trumbach's use of the term 'cure': the most obvious symptoms of both syphilis and gonorrhoea disappear even without treatment); rising illegitimacy; the incidence of rape; adultery, violence and desertion within marriage.
Trumbach argues that changes in male sexual behaviour were due to the rise of a perceived 'sodomite identity' in urban locales during the early eighteenth century. Previously a degree of bisexuality, involving adult males having sexual relations with adolescent boys, had been conceptualized as the characteristic of the hypersexual libertine and conveyed no imputation against the manliness and full masculine identity of the male in question. For the younger partner, having engaged in such relations at a particular stage in the life-cycle was not carried over into a stigmatised adult identity. However, the early eighteenth century saw the rise of a distinctive 'molly' subculture of men who defined themselves by their sexual interaction with other adult males like themselves and were perceived as a third, transgressive, gender. The imputation of being a sodomite came to be regarded as a deleterious slur upon manly reputation, so that mere extortionary threats to make this accusation could be successful even without any apparent objective grounds for concern by the man accused.
As a result, Trumbach claims, the idea of exclusive sexual interest in women as the desideratum of normal masculinity, i.e., heterosexuality as a distinct identity, arose. From around 1730 accusations of heterosexual whoremongery were no longer considered defamatory, but 'the fear of being exposed as a sodomite left men paralyzed' (p. 55). He connects the increasing demand that men should find sexual pleasure only with the female and not the male body with the abrupt rise of Onania-mania in the early eighteenth century - even a man=s own body was not to form a source of pleasure to him. Trumbach claims that boys= ideas and first experiences of sexuality were constructed in a predominantly homosocial male world: only later did they interact with females, with fears, fantasies and received myths already in place, providing the basis for profound anxieties.
Female sexual reputation continued to be judged along the axis of chaste maid or wife versus whore (a term of opprobrium not confined to professional prostitutes) for a great deal longer. Women's sexual lives were still structured by family institutions and forms - varying considerably according to social class - in ways that men's were ceasing to be. Sexual relations between women were not prosecuted, and it was 'always much more possible to be unaware that sexual relations between women existed' (p. 8).
Much of the ambivalent response of law, legislature, public opinion and voluntary bodies to brothels, soaring venereal disease rates, rising illegitimacy, rape and sexual assaults on women, can, Trumbach alleges, be explained by the belief that it was socially essential to provide men with heterosexual outlets (these were Bad Things, but the alternative was worse). It is not entirely clear whether this was only for fear of their resorting to 'unnatural' expedients, or whether there were concurrent changing perceptions of the nature of sexual desire, at least in the male, with this being envisaged as an imperative, potentially dangerously uncontrollable force of nature.
Can the anxieties of eighteenth century masculinity be attributed to other factors? Could it be that the male peer group, as opposed to hierarchical and age-structured relationships within a familial context, was playing a more important role in the lives of men (we may note the contemporary rise of Freemasonry and other institutionalized forms of male bonding), and new ways of >proving manhood= were having to be evolved (though fears relating to sodomy would doubtless fit in here anyway)? While much of the relentless, even obsessive, pursuit of heterosexual gratification reckless of any consequences either to the women involved or the dangers to themselves of venereal disease, may have been driven by intrapsychic fears about sexual identity, the male peer group doubtless played a part in establishing norms, and perhaps also generating an atmosphere of competition and rivalry over conquests. The emphasis seems to have been on doing it, almost on 'counting coup', except - perhaps - in the more élite social circles in which an ideology of companionate marriage and emotional intimacy between husband and wife was emerging (though Trumbach reveals how much this was aspiration rather than actuality). Quantity rather than quality appears to have been the keynote. I was somewhat surprised to find no discussion of any trade in impotence remedies, given the counter-productive performance pressures involved in conceiving the proof of normal masculinity as getting it up and into a woman as often as possible. Trumbach suggests that at least for some men the prevalent violence of sexual relations - in honest courtship as well as rape and sexual harassment - was a (perhaps necessary) erotic stimulus.
Whether or not the reader concurs with Trumbach's theory of the motor driving the changes he
describes, there is no doubt that the rich feast of empirical evidence based on extensive research
in, and sensitive interpretation of, a wide range of archival materials which he sets before us will
be of interest to historians in many fields. There is much here that is thought-provoking:
tantalising glimpses of a world we have lost - for which it is hard to feel much nostalgia.
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London Lesley A. Hall