Ronald HyamEmpire and Sexuality: The British Experience, Studies in Imperialism, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, hardback, x + 234pp, £35.00, ISBN 07190-2504-4
It is an extraordinary experience to find a work of what might be described as the school of George Ryley Scott (author of A History of Prostitution from Antiquity to the Present Day, Far Eastern Sex Life, histories of corporal punishment and torture, and assorted works on sexual subjects) published not merely in 1990 but by the Manchester University Press. While Mr Hyam appears aware of recent historiography in the area of sex, his introductory discussion dismisses it in a perfunctory, somewhat disingenuous way. His footnotes reveal that he has benefited extensively from the work of such feminist historians as Judith Walkowitz (persistently misspelt) and Martha Vicinus, yet he pooh-poohs the relevance of feminism to the history of sex. Rather than engaging with the use of feminist analysis in historical scholarship, he derides the more extreme remarks of polemicists (not historians) whose arguments are the subject of continuing debate. It is hard to see how anyone who has given real attention to feminist studies during the 1980s could see them either as monolithic or necessarily 'hostile to sex'.
This remarkable distortion reaches its apogee in the far-reaching and lingering internationally devastating effects attributed to the Social Purity Movement. Hyam's style is sometimes so convoluted that I would hesitate to record that he appears to think that it is a bad thing that prostitution 'is widely frowned on'. I may have misread him as I may have misread his apparent belief that East African woman who are subjected to clitoridectomy in childhood nevertheless may subsequently be in a position to express and implement erotic preferences about anal versus vaginal penetration.
His conceptualisation of sex appears to be the rather simplistic one that it is, 'naturally', an enjoyable activity. He tends to dismiss or ignore the reasons why it might not be so for women, and fails to consider that sex may be far from unambiguously pleasurable for men, contending that men who were clearly celibate or extremely sex-negative in their views were a-sexual. In many cases it was surely fear of their own overwhelming desires that caused men to perceive sex as dangerous and negative, to be discouraged and avoided (the St Augustine syndrome). On male sexuality Hyam appears to hold the same views as Cynthia Payne ('Madame Sin'); i e that ('normal') men need to be 'regularly despunked' and while they may prefer this to happen with a socially acceptable partner of the opposite sex, in case of necessity anything with a hole will do. (However there are no accounts of sexual congress with 'lower animals'--in spite of the good old Colonial joke 'female camel--nothing queer about Carruthers'--or melons.) The possibility that sexual desire may be acted on by surrounding social beliefs and norms in ways which are not simply about 'repression' or taboo is unfortunately not explored.
Hyam is aware that relationships between British colonialists and native populations varied widely over the centuries, e g, the British in India in the earlier eighteenth century being a very different matter to the 'twice-borns' of the Raj at its height. Nevertheless there are some places where chronologically widespread evidence is used in rather too generalising a fashion; a similar argument might be applied to Hyam's wide geographical range. There is also perhaps a little too much argument in the form 'Europeans are almost certain to have got involved' (for example in Amerindian institutionalised male sexual relationships) for the prevalence or even existence of particular practices.
It is clear that a lot of research has gone into this work. Considerable empathy with the isolated officials of Empire in their alien settings is achieved; it is a pity that this was not more widely extended. For whom, after all, was one prostitute to forty-four men a 'highly favourable ratio'? Hyam does not really get involved in how far inter-racial sex may be a good thing when sex itself is perceived in ambivalent terms, and when it takes place well-removed from what may be regarded as 'real life'. Sex which is cheaply bought, has no emotional involvement, takes place far from home and family between different races still goes on in, for example, the centres of Far Eastern sex tourism. Sex may not always be about domination within power relationships, and even in these there may be disjunctions and reversals, but the significance of the power relations of empire on sexual relationships within it requires exploring in a more nuanced way than this work achieves.
Lesley A Hall
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine