Three Books on the History of Sexuality

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men’s Press, 1982).

This is a very influential social constructionist account and I’m currently re-reading the whole thing. Bray argued that homosexuality as a category of identity could not exist in the Renaissance because it wouldn’t have made any sense in the early modern period and ‘identity without a consciousness in time is impossible’ (11).

A typical quote:

‘To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading.  The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted as part of the common lot, be it never so abhorred’ (16 – 17).

It still holds up as a fascinating read.

Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century (London: Cassell, 1994)

Sinfield is a hardline social constructionist when it comes to homosexuality and very readable and persuasive with it.  In this book he argues that effeminacy was not strongly linked to homosexuality until the trials of Oscar Wilde when the popular stereotype

He gives a summary of the social constructionist argument:

‘sexualities (heterosexual and homosexual) are not essential, but constructed within an array of prevailing social possibilities […] Sexual identity depends not on a deep-set self-hood (though it may feel otherwise), but on one’s particular situation within the framework of understanding that makes certain, diverse, possibilities available; which makes some ideas plausible and other not.  This is the ideological network that we use to explain our worlds. Ideology makes sense for us – of us – because it is already proceeding when we arrive in the world; we come to consciousness in its terms […] The constructionist argument is generally indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, who argues that the big shift in homosexual identity occurs when the person who engages in same-sex activity gets perceived as a personality type. So far from repressing sex, Foucault brilliantly observes, the Victorians went on about it all the time; it became a principal mode of social regulation. In the process of this discursive proliferation, the ‘homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology … The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’’ […] Hence the answer to the question that seems suddenly to have hit the agenda: ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ He couldn’t have been, because lesbian and gay identities are modern developments: the early-modern organization of sex and gender boundaries, simply, was different from ours.  However, by the same token, he couldn’t have been straight either, so present-day heterosexism has no stronger claim upon him than homosexuality’ (11 – 13).

Charming as Sinfield is, as a writer, I’m not convinced that effeminacy was a de-coupled from ideas about sex between men (until Oscar) as he wants to prove in this book.  I’m enjoying reading about it though.

George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (1999)

I like reading Haggerty. He has a rambling style and is an interesting close reader. This book looks at masculinity as a contested concept in the eighteenth century and argues that a certain sexual sensibility emerges in this period (1 and 2).  A lot of people talk about sodomy but Haggerty wants to bring ‘love’ back into the picture:

‘The “love” that cannot be expressed – “dare not speak its name” – because that is what is really threatening. Two men having sex threatens no one. Two men in love: that begins to threaten the very foundations of heterosexist culture’ (20).

I think he’s a bit of a romantic too.

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