Reading – Two Books on the History of Sexuality

Andrew Elfenbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

This is my book of the month.  It puts forward an exciting argument, is very well researched and gets extra points for being readable.  I’m reading it because I’m interested in tracing the different narratives which have gone into the making of modern homosexual identity as a category of knowledge.  According to Elfenbein, genius is one of those narratives and he sets out to explore the origins of this association:

‘The cult surrounding genius has created an analogy between the situation of the alienated, marginalized artist who rebels against social norms by shattering conventional gender categories and that of the homosexual man or woman in a homophobic world’ (7).

The first chapter looks at the way male geniuses became associated with excessive “feminine” characteristics (sensibility, imagination, passion) in the eighteenth century, an association which placed them in uncomfortably close representational relation to the contemporary construction of the sodomite: ‘There was always the lurking suspicion that the sublime excessiveness of genius might lead to less conventional sexual possibilities’ (32).  The second chapter is about the very queer eighteenth-century ‘genius,’ William Beckford, and the third is about William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet who despite (or perhaps because of) his apparent queerness became popular as a model for domestic life in the Victorian period.  Elfenbein doesn’t leave female geniuses out of the picture and the next two chapters are on Anne Damer and Anne Bannerman, but I haven’t got to them yet.

Randolph Trumbach, ‘The Heterosexual Male in Eighteenth-Century London and his Queer Interactions,’ in Katherine O’ Donnell and Michael O’ Rourke (eds) Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship Between Men, 1550 – 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

This is a radically anti-essentialist account of sexual history.  Trumbach seems to have no truck with any notion of inherent sexual orientation – however that might have been conceived in the past – and puts across a view of sexual desire as entirely socially determined.  He argues that until 1700 in most of Europe (but especially the Mediterranean) it was perfectly normal for men to have sexual relations with both men and women.  According to Trumbach, sexual relations were not determined by gender, but rather by hierarchies of age and were structured in terms of active and passive roles.  It was acceptable for an adult man to have consensual sexual relations with an adolescent boy until the boy became an adult and took on an active role himself.  A small minority of men took on passive roles throughout their lives and they were held in profound contempt often working as male prostitutes.  This is all interesting, but the essay inadvertently draws attention to the way trans history has been appropriated and rendered invisible by lesbian and gay history, a trend which is very problematic in that it creates an impression that trans identities and subjectivities suddenly appeared in the twentieth century and have no real history before medical technologies became available.  Trumbach mentions male-bodied people who, in the early modern period, dressed constantly as women, took women’s names and in some cases even constructed artificial vaginas.  He appropriates this evidence to his argument about the development of sexuality, but what he’s talking about here sounds much closer to what we now consider transgendered identity to me.  Part of the essay also goes too far for me in terms of the kind of material it appropriates to the history of homosexuality.  Trumbach describes a case in which an adult male raped a boy of twelve.  The man behaved in a way very similar to what we associate with modern paedophiles, luring the boy to his rooms, abusing him, giving him money and trying to persuade him keep it a secret.  As far as I’m concerned this is a form of behaviour now known as paedophilia and needs to be considered as part of a different history.  Still, I found the essay stimulating.

I also carried on with my Bray and Haggerty from last week and re-read a chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.

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).

‘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.