How to do the History of Homosexuality – D. Halperin


David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago:  the University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Subject: A theoretical expedition into the workings of “the history of (homo)sexuality.”  Specifically, he revisits the essentialist-constructionist debate.

Research Questions:  How would we experience our own sexuality differently if we experienced it as something historical, as well as instinctual?

Author’s Arguments:  Though Halperin approaches a different theme in each of his four chapters, his main aim in this book (besides defending himself against criticism leveled against his previous book) is to 1) Defend the constructionist/historicist approach to sexuality, 2) bridge the gap between classical studies and LGBT studies, 3) to show that gay studies should be more than just “reclaiming” great homosexuals in history.  He is a defender of Foucault, and says that the claim that there were no sexual “identities” in the pre-modern world is false.  Halperin also argues against the recent tendency to reduce the history of sexuality to the history of classification or representations of sexuality.

One of the foundations of his arguments is that one form of sexuality does not replace the previous one.  Multiple forms of sexuality exist at any given time, and while one gives way to another as the “norm,” the previous form lingers and coexists with the new norm, perhaps never fading away entirely.  He claims that the definitional incoherence at the core of the modern notion of homosexuality is a sign of its historical evolution – absorbing prior understandings of same-sex desires and of sexual deviance, even if those understandings are in direct contradiction of our modern definition. 

In each of his four chapters (which are independent essays), Halperin addresses a pertinent topic, such as 1) how past societies did have notions of “sexual identities,” and not just sexual acts, 2) how lesbianism was more than likely the “first homosexuality,” that is, the first same-sex desiring “identity” to come about, and 3) how the body itself is to be studied as a sign or symbol for sexuality (among many other things).  However, it is in his fourth chapter, “How to do the History of Male Sexuality” that I believe Halperin makes his most useful conclusions.

In it he claims, “Any adequate attempt to describe the historicity of sexuality will have to fix on some strategy for accommodating the aspects of sexual life that seem to persist through time as well as the dramatic differences between historically documented forms of sexual experience. “  This will require us to get past the modern notion of “homosexuality” as a singular distinct formation that pretends to represent all same-sex sexual experiences.

He then offers 5 categories in which to understand male-male sex/gender deviance: 1) effeminacy, 2) pederasty or active sodomy, 3) friendship or male love, 4) passivity or inversion, 5) homosexuality

Context & Methodology:  It is apparent that this work is meant to be Halperin’s answer to criticism of his approach in his previous work, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1989).  Therefore the work reads like a conversation (albeit a one-sided one; granted, he lays out what he feels to be the others’ arguments).  The book is divided into four chapters, each of which is an independent essay that can be used for study on its own.  Also, this work is highly theoretical.  There are historical examples given, but they are only provided to substantiate the theory that he is trying to clarify.

Final Remarks:  The book is extremely helpful – though can be very dense and difficult to read at times.  So, it is better, perhaps to read and discuss as a group.  That aside, the volume is slim and rather direct and to the point.  A note on the title:  Halperin states that it is meant to be more of a question (Is this how we should do the history of homosexuality?) than a magisterial handbook (THIS is how you should do the history of homosexuality).  While he acknowledges that there may be criticism of his new theory(ies) to come, he is pretty firm that the approach he outlines here should be followed by future historians of sexuality.

All in all, one of the points that stuck with me the most is that the prior systems of “sexual regulation” were more about gender than sexuality.

Categories: Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “How to do the History of Homosexuality – D. Halperin

  1. Pingback: History Is Personal | A Curious Wanderer

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