Desire: a History of European Sexuality


Clark, Anna.  Desire:  A History of European Sexuality.  New York:  Routledge, 2008. 

Subject:  Clark’s book traces the different concepts of desire that have been expressed throughout European history.  She specifically focuses on two competing conceptualizations of desire:  1) Desire as polluting (and later under Christianity as sinful), and 2) Desire as transcendent and creative.

Research Questions:  What is sexuality?  How has sexual desire been expressed in European history – from the ancient Greeks to the nations of the 20th century?  Were there any larger correlations between sexual desire and other cultural realms (politics, family life, religion, etc.)?  Why is sexual desire sometimes seen as dangerous, and sometimes as transcendent?  

Author’s Arguments: Clark begins her endeavor by trying to define “sexuality” and “sexual desire.”  She follows Foucault in that she states that sexuality is not a “natural force” that is expressed or harnessed differently in different times, but is instead socially constructed.  She then attempts in each chapter – each of which is based on particular time frames – to give a general picture of how peoples in that time conceived sexuality.  Throughout the book she shows how there was never a consensus on the “nature” of sexuality; in each society there were those who viewed sexual desire as polluting (whether because it degraded one’s masculinity, distracted one from philosophical thoughts, or represented the Original Sin), while at the same time, there were those who viewed sexuality as a creative, spiritual, or even a revolutionary force.

Like Foucault, Clark asserts that the understanding of sexuality generally had/has to do with power relations.  As such there have always been “normal” sexual practices and even identities and genders – and regulations that governed what “normal” was.  At the same time, there were always those that “deviated” from the norms.  Also, she describes “twilight moments” in which individuals who otherwise fit into the “norm” would partake in deviant sexual acts.  However, these twilight moments were seen as fleeting, a momentary misstep taken by an otherwise “normal” and “moral” person.  During times of political, social, or economic strife, sexual deviants and those who took part in twilight moments were often pushed into the fore, and often blamed for particular calamities; thus, Clark argues that “twilight moments” had the loaded possibility of acting as “flash points” for (or caused by) larger historical actions.

Context: Clark’s book would make a great one for an introductory history of sexuality class.  It provides concrete examples from throughout European history, but also provides enough theoretical background to act as a starting point for exploring more complex theoretical discussions (such as those led by Foucault, David Halperin, Eve Sedgwick, among others) 

Methodology: Desire is mainly meant to be a synthesis of the other major works on the history of sexuality, and it is most certainly meant to be a beginning resource.  The book itself is full of useful information and theoretical tools, but Clark goes the extra step and provides “Further Reading” sections at the end of each temporally-themed chapter, providing a helpful spring-board for further research. 

Final Remarks:  In general, I enjoyed Clark’s book and found it incredibly helpful.  It is definitely a must read for anyone wishing to begin studying the history of European sexuality.  However the term “European” may prove to be a little problematic, because it suggests a convergence of understanding of what “sexuality” is by all “Europeans” that did not/does not exist.

I think Clark’s strongest point was showing the different ways in which different societies in the past categorized or conceptualized sexuality – and showing what was “normal” for them.  However – I think more should have been done in the Intro (and perhaps added or emphasized again in a afterword or an additional final chapter) to combat the present-day reader’s (including mine) tendency to view these different “desires” as simply “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” in different words – or thought of slightly differently.

David Halperin argues (and asserts that Foucault argues) that the different “expressions” of sexual desire that are showcased in Clark’s book are not simply different, culturally specific expressions of, or interpretations of, “sexuality.”  And that indeed, the concept of “sexuality” is a culturally specific phenomenon/discourse of the modern period.  In other words, there are not different discourses describing sexuality, sexuality itself is a specifically modern discourse.

Also – getting back to Clark’s book:  While her concept of “twilight moments” was extremely helpful in showing that any “sexual regime” had its flexibility and allowed for some deviance (without completely defining that person ) I was not thoroughly convinced by such twilight moments (and sexual deviance)  as “flash points” for larger events. 

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of book reviews HERE.

Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Let me know what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: