Posts Tagged With: sexuality

Intimate Matters

Intimate Matters

D’Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman.  Intimate Matters:  A History of Sexuality in America.  Third Edition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Subject: An overview of the history of sexuality in North America from 1600 to the present.

Main Points: The authors have put together this well-written synthesis of the history of American sexuality from the colonial period to the present (two more chapters have been added in this third edition to bring the story up to the early twenty-first century).  The book is full of information, based on both original research and secondary literature, and as such, it can be used as a great textbook for a history of sexuality class.  Beyond providing excellent information, the authors set up an interpretive framework that primarily challenges the notion of a Whiggish trajectory of continual sexual liberation and progress.  In fact, freedom and repression actually play small roles in the authors’ story.

The main argument is that “over the last three and a half centuries, the meaning and place of sexuality in American life have changed: from a family-centered, reproductive sexual system in the colonial era; to a romantic, intimate, yet conflicted sexuality in the nineteenth-century marriage; to a commercialized sexuality in the modern period, when sexual relations were expected to provide personal identity and individual happiness, apart from reproduction” (x-xi).

Throughout the book, the authors are dealing with three main questions or topics.  First, they wish to show that notions of gender and sexuality are socially constructed, and thus historically specific. The changing nature of the economy, the family, and politics has shaped sexuality throughout American history. They also go further to show that sexual relations are a significant source of inequality between men and women.  They also focus on how sexual discourses also helped shape understandings of class and race.  Blacks were portrayed as sexually depraved beings, while the working class was understood as immoral and weak.

The second concern of the book is to show how systems of sexual regulations have changed.  “By sexual regulation, we mean the way a society channels sexuality into acceptable social institutions” (xv).  Here, they study authority: who has the power to determine what is normal or deviant (doctors, legislators, clergy)?  How are these mores enforced? In early America, “a unitary system of sexual regulation that involved family, church and state rested upon a consensus about the primacy of familial, reproductive sexuality” (xvi).  Deviants could be punished through the law or even publically humiliated until they repented.  By the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, the role of the state and church in sexual regulation diminished as commercialization and industrialization created more emphasis on individuals.  Women (as keepers of homes and morality) were meant to create self-regulating sexual beings.  Reproduction became less important as a legitimizing factor as sex became seen as a source of romance and intimacy for married couples.  The focus on individuals led to the greater acceptance of deviant forms of sexuality (like same-sex intimacy), though they always remained marginalized.  The media were saturated with “sexual images that promise free choice, but in fact, channel individuals toward particular visions of sexual happiness, often closely linked to the purchase of consumer products” (xvi).  So, by the 1880s, the beginning of a more liberal sexuality was starting to emerge, though sexuality became more and more commercialized.

But by the end of the nineteenth century, moral and purity reform groups attacked these new expressions of sexuality, passing anti-abortion, anti-pornography, and anti-prostitution legislation.  In other words, the state was expected to take a greater role in regulating sexuality. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the liberal model of sexuality became more dominant until the 1970s witnessed a radical challenge to the norm by the radical Left, calling for more sexual freedom and the end to hetero-normative marriage (more personal freedom, less state control).  Beginning in the 1980s, there was a conservative backlash that gained momentum as AIDS was portrayed as symptomatic of America’s moral breakdown.

The third concern of the book, sexual politics, is related to sexual regulation.  Rather than looking at the structures of power, the notion of sexual politics focuses more closely on the struggle among different groups over a given sexual order (i.e., the competition to reshape the dominant sexual meaning or impose standards of morality).  The authors identity three critical patterns that recur in the history of sexual politics in America:  1) “political movements that attempt to change sexual ideas  and practices seem to flourish when an older system is in disarray and a new one forming; 2) there is a consistent relationship to inequalities of gender and sexual politics.  “Even more than its relationship to class and race, sexual politics arise from efforts of male authorities to define female sexuality and of women either to resist such definitions or to counter through efforts to reshape sexual values and practices; 3) the politics of sexuality responds to both real and symbolic issues, meaning that while “real” things such as abortion, disease prevention, and marriage are affected by sexual politics, these debates are often symbolic for larger issues like impurity and disorder.

My Comments:  I’ll definitely be using this as a textbook when I end up teaching my own class.  I’m looking forward to being able to go back and read it more thoroughly, but the framework for the synthesis is convincing and enlightening.  They take care to (in the Intro and throughout) explain their arguments carefully without academic jargon. The third edition also ends with a really helpful historiographical essay that summarizes the state of the field.

For more books on the history of sexuality and gender, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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

Nationalism & Sexuality

Mosse Nationalism

Mosse, George L.  Nationalism & Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe.  New York: Howard Fertig, Inc., 1985.

Subject:  An exploration of the transformations of bourgeois respectability in 19th and 20th century Germany & England and the ways in which these transformations interacted with nationalism and race.

Main Arguments: Mosse’s main argument is that bourgeois respectability and nationalism shaped attitudes toward sex, and these sexual attitudes contributed powerfully to militant nationalism and even the rise of fascism.  While the subtitle of his book refers to all of modern Europe, he focuses mainly on Germany and to a lesser extent on England (with a few references to France and Italy).  He justifies this by stating that in Germany “we witness the ultimate consequences of trying to direct and control human sexuality: the concerted effort under National Socialism to regenerate respectability” (2).

Though he doesn’t really give us a glimpse of what came before this new mode of respectability (sexual “normality”), he claims that the cause of this transformation was religion, and Protestant religious revivals in particular:  German Pietism in Germany, that encouraged Germans to observe a silent obedience to a higher power, and Evangelism in England, that encouraged its followers to get involved with politics.  What emerged out of this transformation was a new sense of respectability, which defined “decent and correct” behavior, as well as the proper attitude one should have toward that behavior.  The supposed “natural” distinctions between men and women were highlighted, creating and enforcing public/private spheres.

These new understandings were harnessed by nationalists to promote nationalistic goals.  Sex was meant for “normal” reproduction, and anything outside of that norm was ostracized as not only unnatural, but unpatriotic and damaging to the nation as well.  In other words, patriotism was equated with sexual normality, and “unnatural” sex, with national decline and racial corruption.

“Outsiders” – or those who did not fit into the realm of respectability, such as homosexuals – were attacked as enemies of the state.  The same can be said for Jews, who were accused of using sex as a weapon to undermine the nation’s health through racial and moral pollution.

He has an interesting chapter on the ways the state imposed its control over the friendships of its citizens.  Whereas the Enlightenment had emphasized the individual’s right to cultivate relationships – even erotic ones with members of the same sex – nationalism dictated that individuals should only have non-erotic friendships with members of the same sex, and erotic relationships would be saved for husbands and wives (and again, for only reproductive purposes to create future generations for the state).  The challenge, however, was to keep homosocial relationships from turning into homosexuals ones, because, the state encouraged deep and even passionate bonds among its male citizens.  In fact, these powerful male friendships were prerequisite of masculinity.  The state wanted men who felt a deep sense of camaraderie with one another, which bolstered the solidarity and power of nationalism.  In this sense, these homosocial relationships always bordered on homoerotic (because of the passion of the friendship); but this also bothered the nationalists because that passionate characteristic always ran the risk of developing into a homosexual bond.  (He also makes the claim that in Germany, the “ideals of personal friendship were most clearly articulated” because the Germans hoped these bonds would act as “a surrogate for lost national unity” – – which I think is a gross over generalization (67).

The Nazis are seen as the logical endpoint for these developments; so instead of being viewed as an abhorrent misuse of sexuality and nationalism, I get the feeling that Mosse sees these developments as leading almost inevitably towards such abhorrent uses.  National Socialism promised to harness and enforce respectability to re-forge the nation in the face of the chaos of modernity.  While men run and protect the nation with physical force (monuments of nude men are erected throughout Germany, displaying the ideal masculinity and the “return” to the natural body), women (who are ultimately inferior) have the duty of literally reproducing the racially and morally pure nation.

My Comments:

I think this must have been a good and maybe even controversial book back in 1985, but it’s dated now.  The way he presents the material is as if there is some un-named “they” who are concocting these new ideas and powers.  There’s no sense of interplay between culture, politics, and ideas.  The result is that the people in the book have absolutely no agency, and are just pawns of the powerful nation-builders.

For more books on German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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

Sexuality in Europe: A 20th Century History


Herzog, Dagmar.  Sexuality in Europe:  A Twentieth-Century History.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.   

Subject: A thematic and chronological overview of how Europeans have viewed and understood sexuality between 1900 and 2010.

Summary & Main Arguments: 

In a display of her mastery of the topic, Herzog deftly reveals how and why the twentieth century in Europe really was the “century of sex.”  By the turn of the century, she argues, societies’ obsession with ideas about sex meant that sex, and an increasingly predominant conception of a sexuality, influenced the other aspects of society that we don’t generally think of as being connected with sex: politics and economics (as well as those areas more traditionally connected to sex: religion and morality).

The main purpose of Herzog’s book is to challenge the notion that the “history of sexuality in the 20th century” is simply a story of liberation and progress, of overcoming barriers to reach sexual liberation and legal-political equality (she is firmly convincing in this effort).  Instead, she offers a more nuanced view of this history, one that she does not deny is ultimately successful in achieving victories for women and sexual minorities (she also shows how these processes create sexual minorities).  “To tell only a narrative of gradual progress would be to misunderstand how profoundly complicated the sexual politics of the twentieth century in Europe actually were” (1).

She lays out three issues that highlight the sporadic, stop-and-go nature of the developments of how Europeans understood sexuality:  1) backlashes feature prominently in her history.  Many of the major developments in the story can be seen as a backlash to a previous movement.  For example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s is portrayed – in large part – as a backlash against the conservative tides of the 50s.  As time goes on and media and technology improve, these backlashes become more extreme, yet with shorter duration.  2) A second theme that she highlights is that the new, radical views of sexuality were not accepted by all, and they were not all perceived as utopian (even by self-identified liberals).  There were problems embedded within the new sexual norms, as well as defining what those new norms should be (or what a society without norms at all would look like).  Another problem was that people tended not to realize that sexual policies were tied to other issues like racism.  3) The third issue she brings up is that, while “sex became burdened with enormous significance” (2), it did not mean the same thing to everyone.  This ambivalence created –as well as highlighted existing – anxieties about a society in which sex was “free.”  (Fears of rape, abuse, exploitation, for example).

Apart from complicating the story of progress, the book’s other great strength is explicitly showing how sexual issues became political.  “In a constantly reconfigured combination of stimulus and regulation, prohibition and exposure, norm-expounding and obsessed detailing of deviance, liberalizing and repressive impulses together worked to make conflicts over sexual matters consequential for politics writ large” (3).

It’s impossible to highlight all of the book’s observations and points here, but I do want to mention a few that I found the most enlightening (from each chapter):

1) Between 1900-1914, sexuality was re-conceptualized, spurred by three factors: issues concerning prostitutes forced society to study the inequality of sexual responsibility among men and women.  She also shows how – through eugenics – the state succeeded in harnessing the power of fertility to reach political (and racial) goals.  Lastly, she shows how sex scandals (usually centered on homosexual acts) spread through a new print culture influenced societal beliefs of homosexuality, thus helping to define homosexuality as much as the medicalization of homosexuality.

2) World War One (by removing men from women and placing them in all male situations, also leaving more women among themselves back home – and by creating a period of instability in general), “dramatically quickened changes in the organization of understanding of sexuality that had been underway since the turn of the century” (45).  Moreover, WW Two witnessed a period of state intervention in citizens’ sexual lives that was hitherto unprecedented – by democracies as well as totalitarian regimes. Democratic countries were characterized by ambivalence: while cracking down on homosexuality, they were loosening the state’s control on contraceptives and abortion.

3) The Cold War period was one of sexual conservatism and wanting to return to a pre-war normality.  But, the seeds of a more liberal movement were already planted in steady economic growth, new consumer opportunities, and a growing understanding of “privacy.”  This formed a small place for liberal activists to get a foothold and then push for reform in the 1970s.

4) While the media perpetuated the tenets of the 1960s/70s sexual revolution, promoting free love and using sex to sell, it also exposed the conservative nature of the laws still on the books in these countries.  This allowed the minority of activists to initiate activism.

5) This chapter has the most information and can be daunting:  Due to the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, there was initially a conservative backlash.  However, Herzog argues that the very real threat to society’s health forced Europe to grow more comfortable with confronting issues of sexuality (and sexual acts themselves).  This leads to an appreciation of human sexual diversity and the privacy of one’s “bedroom,” (though we see an increased government participation in sexuality through safe sex campaigns).  Perhaps most interesting is her handling of European Islam.  As Islam spread in Europe, traditionally conservative parties, beginning in the mid 1990s, took up sexually liberal stances (on abortion and homosexuality, for example) in order to se themselves apart from the “sexually oppressive” Muslims.  Gay and lesbian Muslims were able to use the LGBT-friendly space in Europe to redefine what Islam meant for them.

My comments: This is an excellent book.  It’s well written, and packed full of information – all into 220 pages.  It’s dense in info, but still accessible and can easily be used for undergrads because while explaining different views of sexuality, she avoids the theoretical jargon.  My one complaint is that she doesn’t look at east Europeans until they become nominally “European” – until after the fall of Communism, and in some cases, until their admittance into the EU.

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

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

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