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The Erotic Repertoire

Monday, February 7, 2022 - 20:25

One of the long-term "resource" projects that I'm gradually collecting data for is a catalog of romantic, erotic, and sexual behaviors indexed to the cultures and eras when they were popular, and placed in their social context. Think about the simple kiss. What did kissing mean in a given culture? Who kissed whom? In what context? What was communicated between the people who kissed? How as that kiss interpreted by those who witnessed it? If you're writing a sapphic historical romance, under what circumstances might ytour characters kiss? Will their first kiss be erotic or social? Is there a difference in kissing technique for different types of relationship? Will a kiss mean the same thing to both protagonists?

THe easy approach is to assume that the gestures of affection in your story will be identical to the ones you're familiar with, but that approach flattens out history and drains away much of the joy of writing (or reading) about people in another time.

Have you ever chucked somone under the chin? Have you done it without realizing that it's a gesture with a long social history? Would your fictional characters do it? Now repeat those questions for a much larger repertoire of signs of affection. (Why do I never pick projects that have a clear "done" point?)

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Full citation: 

Fisher, Will. 2013. “The Erotics of Chin Chucking in Seventeenth-Century England” in Sex Before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England. ed. James M. Bromley and Will Stockton. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-8076-4 pp.141-69

One of the reasons I wanted to include this article, in addition to the brief inclusions of f/f interactions, is that it offers many examples of a type of erotic interaction that may be unfamiliar to contemporary people—at least, as a formal concept. For that reason, I’d like to include some additional quotations from the 17th century sources that describe exactly what is going on.

(from John Bulwer’s 17th c Chirologia; or The Natural Language of the Hand) “we…stroke them gently with our hand whom we make much of…or affectionately love. … drawing our hand with sweetening motion over the…face of the party to whom we intend this insinuation.”

(from Daniel Rogers’ 1642 treatise Matrimonial Honour describing actions to be avoided outside marriage) “[husbands must refrain from] stroking [women’s] cheeks…with wantonness.”

This article pairs nicely with Diane Watt’s “Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century” in that it explores an interaction that inhabits the boundary between social and erotic behavior. The ambiguity of that boundary can be highly relevant to seeing female same-sex erotic relationships in contexts where we aren’t going to get evidence of actual genital activity. A kiss may be just a kiss, but a chin-chuck always carries with it an erotic implication.

Although Fisher makes passing allusions to medieval examples, one could be forgiven for coming away from this article thinking that chin-chucking had been invented in the 16th century. Not so! (I have a blog tag for it, although it doesn’t manage to gather up all the examples.) This gesture is well established in classical Greek art as associated with erotic courtship (both m/f and m/m, and in at least one surviving vase painting, between a f/f couple). It continues as a standard artistic motif (and presumably, social reality) throughout the middle ages. We see f/f examples in illustrations of the myth of Callisto (where Jupiter in disguise as Diana clearly indicates the sexual nature of the interaction with a chin-chuck touch) or in illustrations of “sodomites” such as the one used for the logo of this blog.

Chin-chucking is—and is not—sexual. It implies erotic intentions, but is not itself a sex act. It reflects social hierarchies—and because it does so, it can be used to signal and enforce them. To touch someone’s face in an intimate fashion is to emphasize that you have either the right (via an existing relationship) or the power (via a social hierarchy) to invade their personal space.

When did chin-chucking cease to be erotic? That’s a separate question, but I’ll assert that the modern-day remnants of the gesture primarily retains the age/status implications. When Aunt Gertrude pinches your cheek at the family get-together, she’s performing an act of hierarchical dominance, mediated through the illusion of familial intimacy. (Think it’s not about dominance? Who gets to pinch whose cheek?)

But to get back to how this topic fits into the depiction of historic same-sex relationships: think about the powerful symbolism of having a repertoire of actions your same-sex couple can perform in public that simultaneously have that plausible deniability and convey erotic meaning. Your characters neither need to entirely hide their affection nor entirely betray their sexual desires in doing so. But exactly how they express themselves will vary according to time and culture. And that’s why topics like this deserve study.

Fisher examines the social and erotic context of the gesture-group known as “chin-chucking”, which is loosely defined as “reaching for, touching, fingering, pinching, caressing, cupping, or clasping of the cheek or chin.” The central version of the gesture involves one person holding the chin of the other person with the fingers of one hand. [Note: although Fisher considers this topic specifically within the context of 17th century England, there is a much wider context involved. See my commentary for further consideration.]

This action held an ambiguous position within social interactions. While generally signaling erotic interest, it was not unambiguously a “sexual” act. Within an otherwise neutral context, it might be considered “innocent”, but in combination with other actions or in suggestive circumstances it could be considered “proof” of the existence of a sexual relationship (or at least the intention to have one). To tease out the limits and implications of this gesture, Fisher examined around a hundred texts of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as numerous depictions in art. He argues that the literary and artistic examples both reflect and shape social attitudes towards appropriate contexts for chin-chucking.

Using examples from poetry and ballads, Fisher shows how even when the persona of the work protests that chin-chucking is an innocent pastime, it always carries sexual implications. But these implications are even more striking in non-fictional contexts. Court cases for adultery included descriptions of the “freedoms and familiarities” that implied adulterous relationships, including “kissing and stroking her upon the face and sometimes chucking her under the chin” or “kissing and embracing…his arms sometimes about her neck and at other times about her waist.” In one particularly telling sequence from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, the (married) Pepys details the gradual progression of his interactions with a (married) woman whose husband’s career he could further. First he comments on her attractiveness and speculates on finding an excuse to get her to come to his office (alone). When she does, he “stroke[s] her under the chin,” noting in his diary that he was not “uncivil” to her and didn’t want to offend her. But on another visit he kisses her, which she protests against. But evidently Pepys kept dangling the prospect of a quid pro quo and on another occasion he “caressed her”. Eventually he took her out drinking and then “arrive[d] at what I would, with great pleasure.” We see her a progression of actions from the ambiguous chin-chuck to the less ambiguous kiss to the boundary-crossing “caress”, finishing with a sexual act. At the early stages, there is plausible deniability, and the boundaries of the sexual are constantly shifting and being negotiated across a continuum.

Chin-chuck interactions are found in art and plays, where stroking the face is a sign of flirtation, seduction, and often evidence of a sexual relationship. These interactions sometimes occur between same-sex couples, as in paintings of Callisto’s seduction by Diana (the disguised Jupiter), or the attempted seduction by Queen Olivia of the disguised Rosania in James Shirley’s The Doubtful Heir. Olivia “plays with [Rosania’s] hair and smiles…and strokes her cheek.” And later directly suggests that they kss and “find out pleasure by warm exchange of souls from our soft lips.” (F/f interactions of this type often involve gender disguise, while m/m interactions typically do not.)

The question of what counts as “sexual” or “erotic” and how actions are given social meaning changes over time. Something might be considered sexual (or sex-adjacent) behavior in one era and not at others. [Note: Fisher states that chin-chucking “today…is not generally considered to be a sexual act,” but I would argue that, although it isn’t a named erotic act currently, in the way that kissing is, it is still recognized as an “intimate” act, and one that has highly variable acceptability depending on the participants and circumstances.]

A detailed analysis of who performs chin-chucking on whom in 17th c England, and what judgement is placed on it, uncovers a complex set of hierarchies that parallel those involved in more clearly sexual activity. The person who performs the touching is depicted as the seducer, or at least the active/dominant member of the couple. But although this role generally defaults to the male, older, socially dominant partner, those hierarchies can be disrupted. Literary depictions of the goddess Venus usually show her as the active partner in chin-chucking of her (younger, subordinate) lover. Depictions of m/m chin-chucking in literature almost always align with an age hierarchy (and in mythological cases, with a dominant/divine, subordinate/mortal hierarchy).

Fisher connects this with theoretical framings of early modern sexuality as being oriented around age and status differences as much as around gender. This contributed to a fluidity of sexuality as one’s age and status relationships were contextually determined, even when gender was not.

When erotic behavior conflicted with the expectations of gender/age/status hierarchies, we may see negative judgments expressed that depend, not on the act itself, but on the question of who takes which role. Female sex workers who “fail” on the basis of both gender and status may be mocked or derided for taking the active role in chin-chucking. A woman (as opposed to a mythic goddess) who takes the active role in kissing and chin-chucking might be viewed as transgressively arousing, but might instead be treated as ridiculous, especially if her lover is significantly older. Conversely, when a woman is performing chin-chucking in a context where other physical elements of the scenario place her in a subordinate position (as in one of the illustrations in the pornographic Satyra Sotadica) it can be taken as a sign of eager consent.

Thus, while chin-chucking gives us a window into the continuum of early modern erotic interactions, it also gives us a window into how such activities negotiated and structured sexual relations along axes that encompass more factors than gender alone.

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historical