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
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.