Skip to content Skip to navigation

Sex by the (Text) Book

Monday, August 17, 2020 - 12:00

It occurs to me that it might be useful to add a tag for "history of sexualty textbook" now that I've included a handful of items in that genre. I have doubts about how useful they are to my imagined target audience, though it's hard to tell without feedback. All I know is that, in general, I've found them of minor use and interest to me personally. This means I'll try to deprioritize them in my reading--the problem being that it isn't always possible to identify something as being a textbook until I start reading.

After assembling a massive number of blog entries in advance back in the Spring, I'm now coming to the end of that cushion and need to assemble my planned reading for the next couple months. This will run smack dab into the disruption of my reading habits caused by quarantine and working from home. It's not that I don't have time--I have more "free" time than ever before--but my rhythms and habits haven't settled down into new patterns yet. I used to do most of my reading and note-taking during my lunch hour or on the commute train. Now I ride my bike on my lunch hour and the commute is only a few meters. But we keep on keeping on and it's time to wrangle this part of my life back on track.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5

Have you ever come out of a book wondering, “Was there actually a gap that this book was needed to fill?” This work is a perfectly reasonable survey of the topic of pre-modern sexuality, but having read through it, I don’t feel like I learned a single new thing. If it had been published in, say, 1990, it would have been a treasure. But in 2011 it’s just assembling material that is easily available in other general surveys. Nor did it feel like there was any new theoretical approach or synthesis involved. Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad book! Not at all. Just an unnecessary one.

No, I take that back. I do feel that the book is flawed in certain essential ways. The authors work entirely too hard to establish their premise that there is no such thing as “sexuality” before the 19th century. But on a number of points, it feels like they’ve gotten too hung up on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis--the idea that if you don’t have language to talk about a thing, the thing doesn’t exist. Even if it were true that nobody ever used the word “lesbian” before the later 19th century (which isn’t true), how does it follow that nobody before then had a concept of a woman having a strong--perhaps even exclusive--preference for women as sexual or romantic partners? Ah, but they address that. Individual people may well have had preferences, but that was an incidental individual taste, like disliking cilantro.

Let’s think about that idea of taste as applied to food. Were there vegetarians before someone invented the word “vegetarian”?

Note: As I was writing this up, I found myself writing a lot of “the authors argue” or “the authors discuss” in order to distance myself a bit from the content. It got really awkward and I went back and rewrote everything. Just take it as given that this is summarizing their positions and not an endorsement.

Introduction: Sex before Sexuality

The text opens with a manuscript illustration of the concept of sexual temptation and resistance to that temptation to introduce various themes relating to how sexual objects and desires were understood in “pre-heterosexual” culture.

Examples are given of how a culture might have all the themes that are today understood as comprising the concept of (male) homosexuality, without compiling them into a concept parallel to that one. A culture could embrace male-male bonds and male beauty while proscribing specific sex acts between men. The attitudes in Ottoman and ancient Athenian cultures toward active/passive roles in m/m sex are compared. How can we say homo/hetero-sexuality didn’t exist in a culture that encouraged homosocial and homoerotic themes, but that valorizes m/f courtship/marriage/reproduction as a distinct sphere of experience?

Consider the gender dynamics of stage cross-dressing interacting with cross-dressing plots in the plays. How did people understand the sexual dynamics and all the layers? Is this an “undifferentiated sexuality” that treats boys and women identically? (Note that this assumes the point of view of a dominant male.) If adolescent boys were considered to fall in the same sexual-object category as women, can relations with them be considered truly “homosexual” if that concept is defined as sexual desire between people of the same gender? Similarly (with less concrete data offered) can we apply this question to desire between female-presenting women and cross-dressing ones?

One framing is that the pre-modern position was that it was the culturally determined gender role of one’s partner that mattered, not their biological sex. [Note: but this ignores the question of how they conceived of same-sex relations when there was no cross-gender element.]

It was in the 19th century that people invented the terms heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, sadist, masochist, and sexuality. [Note: They are simply factually wrong on “lesbian” and related terminology.] The period covered by this book (1100-1800) had sex, but no “sexuality” in the sense of orientations and identities. Foucault is cited in connection with this. [Note: At the same time, the book notes pre-1800 examples of descriptions reaching toward the concept of masochism and other “perverse” sexualities.] One should not use the words “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “lesbian,” or “pornography” for anything before the late 19th century, as the use of the words will distort understanding of the topic. Historic theories must embrace a clear pre-modern/modern separation. and any sort of “continuity” position with regard to sexual identities is suspect.

The rest of the introduction is a summary of the contents of the book. There is a survey of the major schools of thought regarding the history of sexuality. They don’t hold to a black-and-white “acts vs identities” position, and acknowledge the pre-modern conception of identifiable sexual preferences, but only object to applying modern names to these preferences. That it is the idea of connection between pre-modern/modern preference concepts that they object to. Pre-modern people should not be “forced” to occupy our modern categories retrospectively. They also have issues with defining “sex” [acts] and whether any sort of erotic behavior is included under “sex.” Within this context, they point to contemporary shifts in some cultures away from organizing around “identities” to focusing on “tastes.”

They note that the focus of the book is on Western Christian culture from 1100 to 1800, more or less excluding the colonies. They also prefer to avoid organizing around a medieval/early modern divide around 1500.

Chapter 1: Sin

This chapter discusses the history of the association of sex and sin--how the allowances for sex were hierarchically related to acceptable procreative sex within marriage. There are many details about what acts are better or worse than others, revealing the underlying value systems. The context of the discussion is from laws, penitentials, and popular culture.

Chapter 2: Before Heterosexuality

“The power of heterosexuality resides in a strange combination of ubiquity and invisibility.” The authors object to historians pointing out that heterosexuality, in being considered the silent default, thus “owns” history, claiming that this is an invalid take as it assumes a concept (heterosexuality) that didn’t exist. They critique historians who treat heterosexuality as a historic constant while discussing nuances of homosexuality.

[Note: While I agree in principle, I think we can’t escape the influence of modern assumptions of the fixed universality of heterosexuality.]

The authors discuss how the language of desire didn’t necessarily distinguish the sex of the desired object, but used similar terminology for all. Varied terms were used for different types of love, not for different objects. Homoerotic or homosocial bonds were considered of no consequence, even when using similar vocabulary to heteroerotic bonds. Marital affection was not automatically equated to “amor”. But at the same time, people accepted the centrality of marriage and procreation to society.

There is a discussion of types of illicit male-female sex, of marriage patterns, and of acceptable types of pre-marital sex. Marriage was considered “normative” even in contexts where there were significant numbers of never-married adults. There is a discussion of theories of differences between men and women in the experience of sexual pleasure.

In differentiating categories of sexual objects, female domestic servants were treated as naturally “available” to dominant men. There were double-standards for the sexual activity of unmarried men and women (men expected to be active, women expected to be not). Legal systems demonstrate how adultery was treated as a “property” crime as opposed to a form of fornication.

Chapter 3: Between Men

The authors ask the question, If all men are considered to potentially engage in male-male sex as an ordinary thing (even though certain acts might be proscribed) how can it be considered a distinct identity/orientation? They make a clear distinction between male-male sex as a functional category and sodomy as a historic concept (especially when defined narrowly as anal sex between men). But the complex history of the concept of sodomy makes the equation of the two problematic. There is a detailed discussion of how “sodomy” was defined and used across the centuries. This chapter focuses on how the ability of elite men to take sexual pleasure with objects of all types cannot be equated with a particular sexuality as an orientation.

At the same time, examples throughout the centuries are offered of men clearly expressing a preference for male partners. And male-male sex might be ignored by the community if no other factors were involved. There was a geographic distinction to some degree between the south/Mediterranean patterns where age/power-differentiated male-male sex was considered normal, and the north where all types of male-male sex were condemned equally.

Close male-male friendships might have an erotic component without being sexual, but examples are given of parallel erotic language used between men and from men to (non-sexual) female friends. On the other hand, the intersection of close male friendships and sex was a site of anxiety.

Evidence in the 18th century shows that language and concepts for preferences for male-male sex were commonly available. Yet the authors maintain that this was all processed under the concept of “personal taste” not identity.

Chapter 4: Between Women

[Note: As I summarized this chapter, I mostly found myself writing up a catalog of historic fact-lets and persons mentioned briefly in the text, all of which are covered in more detail in other publications. I’ve listed them briefly in the context of the topics of discussion, but for details use the topic links.]

There is general agreement on a progression in the early modern era from increased representation of female-female desire, to the “female husband” phenomenon, to romantic friendship. While the word “lesbian” was used in pre-modern times, it was not used to identify a stable sexual orientation. The authors discuss various strategies that historians have used to refer to f/f desire to get around an anachronistic use of “lesbian”.

Traub demonstrated a proliferation of f/f erotic representation that disproves the claims of medieval “silence” on the question of f/f erotics, but the topic is a contested site with questions of definitions and boundaries. Is “genital sexuality” the sine qua non? How do passionate friendships fit in? Do we reach for a concept that encompasses all situations of women outside of relations with men? Or do we start from the premise that heterosexuality “far from being compulsory, did not exist”?

Thirteen cases of “female sodomy” are discussed in Bennett, Crompton, Boone, but examples are few compared to records of male sodomy. (Examples: Bertolina/Guercia, Katharina Hetzeldorfer, Jehanne & Laurence)

[Note: in reading the discussion here on how to discuss “sex” if what you really mean is “penetrative sex acts” it occurs to me that maybe the authors could provide clarity by simply saying “fucking.”]

More sources of data on f/f erotics: penitentials, the medical texts of William of Saliceto, poem by de Fougeres, treatise against sodomy by Peter Damian, Benedetta Carlini, the two erotic poems between nuns in the Tegernsee manuscript, the writings and personal relationshps of Hildegard of Bingen, passionate friendships among the Beguines, the troubadour poetry of Bieris de Romans, the romances of Yde and Olive, and Silence.

The Renaissance added new f/f tropes to medieval performative mascuinity: female husbands, tribades, hermaphrodites, passionate friendship, Sapphists. We see the rise of “warrior woman” and cross-dressing ballads, but these typically depicted women who ended up in relationships with men. Gender disguise/transgender performance becomes a context where records focus on the use of a dildo for sex, and where f/f erotics were viewed as a vice that was potential in every woman: Amy Poulter & Arabella Hunt, Comical News from Bloombury, Fielding’s Female Husband, Catherine Vizzani.

There are few court records focusing on sex between women. Cases of “female husbands” generally involved charges of vagrancy [note: also “fraud”]. In a set of Dutch prosecutions involving sex between women it can be hard to determine what the actual charge was. Sex between women was often imagined in terms of “hermaphrodites,” suggesting a physiological cause for f/f desire. This is often connected to the 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris. As an analogue of the penis, the clitoris became the emblem of female erotic transgression and was merged with the image of the tribade such that the latter word came to be associated with clitoral penetration rather than the original sense of “rubbing.”

The use of “Sapphic” and related terms for f/f sex did not arise until the late 19th century despite the popularity of the image of Sappho in the Renaissance.. [Note: wrong. This vocabulary range can be documented in the later 18th century.] Art was a significant site of f/f eroticism, especially in the context of mythic images that incorporated the figure of a disguised or transformed man. The use of “Diana and her nymphs” as a context for depicting f/f erotics appears as early as the late 14th century.

Pornography--or professional literature that was barely distinct from pornography--was another site for depicting f/f erotics. Examples include: Jacob’s Tractatus de Hermaphroditus, Venus in the Cloister, Satyra Sotadica, Brantôme, and political pornography about Marie Antoinette.

Female friendship is rarer in the sources when compared to literature about male friendship. An early exception is the writings of Katherine Philips. Women adopted the discourse of male friendships but the topic was most commonly expressed in private correspondence rather that public documents. Convents expressed concerns about “particular friends.” The Maitland Ms poem XLIX uses a list of famous m/m friendships to frame desire between women. Anne Lister is discussed in this context as an outlier in being overt about her search for a “wife” rather than a “friend.” She recorded her suspicions about the sexual nature of the Butler/Ponsonby friendship, as well as her negotiations of sexual knowledge with her lover Mrs. Barlow. Lister’s sexual vocabulary for f/f activities was eclectic and extensive. The authors suggest that because Lister framed her desire for women in masculine terms, her relationships were not truly “same” sex relationships, and that Lister did not have the same sexual preference as her partners--that they had qualitatively different experiences.

There was a shift from attributing the cause of f/f desire to deviant physiology to attributing it to deviant gender (i.e., masculinity). The authors assert that it is anachronistic even to use the term “sapphist” for Lister as the word wasn’t used in that sense at the time. [Note: This is simply inaccurate. Hester Thrale described Butler and Ponsonby as “damned sapphists” in a context where the meaning is quite clear. And all of them were contemporaries of Lister.] Lister herself used the adjective “sapphic” in a context where it seems she associates it specifically with the use of a dildo (which Lister disdained).

A distinction is made for “situational homosexuality” (a woman who prefers men but is open to sex with women). [Note: this section of the discussion entirely erases the concept of bisexuality and ignores social pressures for m/f marriage regardless of personal identity/preference.] An example is given in the play The Antipodes where f/f sex is a “made do” when men fail.

In summary, there were actual pre-modern women who desired each other and acted on it. But the authors claim that none of these specific examples can be identified as “lesbian” under the definition of: a woman who has an exclusive desire for men, where there are no elements of trans-masculinity, and where neither partner has been involved sexually with men. [Note: It can easily be noted that under this definition a great many modern people who identify as lesbians would not meet the bar. In which case, are we actually comparing pre-modern cases with a “modern lesbian identity” or with a straw-women definition?]

The chapter concludes by claiming that only by renouncing all category labels and categories can “lesbian” desire be properly situated in a historic context.

Chapter 5: Before Pornography

[Note: Ok, at this point, I’ve rather lost my patience for summarizing this book in detail.]

This chapter continues the approach of “Topic-X did not actually exist in the pre-modern period because it doesn’t exactly match the way in which we, the authors, are going to define it. Also: history is complicated and we’re looking for a simplistic definition that doesn’t exist. But they have some valid points about how bawdy literature in pre-modern times had a different social purpose than the modern understanding of “pornography” as media intended to create and satisfy sexual arousal in the consumer.

Epilogue: Sex at Sea?

The epilogue discusses colonial encounters with non-Western cultures who had entirely different approaches to sexuality and how Westerners recorded their reactions to those encounters.