Is a history of sexuality possible? It is easy to envisage a history of the language of enticement, the trail of clothes on the floor, the bed even, but the coupling, the thing itself, how could we nail that to the historian’s rack? An instinct timeless in its force, an experience at once private, secret and charmingly individual, how could it be made to submit to dates and social determination? It is easier to admit that the language of love knows its different tropes and turns in time than to admit that, if this is so, the experience it represents must have a history too. Sex is one of the last citadels to hold out against the sappers of historicism, one of the few domains in which it remains common to speak of a constant human nature and universal human experience.
The idea of sex as an eternal instinct used to be enfolded within Romantic discourse. In our more disabused and sardonic sexual culture, the idea is more often couched in the jargon of pseudo-biology. This is the language spoken in the new Kinsey Institute study, Sexual Preference. After picking some 1500 male and female specimens from the luxuriant sexual flora and fauna of San Francisco and questioning them about their sexual lives, the authors conclude that family upbringing, education and labelling in adolescence have little measurable influence on sexual orientation in adulthood. Whatever this proves – and it may only prove that the roots of sexual orientation cannot be uncovered by questionnaires – it does not sustain the assertion the authors go on to make: i.e. that homosexuality may be biologically coded. If becoming gay is not a matter of distant fathers and smothering mothers, it does not follow that it must therefore be a matter of hormones and chromosomes. The authors are aware of this, but are unable to offer any new biological evidence in support of their claim. Moreover, they seem to assume that a theory of the biological determination of sexuality simply does away with the question of the limit of our responsibility as agents for our sexual orientation. In fact, the biological theories of conduct they cite are too primitive to begin to pose the question of where the chalk-line of our freedom as agents should be drawn.
Biology is not the only modern discourse which seeks to take sexuality out of history. There is another discourse which claims sexuality as a natural constant whose only history is the history of its repression.
This idea of sexuality as an eternal instinct has been associated with a powerful form of modern humanism: the claim that an eros liberated by politics from patriarchy and repression would provide the instinctual grounding of an ethics of human obligation. In Susan Griffin’s recent book on pornography, an ethical argument against pornographic representation is based on the empirical claim that human eroticism is ‘naturally’ non-violent, life-affirming and satiable. Pornography is the deformation which culture and history have inflicted on nature. Ironically, this account of the erotic as an eternal principle of good seems to share much the same historical frame of reference as those accounts which subscribe to the volcanic view of eros as menace to culture and reason. Both understand the history of sexuality as the history of its repression, the one rejoicing that triumphant eros always finds some fault-line in the geological strata of repression along which it can unleash its vivifying force, the other celebrating the canalisation of eros along those subterranean rivers of sublimation. Thus for Gordon Rattray Taylor sex in history represents ‘the warfare between the dangerous and powerful drives and the systems of taboos and inhibitions which man has erected to control them’, while for Lawrence Stone history is a geology of the glacial grinding of repression – ‘the huge mysterious secular swings from repression to permissiveness and back again’.
In both accounts, it is the body’s chains, not the body itself, which has a history. Edward Shorter’s The Making of the Modern Family wishes us to believe that the glacier has been receding steadily since the upsurge in European illegitimacy rates in the late 18th century and that we lucky moderns stand at the end of a long ice age, the first to enjoy the flowering of expressive, egalitarian, non-reproductive sexuality. This view in itself could be read as a peculiarly modern form of Oedipal revenge on the sexual lives of our parents and grandparents. It marks the retreat of the once heroic idea of progress from an increasingly contested Baconian discourse on the mastery of nature to the Freudian realm of private gratification. Feminists who have difficulty recognising their own sexual experience in this mythology of modern carnal bliss have been tempted to rewrite the story as one of tightening and intensifying patriarchal domination. This is the temptation to which Mary Jane Sherfey succumbs in The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality, where ‘the rise of modern civilisation’ is accounted for as the ‘suppression of the inordinate cyclical drive of women’.
Jeffrey Weeks argues that these teleologies of oppression have only stood the old teleologies of progress on their head. Both are essentialist and ahistorical in their implication that the instincts have either a ‘basic biological mandate’ or an innate ethical propensity for good or evil in their expression. The ‘volcanic’ reading of history as the eternal conflict between civilisation and desire, like the feminist discourse on the eternal antinomy between female desire and patriarchy, presumes that sexuality is a continuous ‘natural object’ of historical discourse. Both are trapped in a realist theory of language’s relation to sexual experience. The language of desire is not ‘about’ a continuous, unitary sexual experience: it produces and constitutes that experience. Such an account, pressed to its limits, implies that historical discourse structures instinct itself, writes the scripts in which experience and sensation themselves are registered and understood. There is no space here for anything natural, for any eros as heroic antagonist of history and civilisation. According to this historical epistemology, the appropriate questions for a history of sexuality are: why have we constituted sexuality as the ‘natural’ ground of our identities? Why do we oppose culture and desire, mind and body, history and eros? And why is sex so important to us anyway? Given the heritage of Aristotle’s homo civis, Augustine’s homo sanctus, Benjamin Franklin and Marx’s homo faber, Gradgrind’s homo economicus, why has the late 20th-century culture of narcissism embraced homo sexualis as its definition of human essence? Why, as Jeffrey Weeks asks, have sex and our gender identities become the central part of being, the ‘privileged site in which the truth of ourselves is to be found’?
These are questions which Michel Foucault placed on the agenda; and Weeks is one of the first social historians to attempt something more substantial and empirical than adulatory paraphrase of the master. There is a firm critique of the latent functionalism in Foucault’s conception of an archipelago of institutions of sexual regulation and some sharp jabs at his inability to specify the agency – classes, professions – in which regulation is vested. At the same time, it is a social history on Foucaultian assumptions: i.e. based on a non-referential theory of discourse. However much we may think that sex leaves us speechless, takes us beyond words, there are few domains of experience in which language can play a more cathartic and more tyrannical role in the constitution of feeling. Consider this poignant reaction of an anonymous woman of the early Thirties to Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness: ‘When I read [it] it fell upon me like a revelation. I identified with every line. I wept floods of tears over it, and it confirmed my belief in my homosexuality.’ Without the catharsis of shared language, individual experience cannot ‘confirm’ itself, cannot pronounce its own name. As for the tyranny of language, consider the use of the word ‘rights’ in this desperate letter of a working woman to the birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes: ‘I am so afraid of conception that I cannot bear for my husband to even speak fondly to me or even put his hand on my shoulder for fear he wants his rights.’
Weeks asks us to consider that between this sexuality, submitted to in the vocabulary of rights, and the sexual rights of this woman’s great-grandchildren, there is no commonality of experience, no shared history of instinct. To insist that there is a common sexuality across this gulf of time is to refuse to see that this most seemingly private of our acts is also our most social. The history of sexual experience is not a history of some secluded garden. Weeks’s book is at the same time a history of the family; of birth-control technology, medical research and sexological discourse; of the relation between economic growth and the ideology of spending, in its libidinal and consumerist senses; of the ambiguous connections between female suffrage, feminism, eugenics and moral purity movements; of public policy towards housing, privacy, women’s employment, children and the family. No models emerge to weigh the relative importance of these histories in the construction of the varieties of modern sexual experience, yet the book’s largely negative theoretical message is welcome for its stubborn engagement with difficulty.
Weeks is severe about the seductive simplicities of functionalism, especially the Marcusian account of the emergence of post-war sexual expressionism as necessary to the containment of the growing contradiction between men’s ‘true needs’ and the ‘false needs’ engendered by late capitalism. He also refuses the temptation, natural to someone who is himself a prominent activist in gay liberation, to write the history of modern sexual consciousness as a teleology of prefigurative feminist and homosexual pioneering. Havelock Ellis and Stella Browne have a place of honour, but Weeks forecloses on ancestor worship by showing up the ambiguous common ground which some sexual pioneers shared with eugenicists, racialists and moral purity authoritarians. Unlike most histories, which seem to lose purchase the closer they approach their readers’ own experience, this one seems to increase in authority as it reaches the liberal hour of the Fifties and Sixties, the ambivalent and incomplete reform of the laws on homosexuality, abortion and divorce, the Muggeridgian counter-attack and the birth of gay liberation and feminism. This is ‘a history of the present’ worthy of the name, and as such cannot fail to raise difficult questions about personal experience. As soon as one begins to ask why sexuality should be thought to be the secret truth of one’s entire identity, one begins to reconsider the supposedly radical incommensurability between female and male, homosexual and heterosexual experience. The historically contingent emphasis on the mystery of sexual otherness has given rise to a comic blind-man’s-buff between sexual partners. There is rarely any question so urgent in a man’s mind in the aftermath of love than what it was like for her and there is rarely any surprise so great as to be told: ‘Why should you expect it to be different?’ The histories of sexuality suggest that this is the right answer. Why should there be a mystery? How has sexual difference become this awesome gulf? Why have we constructed this metaphysics of the Other? Simply by making it possible to ask these questions in individual experience, the new history of sexuality has had an immediate political impact on contemporary gender relations.
Paradoxically, it is by laying bare the social determination of intimacy that these histories have assisted projects of personal liberation. Partners can’t begin to change the scripts of their intimacy unless they do realise that the play is scripted, that they haven’t written their own lines. But if the personal must be made political, it does not follow that liberation ought to consist in learning feminist, socialist, libertine or libertarian lines. The problem as always is to write one’s own. It is here, on the question of how individuals actually do change the terms of their own experience, that Weeks and Foucault speak ambiguously to the present. On the one hand, their histories abound with individuals, Havelock Ellis, Stella Browne, even the Marquis de Sade, who realised that their scripts no longer fitted what their bodies seemed to know, and who proved capable of finding new speech for their experience, at once highly personal and resonant to others. On the other hand, in insisting that inherited discourse constitutes experience itself, Foucault and Weeks leave little room, at least in theory, for an explanation of how such a gulf between experience and language could open up. The idea that discourse creates sensation and constitutes desire is effective enough against naturalism and essentialism, but it makes it impossible to give a plausible account of a common sexual experience: that words have made us voyeurs of our own feelings, alien to our own senses. Surely it is not merely a Romantic illusion to believe that this rift between what the body has known and what speech can say is the source of that desire for speaking which makes us so eternally loquacious about sex. Doubtless, the new histories might brand this as a dubious metaphysics of the body, but if so, what account can they offer of how new sexual discourse was produced in the past? What is at stake here is a plausible account in Foucaultian terms of the observable recalcitrance of individual subjectivity to social discourse, in all spheres of moral life.
Such an account of the latitude for self-determination within the grip of the social and the discursive is of some practical moment for current controversy over sexual ethics, simply because history puts paid to the idea that an ethics of sexual behaviour can ever be grounded in empirical claims as to the naturalness and unnaturalness of sexual choice. As such, it makes all the more stark the difficulty of grounding responsible behaviour towards sexual partners in anything more than high-sounding moralism. In this critique of sexual naturalism, the modern historians are heirs of de Sade. In his inimitable and interminable demonstrations that the mind can conceive of insatiable sexual consumption and destruction of other beings, he waged war against the idea that the erotic was naturally bounded by the physical limits of the body. He did not substitute a naturalism of his own – i.e. that sadism was innate. In this he was a faithful disciple of the materialist counter-attack against Descartes, insisting on the simple scandal that humans, unlike animals, were capable of anything. It is scarcely accidental that the old lecher has been such a bête noire of recent feminist writing. Susan Griffin eloquently argues the case that the erotic is in natural contradiction to the pornographic, and that sadism is repression of eros. It is honourable to wish to enlist the ‘true needs’ of the body against the ‘false needs’ of a culture of sexual violence, but like all such distinctions, this one makes a universal empirical claim about human nature which history, in its account of the infinite dynamism and plasticity of human need, simply cannot verify. If these histories of sexuality are anything to go by, the truth seems grimmer – there is no true essential self, no uncontestable agenda of true erotic needs to which we can make appeal in our judgments against those who say they choose either to inflict or to submit to sexual humiliation. What we choose to value in sexual conduct is not inscribed in our natures, but is a thing we must choose and fight for with reason. The true difficulty of it all is suggested in the words themselves – ‘reason’, ‘will’, ‘choice’, ‘discipline’. If they sound archaically severe and stoic, that is the measure of the problem.