Homo Sexualis

Michael Ignatieff

  • Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 by Jeffrey Weeks
    Longman, 306 pp, £11.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 582 48333 6
  • Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women by Alan Bell, Martin Weinberg and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith
    Indiana, 242 pp, £9.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 253 16673 X
  • Pornography and Silence by Susan Griffin
    Women’s Press, 277 pp, £4.75, October 1981, ISBN 0 7043 3877 7
  • The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1 by Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley
    Penguin, 176 pp, £2.25, May 1981, ISBN 0 14 022299 5

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’.

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