Cunnilingus in the Middle Ages and the Problem of Understanding Past Sex Lives

By  Tom O’Donnell

In order to conjure up the sexual practices of our forebears we have to bridge gaps. Gaps in language, time and ways of thinking. In order to write a history of medieval sexuality we need to know what that sexuality consisted of. It is hard enough to mentally recreate the sex lives of our friends from idle gossip when we know the euphemisms, the forms of reference, what is on the sexual menu and what is thought permissible. But for medieval sex lives we have to work creatively with our sources to understand what people were doing with one another. And there is a constant challenge with the written sources.

Mouth of Hell, Meester van Katharina van Kleef, c. 1440

Mouth of Hell, Meester van Katharina van Kleef, c. 1440 (Wikimedia Commons)

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Heterosexuality in America: Fifty Years and Counting

By Marc Stein

This month, the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco is marking the fiftieth anniversary of LIFE magazine’s influential photographic essay “Homosexuality in America.” The essay, which appeared in a weekly periodical that was read by millions of U.S. Americans, is featured in an exhibit curated by community historian Paul Gabriel. According to the museum’s website, the exhibit, titled “1964: The Year San Francisco Came Out,” addresses “an infamous LIFE magazine article that catapulted San Francisco into national consciousness as the ‘gay capital’ of America.” In highlighting the historical significance of “Homosexuality in America,” the GLBT History Museum joins the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, which is featuring the LIFE magazine essay in “What It Means To Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility.” Curated by Sophie Hackett, the associate curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, this exhibit was part of the recently-concluded WorldPride 2014 festivities in Toronto.

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Homosexuality in America,” Life, 26 June 1964, pp. 66-80.

Discussing “Homosexuality in America” on Huffington Post, Hackett writes that the article in LIFE was “one of the first depictions of gay life in a mainstream magazine.” Hackett is right to say that it was “one of the first”; for example, in December 1962 Philadelphia Magazine published “The Furtive Fraternity,” a lengthy expose on gay life by journalist Gaeton Fonzi. As is so often the case in the history of mainstream media, “national” media stories were preceded and anticipated by “local” ones.

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Born This Way? Sexual Science and the Invention of a Political Strategy

By Jana Funke

Gay politics today tend to be premised on the ‘born this way’ argument, the idea that being gay is not a matter of choice or preference, but rather an innate, natural and biologically conditioned fact of life. If homosexuality is something we are born with and therefore not something we choose or can be expected to change, the argument goes, we have the right to demand protection under the law, equal rights and social acceptance more generally.

Born this Way (Credit:

Born this Way (Credit: Quinn Dombrowski / Wikimedia Commons)

While incredibly pervasive (think Lady Gaga, Macklemore or Glee) and undeniably powerful, the ‘born this way’ argument has also been subjected to substantial criticism. Even though stories about the ‘gay gene’, for example, continue to circulate in popular media coverage, most scientists are very hesitant to assert that there is any straightforward link between potential genetic variation and sexual attraction. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences, especially history and anthropology, have also challenged the ‘born this way’ argument. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that different cultures in the past and present did not distinguish clearly between ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’. Instead, such cultures often developed entirely different ways of understanding sexual desire that resist the idea that there is a social minority group consisting of individuals who are simply ‘born gay’.

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Aesthetic uses of sex in early Japanese Butoh dance

By Michael Facius

What does a mock-sodomized chicken on a theater stage in 1959 in Tokyo have to do with gay prison sex in World War II France? Quite a lot, as it turns out, if the performer in Tokyo is the founder of the dance art Butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, and the French prisoner is Jean Genet, who soon afterwards went on to transform his escapades into novels. Both were connected (if not in person) through artistic networks and discourses that spanned cultural centers from Tokyo to Paris and New York.

Scene from a Rehearsal for "Forbidden Colors", by Otsuji Kiyoji

Scene from a Rehearsal for Forbidden Colors, by Otsuji Kiyoji. (Photo: MAUM&L)

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Rethinking Bussing in the 1970s: The Sexual Politics of School Integration in the United States

By Gillian Frank

In 1972 in the nearly all-white suburbs of Detroit, opponents of bussing used sexual slurs to characterize the federal judge—Stephen Roth—who ordered suburban school districts to integrate with Detroit’s predominantly black schools. Bumper stickers of the 1972 election cycle appended to cars proclaimed, ‘Judge Roth is a child-molester,’ ‘Roth, Child-A-Buser’ and ‘Roth is a four-letter word.’ The implications of these slogans were clear: integrating schools through bussing placed children in sexual danger and the government was a sexual predator. Such rhetoric, moreover, spotlights how opposition to bussing was about preserving racial divisions. In the United States, these racial divisions have long been sexualized.

Judge Roth Bumper Sticker

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‘A Temporary Member': ‘Hermaphrodites’ and Sexual Identity in Early Modern Russia

By Marianna Muravyeva

Mosaic of Hermaphroditus, North Africa, Roman period, 2nd-3rd century AD (Wikimedia Commons)

Mosaic of Hermaphroditus, North Africa, Roman 2nd-3rd century AD (Wikimedia)

Russian history of sexuality is very problematic. We have yet a lot to discover about same-sex relationships, sexual variations and attitudes to various sexual practices on the Russian pathway to modernity. The little we know suggests that one’s sexual identity was subject to close scrutiny from the community, the church and the state in the early modern period: same-sex relationships were harshly prosecuted, heteronormativity enforced. However, intersex people or, historically, ‘hermaphrodites’ (dvuudye or muzhesheny in Russian) represented a true puzzle for the authorities and local community.

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Thatcher and Homosexuality: Waiting for Section 28

By Bob Cant

Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.

- Margaret Thatcher, October 1987.

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Shortly before Margaret Thatcher made the above statement, she had led the UK Conservative Party into a third consecutive term in office. The Lady knew that the party conference included her most adoring and loyal admirers. What better place to make a declaration of war on a stigmatised minority? But she was a superb political tactician as well and there was an exquisite cruelty about the way her remarks were directed towards the opposition Labour Party. For while the gay-friendly policies that she denounced had been introduced by some Labour councils, they were, at the same time, enormously embarrassing to many other members of that party.

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