Sexual Curiosities? Aphrodisiacs in early modern England

By Jennifer Evans

The word aphrodisiac conjures images of oysters and chocolate, or perhaps peppers to ‘spice things up’. Nearly everyone knows that these foods have a long history of being considered aphrodisiacs. Yet it is worth devoting a little more attention to how these foods were described in the past because they are not a-historical – they are not the same in every era and are not understood in the same ways in every era. Indeed, the word aphrodisiac only began to be used to describe such foods in the late seventeenth century. At this time aphrodisiacs weren’t considered to be sexual curiosities but were widely understood to be a central component in the fight against infertility.

Still Life with Fruit, Oysters and a Porcelain Bowl, Abraham Mignon, 1660 - 1679. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Still Life with Fruit, Oysters and a Porcelain Bowl, Abraham Mignon, 1660 – 1679. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

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Ian Paisley (1926-2014) and the ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy!’ Campaign

By Sean Brady

The death of Rev. Ian Paisley has been occasion for reflection upon the United Kingdom’s most firebrand, and certainly one of the most memorable and divisive, political figures in modern times. Paisley rightly will be remembered for his hardline and extreme unionist stance throughout his political and religious career. Northern Ireland’s society and politics have been synonymous with deep and bitter religiously orientated sectarianism, violence, conflict, militarism, and seemingly intractable community divisions since the late 1960s. And Paisley was the most vocal and most recognisable protagonist of its continued community divide. But the intractable oppositions within Northern Ireland appeared to come together in remarkable unanimity on one particular issue, which Paisley almost made his own: that of the reprehensibility of male homosexuality, and questions of sexual minorities in general.

The Reverand Ian Paisley, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, making a speech, 3rd June 1974.

The Reverand Ian Paisley, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, making a speech, 3rd June 1974.

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Jack the Ripper: Case Never Closed

This article by Notches editor Julia Laite appeared in the September 9, 2014 issue of The Guardian

Jack the Ripper

The latest development in a near-150-year-old saga made headlines this week: an armchair detective has used DNA evidence to claim that Aaron Kosminski was Jack the Ripper, the infamous figure who murdered and mutilated women in the East End of London in 1888. A Polish Jew who worked as a barber in the area, Kominski was one of the Met’s suspects at the time, though he was never charged.

Of all the fascinating mysteries and unknowns of history, why does Jack the Ripper generate so much popular interest? Part of the obsession must stem from the gruesome and sexualised nature of the killings: the Whitechapel murderer eviscerated his victims, removing parts of their organs, especially their uteruses and vaginas. The fact that several of his victims sold sex adds to the fascination. They were the fallen women, unfortunates who wandered London’s gaslit streets, who feature, caricatured and stereotyped, in so many historical and fictional accounts.

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Where are animals in the history of sexuality?

By Gabriel N. Rosenberg

What is the place of animals in the history of sexuality? In June, at a campaign stop, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran testified about his rural roots by reminiscing on how, in his youth, he did “all kinds of indecent things to animals.” The phrase drew knowing laughs from his audience, but it caught the attention of media outlets astounded by the casual confession of bestial indecency. Had Cochran admitted to having sex with animals? And why would an audience of Republican voters laugh at that? They rushed to the zoophilic conclusion because Euro-American cultures are practiced at unseeing the intimate interactions between humans and animals that are necessary to sate collective hungers for meat. Just as meat must be made, so too must the mating. And perhaps this was the very bestial interaction, entirely normal in agricultural spaces, to which Cochran referred.

A Durok sow with her piglets (Wikimedia Commons)

A Durok sow with her piglets (Wikimedia Commons)

To date, few historians of sexuality have pondered the relevance of animals to their field, except for some studies of bestiality. But what if we disposed of bestiality as the archetype of human-animal intimacy, and searched, instead, for the ways humans stimulate animals to have sex with each other. I illustrate this point by looking at a piece of common agricultural technology, illustrated in the accompanying advertisement, that was designed to manufacture animal sex and, as a result, made humans a necessary participant in animal sex and the production of animal desire.

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Sexual Pleasure, AIDS, and Gay Politics

by Dan Royles

In 2012, the FDA approved Truvada, a popular antiretroviral drug, for use by HIV-negative people to prevent infection. The use of Truvada for HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, has been controversial. Veteran AIDS activist Larry Kramer has called HIV-negative gay men who elect to take the drug “cowardly.” Some gay men on PrEP have pushed back against such criticism by reclaiming the slur “Truvada whore.” This debate harkens back to conflicts within the gay community during the early days of the AIDS epidemic when gay men argued over how to reconcile the sexual openness of the 1970s with the growing danger of a deadly disease that appeared to be linked to gay men’s sexual practices.

One in a series of posters produced by the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum and the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention to encourage safer sex among Black gay men. (Source: University of Rochester, Rare Books and Special Collections)

Although AIDS did not signal the end of sexual liberation, the epidemic did change the meaning of sex for many gay men, mixing potent feelings of fear with otherwise pleasurable acts. In Tim Murphy’s recent piece on PrEP for New York Magazine, Sarit Gloub, a psychology professor at Hunter College, described her research findings that half of gay men think about HIV most or all of the time during sex.  This fear is in part a result of the very “sex-positive” programs that gay men’s groups developed in the 1980s, which eroticized safer sex for gay men but also represented sexual contact between men as dangerous.

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The Yellow Star and the Pink Triangle: Judaism and Gay Rights in the 1970s

By Gillian Frank

Homosexuals cannot reproduce—so they must recruit, and to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.

- Anita Bryant

Anita Bryant at a Soviet Jewry march in Miami on May 22, 1977. Photographer: Pauline Lubens/Miami Herald Staff.

In 1977, Anita Bryant became the face of a right wing religious coalition, Save Our Children (SOC). SOC, which was based in Dade County Florida, enshrined into national conservative politics the idea that homosexuals should not be given equal rights because they are a threat to children. Historians frequently use Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign as shorthand for the growing importance of conservative Evangelical voters, the rise of the Religious Right and the concurrent ascent of anti-gay politics. Little attention has been given to how the struggle over gay rights evolved within the context of Dade County’s large and politically active Jewish community.

Analyzing Jewish responses to a gay civil rights law in 1977 enriches historians’ understanding of Jews’ varied relationship with both conservatism and liberalism. In 1977, Jews comprised approximately 15% of Dade County’s population and were an important voting bloc. Both pro- and anti-gay activists sought to appeal to Jewish voters, and did so respectively by invoking the legacy of the Holocaust or longstanding Jewish fears of demographic decline. These appeals created divides within and between denominations. Although a significant number of Jewish voters opposed gay rights in 1977 and bolstered a nascent conservative religious coalition, many more expanded their definition of liberalism to include sexual politics.

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