Reading Silences in Histories of Religion and Sexuality

Philippa Koch

How do we, as scholars of religion, interrogate the silences in our sources? And what do silences in religious texts reveal about sexuality, sickness and race? This was the framing question of the panel “Silences in Protestant Autobiography: Exploring Sickness, Sexuality, and Race in American Religion,” which I organized for the winter meeting of the American Society of Church History/American Historical Association in New York City in early January. The panelists were Seth PerryEva PayneVernon Mitchell, and myself, and we received a formal response by Catherine Brekus.

St Peter the Martyr Enjoins Silence, by Fra Angelico (Florence, San Marco Convent)

St Peter the Martyr Enjoins Silence, by Fra Angelico (Florence, San Marco Convent)

Silence has long been revered as a contemplative practice within Christianity, but it is a reverence variously challenged by–or held in balance with–written and oral forms of spiritual expression and reflection, including prayer, preaching, music, and writing. The panel sparked conversation about how authors could be silenced by physical pain, generic conventions, religious norms, and imagined audiences. We discussed the significance of writing as a Protestant religious practice, and we explored the way our diverse sources both revealed and concealed their authors’ autobiographies.

A critical question, however, remained: “Is it possible,” Brekus asked, “to interpret absence rather than presence?” We must be careful not to create stories for our subjects, stories based on our own presumptions, knowledge, and bias. If we proceed with caution, however, interpreting the silences in our sources can be a starting point for thinking about our subjects and their contexts, for considering how historical authors lived in the world and how they interacted with and were affected by their neighbors, prevailing social norms, and religious beliefs.

As one audience member, Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society, observed: silence is both a noun and a verb. Our sources could have carefully chosen to leave silence (n.) in their writings; silence (n.) could also have been an impending or threatening force that our subjects wrote against. But our sources could also have been silenced (v.) by the expectations of their audiences. The two papers on sexuality suggest that considering silence—in both the noun and verb sense—offers a fruitful approach to studying religion and sexuality.

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Beyond penetration: rethinking the murder of Edward II

Kit Heyam

On 23 September 1327, the young king Edward III received word that his father had died. The former Edward II, who had been coerced into abdication in January of that year, had been imprisoned in Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, at the time of his death. While official reports stated that he had died of natural causes, rumours of foul play quickly began to spread. The Lanercost Chronicle, probably composed contemporaneously, asserts cautiously that, “The deposed king died soon after, either by a natural death or by the violence of others”. It didn’t take long for chronicle accounts of Edward’s death to become both more detailed and more sensational. The story we know today, of Edward’s gruesome murder by anal penetration with a red-hot spit (the word “poker” isn’t used in any medieval or early modern text) originates in the “long version” of the Anglo-Norman Brut, composed shortly after 1333. By the sixteenth century this had become the historiographical consensus.

Edward II tomb

Detail of the tomb of Edward II at Gloucester Cathedral (Photo: K. Harvey)

Today, it’s frequently assumed that this story originated as a symbolic punishment for Edward II’s perceived sexual behaviour in life. As Katherine Harvey explored in a recent NOTCHES post, Edward’s close relationships with his male favourites – first Piers Gaveston, then the two Hugh Despensers – were the subject of anxiety during his lifetime and further condemnatory speculation after his death. Chroniclers began to associate Edward’s reign with transgressive sexual behaviour or “lechery”, while hinting that this resulted from his closeness to his favourites; by the sixteenth century, a consensus was emerging that those relationships were both romantic and sexual. So it’s easy to understand why the “red hot spit” story has been interpreted as retribution for Edward’s participation in anal sex with other men. But was this sexually mimetic aspect the sole reason behind the creation of the story?

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A Sexologist and his two Archives: Erwin J. Haeberle

Interviewed by Heike Bauer and Jana Funke

Erwin J. Haeberle is the founder of two archives – the “Haeberle-Hirschfeld-Archive” and the “Archive for Sexology” – which between them constitute one of the most significant collections of sexological work and related materials available.

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Erwin Haeberle (Photo: Reto Klar)

Initially a literary scholar in the 1960s, Haeberle’s discovery of the existence of “sexual science” led him on an intellectual and archival journey that would take him from Germany to the U.S. (and back again). Via the universities of Heidelberg, Cornell, Yale and Hawai’i, he came to the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco where he wrote The Sex Atlas (1978), a textbook aimed at students of sexuality, which was translated into German, Dutch, and Turkish. He also curated an exhibition on the birth of sexology (1908-1933), which was first shown at the World Congress of Sexology in Washington, D.C. in 1983. During the 1980s Haeberle dedicated himself to AIDS scholarship and activism at universities in San Francisco, Kiel (Germany) and Geneva. He worked as an advisor to the German government before taking up a post at the AIDS Center at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin in 1994. It was here that he built up both the print and electronic archives of sexology. Haeberle would donate the print archive to Humboldt University in Berlin where it is now accessible via the university’s central library as the “Haeberle-Hirschfeld-Archive”. The privately financed electronic archive, still called “Archive for Sexology”, is open access and has been maintained by Haeberle himself since his retirement in 2001.

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Organized Labor, Gay Liberation and the Battle Against the Religious Right, 1977-1994

Miriam Frank

What common cause could bring organized labor together with gay liberation in the United States? When gay rights became a referendum question in municipal or statewide elections, unions’ strategic and direct participation or their indifference mattered profoundly for the fortunes of gay rights.

Beginning in 1972, dozens of cities and towns across the United States enacted or expanded civil rights codes with sexual orientation as a protected class. Five years later, religious conservatives introduced voters’ initiatives to repeal those reforms, and, at the state level, to enact new laws directed at the sexual morality of school and social service employees. The political attacks on gay rights were supposed to energize an emerging conservative electorate by representing its political leaders as the guardians of morality, the family and traditional sexual values. But the right’s mission and strategies yielded mixed results. Queer communities needed a strong defense and found, when they worked with organized labor, a means of countering an ascendant conservative movement.

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Globalizing the History of Sexology

Chris Waters

It is no exaggeration to say that this year one could attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), held in early January in New York City, and experience a queer conference within a conference. The US Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History brought seventeen panels to the AHA’s annual program, seven of them officially designated as joint panels with the AHA. Three of those joint-listed panels concerned the practices of sexology, presented under the umbrella title, ‘Toward a Global History of Sexual Science, c.1900-70’. Organized by Doug Haynes and Veronika Fuechtner at Dartmouth College and Ryan Jones at the State University of New York, Geneseo, the nine papers presented on the three panels grew out of a Humanities Institute workshop held at Dartmouth in the Summer of 2013, devoted to a consideration of sexual science as a global phenomenon. Many of those papers will eventually appear in an edited volume; when they do our understanding of sexology will be immeasurably richer.


The Delinquent Woman. “Physiognomies of Russian criminals” From: Cesare Lombroso, La donna delinquente: la prostituta e la donna normale, 1893. (Image: Wellcome)

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Redefining Rape: Estelle Freedman on the History of Sexual Violence

Interview by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Harvard 2013) charts the complex and shifting meaning of sexual violence in the United States. It is unique in focusing on the legal and political, rather than personal and experiential, dimensions of American rape culture. Centering on the era of “suffrage and segregation” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Estelle Freedman argues that political power and social privilege have shaped legal and cultural definitions of rape. Race was central. Specifically, white claims to racial supremacy were bolstered by male sexual privilege. Moreover, race often served to splinter plausible biracial coalitions among women. The twin, and rarely intersecting, movements to advance women’s rights and African-American civil rights were both crucial to the redefinition of rape to include black women as victims and white males as perpetrators. Activists against segregation and for woman’s suffrage from the 1870s until the 1930s, Freedman found through review of countless press and policy sources, both worked to enact a more just legal definition of rape, though these movements rarely collaborated and at times worked at odds with one another. Still, their hitherto largely unstudied efforts re-imagined the very boundaries of citizenship that persist today.

redefining rape

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