By what metric do we measure the vitality of the History of Sexuality? If the overwhelming attendance at the launch of the new IHR seminar asking ‘What is the History of Sexuality?’ is anything to go by, it is far from dead, and scholars remain eager to further question what the field is, what it can be, and where it will go.
[Full disclosure: in addition to being an editor of this blog, I am also a co-convener of the IHR seminar and its social media dude.]
Tuesday evening I arrived at Senate House with fellow Notches editor Amy Tooth Murphy. At the door to the Court Room we stood gawping in surprise. The room was full beyond capacity with some folks spilling outside to stand or sit in the hall. Certainly a small flurry on twitter demonstrated interest in the upcoming seminar, but we never imagined this level of enthusiasm.
Speakers Garthine Walker (Cardiff), Faramerz Dabhoiwala (Oxford), Howard Chiang (Warwick), Dan Healey (Oxford) and Kate Fisher (Exeter) used their own research histories and projects to identify problems, explore methodologies and signal opportunities for scholars of the history of sexuality. Diverse as their interests, periods, regions, and questions all are, however, some common threads emerged.
The history of sexuality is troubled by an imprecision of language. Chiang identified this most clearly in discussion of non-Western histories in which no real translation exists in Chinese for the term ‘sexuality’. He finds ‘sex’ a more appropriate and useful term for investigating sinophone histories and modernities. But several of the roundtable’s other scholars too signaled their discomfort with the limitations imposed by studying the history of ‘sexuality’ by speaking instead of the ‘sex and sexuality’. This reminds us (particularly modernists) of the challenges of studying identity constructions, which are, admittedly, recent developments, and brings all of us back to acts and desires, their meanings, significances, uses and employments across a spectrum of social, cultural, economic, political and other categories.
The history of sexuality remains an urgent project. Healey, a scholar of Russia, noted in particular how specific historical understandings of sex and sexuality can be deployed for domestic policy purposes and international political gain. In light of Russia’s increasing homophobia, he concluded, “The history of sexuality is a radical, provocative exercise.”
The history of sexuality is both frustratingly narrow and infuriatingly broad. And the night’s scholars were not uniform in their solutions. Dabhoiwala, whose faculty profile describes him as ‘interested in all aspects of the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the English-speaking world since the middle ages’ expressed concern that historians continue to overemphasize narrow research questions on the body, identity, and sexual practice, asking scholars instead to stand back to take a bigger view of the sexual past. Walker, a scholar of rape and sexual violence, however, advocated a plurality of histories to avoid excessive generalisations, reliance on received wisdom, and being limited to recovering subaltern voices, urgent and valid though they remain. At the heart of both scholars’ hopes for the future of the field remains an interest in more voices, more views, more perspectives and more history.
Matt Houlbrook wondered in a 2012 blog, tweeted again on the day of the seminar launch, if the history of sexuality was dead, pulled between social and critical histories, and in fact on the “brink of incoherence.” Certainly this concern relates to those of the roundtable speakers, and their navigation of the field, their own scholarship, and scholarly identities. Fisher’s experience of multiple interests might be the most illuminating. Moving from oral histories exploring experiences of contraception and sex, her research now focuses on the uses of sexual past, a trajectory that would seem to go from a social history frame to greater opportunities for a critical historical approach. But for Fisher these projects are only apparently unrelated; both ultimately explore a dialogue between the past and various presents.
Scholars of sexuality are increasingly undertaking vibrant research at the intersections of fields and themes, and while not exactly critical history, certainly expand beyond the recovery project of traditional social history. Among modernists, of which I’m most aware, scholars of homosexuality are using the subject to uncover histories of family, home and domesticities, economies and capitalism, transnational networks and communities. Prostitution is being reconfigured not only as the study of a state crime or religious sin, but of labour and migration. And an entire generation of soon-to-be-minted PhDs here and abroad are further historicizing heterosexuality, emotions, international activism and myriad other interests that only begin to suggest innumerable further possibilities for future research. I’m sure I speak for the seminar’s conveners in expressing my welcome to anyone across these interests who wishes to join us.
The History of Sexuality Seminar meets regularly during term time at Senate House, Malet Street, London. All welcome.
Justin Bengry is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in History at McGill University, Canada. Justin’s research focuses on the intersection of homosexuality and consumer capitalism in twentieth-century Britain, and he is currently revising a book manuscript titled The Pink Pound: Queer Profits in Twentieth-Century Britain. He tweets from @justinbengry
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