Barry Reay

Sex in the Archives is an experiment in writing an American sexual history that refuses the confines of identity in sexuality studies. It spans the spectrum of queer, trans, and the allegedly ‘normal’ – and it is an exploration of the role of the archive in such histories.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read it?

Reay: The book is an experiment in writing an American sexual history spanning the spectrum of queer, trans, and the allegedly ‘normal.’ What unites this project is a fascination with sex at the margins, refusing the classificatory frameworks of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and demonstrating gender and sexual indecision and flexibility. And the book is also an exploration of the role of the archive in such histories. The sex discussed is located both in what has been termed the counterarchive, but also, importantly, in the pockets of recorded desire located in the most traditional and respectable repositories. The sexual histories in this book are those where pornography and sexual research are indistinguishable — where personal obsession becomes tomorrow’s archive.

Because it is a series of essays rather than a monograph, I expect people to dip into it. There is material to cover a range of interests: the role of the archive in the history of sex; the art history of homoeroticism; casual sex before hooking-up; transgender; New York queer sex; masturbation; pornography; sex in the city. Presumably it will appeal to those interested in American studies, sexuality studies, contemporary history, the history of sex, psychology, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, queer studies, trans studies, pornography studies, visual studies, museum studies, and media studies. As you can see, the potential list is quite long.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic?

Reay: That is a difficult question, because it depends on what the topic is! I’ll answer what attracted me to the history of sex later and will focus here on what drew me to the history of the archive (the second strand of the book). As I discuss in the early chapters, I had rather taken the archive for granted. I have had a lot of archival experience – readers may not realize that I have been around for a while – but did not really pause to think about the nature of the archives I was using. My focus was on content rather than form. Meanwhile, of course, especially in art history, there had been an archival turn that I was but dimly aware of, and we had reached the point when it is conceivable to have an archive of archive studies. The role of digitisation and the Internet means that archival material can be accessed from a computer almost anywhere, and the Internet itself can become an archive, or rather innumerable archives. I had, of course, almost without really thinking about it, been quite experimental in my use of what has come to be called the counterarchive (with, as readers of the book will know, ANONYMOUS’s amateur 1990s porn, and Amos Badertscher’s Baltimore hustler photography), and quite adept at locating pockets of quite explicit sexual history in more traditional archival repositories (the Bowie and Steward material in the New York Public Library and Yale’s Beinecke, respectively). Once I began to think more consciously about the link between the archive and the history of sex, you have the book.

NOTCHES: This book is about histories of gender and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

Reay: As if the history of gender and sexuality is not complex enough! It’s a good question. I guess other themes would be: the history of the city; the role of photography in history; neglected moments in American art history; the history of the archive. I was going to say that it makes a substantial contribution to our view of Alfred Kinsey’s role in the history of sexual research … but we are back to sex again. Essentially this is a book about sex and gender.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges, etc.?)

Reay: It would almost take me another book to answer this question. I think that really each chapter is based on an exciting find, whether it was new to me or an original discovery. For example, the Prologue sets up the book with an account of Melbourne University’s Grainger Museum that contains an intriguing archive within an archive, devoted to sex. The US-based, Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger, best known for his composition Country Gardens (1918–19), was responsible for what he termed the ‘Lust Branch Collection’, which he considered an important component of his legacy. Hence the Grainger Museum’s vast musicological and ethnographic collection also contains its founder’s sex archive of whips, photographs (Self beaten, Kansas City [1933] is my favourite), sexological works, explicit personal descriptions of the receiving and inflicting of sexual pain, and paeans to the advantages of ‘self-help’ (masturbation) and the joys of oral sex.

Chapter 6 deals with the David Louis Bowie Diaries, 1978–1993, some very queer diaries in the New York Public Library. These descriptions of New York sex in the periods before and after AIDS consist of text, drawings, and photographs, including information on drug taking, numerous clubs, a great amount of casual sex, and material dealing with the New York fisting scene. They are not philosophical or romantic reminiscences but sex diaries. The chapter deals both with a described sexual world and the source that represents it. The diaries are a chronicle. But they are also sexual objects, Bowie’s own sexual archive. He was aroused both by the memories they stored and his textual and visual renderings. He refers to masturbating to his drawings – even while executing them. The archive is imbricated in its recorded sexual encounters in intriguing ways. The archive and sex are indistinguishable here.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Reay: Readers may not know that I started my research life as an early modern English historian and then, tempted by the archival richness of the nineteenth century, moved periods (though still in English history), until finally I transitioned into modern, very modern, American history. I had touched on sexual history in earlier research. My books Microhistories (1996) and Popular Cultures in England, 1550­–1750 (1998) had chapters on sex, but it wasn’t really until 1999 that I seriously began to research the history of sex, with Watching Hannah: Sexuality, Horror, and Bodily De-Formation in Victorian England (2002) and the reader that I edited with my colleague Kim Phillips, Sexualities in History (2002).

It is a rather intriguing question because my shift to US sexual history is actually an example of the synergy between researching and teaching, something that the university frequently proclaims but does not always observe. Kim and I and another colleague, a US expert, decided in 1998 to offer a first year university course called Sexual Histories but the Americanist promptly left so I stepped in to teach the modern component of the course – and the rest, to use that old cliché, is history. Once I discovered the riches of archival research at the Kinsey Institute, there was no turning back.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Reay: The history of sex will always matter, especially in the rather sexually conflicted USA. I am not at all confident that what I am doing will have any practical impact. It was a chastening experience writing an extended critique of sex addiction, Sex Addiction: A Critical History (2015), which, I might add, got quite extensive news coverage for an academic work, but which has had little discernible impact on this lazy concept. This mythical ailment is still resorted to as an easy explanation for what is deemed to be unacceptable sexual behaviour. So much for the practice.

In terms of theory, or rather thinking, I am a little more optimistic. Martha Nussbaum has defended the liberal arts in the US in terms of it encouraging critical and analytical thinking, the broadening of the imagination, and knowledge of other cultures. History does this, but it adds depth and perspective not always evident in other disciplines. That is what we historians do. It is important – for those other than readers of NOTCHES of course – to know that heterosexuality is as culturally and historically constructed as homosexuality. It is interesting that, say, casual sex has a history, or that masturbation has a complex history.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Reay: I am nearing the completion of a book on American trans history.

Barry Reay holds the Keith Sinclair Chair in History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His more recent books include New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America (2010); Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History (2011); and Sex Addiction: A Critical History (2015).



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