Sexuality and history: achievements and challenges. A personal view

Lesley A. Hall, Wellcome Library

Published (in Italian) in Contemporanea, XIV/4, ottobre 2011, as a contribution to 'Sessualita e storia, based on paper given at a Roundtable discussion on the present state of the history of sexuality at IHR Women’s History Seminar, 19 June 2009

As a historian of sexuality, I believe that history is deployed less often than it ought to be in debates about sex and its place within society and social institutions. Too often very ahistorical assumptions are made when discussing sexual issues in the present. In some cases this is to depict a direct and almost unvarying line from the primeval savanna to the present day and to suggest that the biological tendencies laid down then remain imperative and immutable. In others there are invocations of some period at which, it is implied, sexual matters followed the course of nature and did not proliferate the problems we have today, but something happened - usually the 1960s and the permissive society -  to ruin that happy state. The historian who has worked on issues of gender and sexuality is strongly inclined to mistrust these simplistic or moralistic Just So Stories, and to wish that psychologists, in particular evolutionary psychologists, and sociologists, would pay the attention to historical changes in sexual behaviour and attitudes that was characteristic of the early pioneers of sexology.

            It is not as though the resources for this do not exist. Over the past thirty years there has been a veritable explosion of investigation into the history of sexuality. When I was working on my PhD thesis during the 1980s there was relatively little in the way of secondary literature  in the field to engage with and people in general thought it was a weird and slightly disreputable subject.

A number of scholars have now attained posts within the academy, although future prospects, in the light of the beleagured state of the humanities and of the educational system more generally, are perhaps not cheering. History of sexuality had seemed to be emerging from the margins and gaining a degree of academic credibility and respectability: Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 won the prestigious History Today Book of the Year Award in 2006.[1] 

There has, therefore, been excellent work done in illuminating our understandings of sexuality in historical context. However, so far, most of it has concerned itself with looking at attitudes towards or the behaviour of various groups perceived as 'The Other' or at least as in some way deviant: women as a sex in general, individuals with same-sex desires or having same-sex liaisons, those whose matrimonial problems brought them within the purlieu of the legal system, the bestial lower classes, the colonised racial subject. In examining these groups the study of new kinds of evidence and the use of increasingly nuanced theoretical models has produced a picture of complex diversity and revealed ways in which subaltern groups could develop at least certain kinds of agency. Many new and exciting questions have been raised and possible directions for further investigations indicated.

            Largely absent has been any consideration of the figure against whom these others were defined: the ‘straight man’, the ‘normal’ heterosexual male. It is twenty years since I published Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality 1900-1950,[2] which still seems to be almost a lone example of a historical analysis of the problematic aspects of 'normal' male sexuality, although a handful of other works by e.g. Angus McLaren have addressed these issues.[3] There has been a certain amount of work on the construction of masculinities more generally but quite often these have eschewed close engagement with what these meant in sexual terms. Is this simply because the 'normal heterosexual male' was the person gazing rather than an object of the gaze, the one who was defining himself by categorising others? Early studies in the history of sexuality tended to focus on discourses produced by the emerging science of sexology from the later nineteenth century, which was embedded in efforts to understand divagations from an assumed norm, implicitly, if not explicitly, the white bourgeois heterosexual male subject.

            Questions arise as to whether there is or was even such a thing as 'the normal heterosexual male' or whether this was a construct that could be deployed to police 'straight' men as well as the groups from whom they were differentiated? How, if at all, can we study this phenomenon? Is the only way to examine the ‘straight male’ to consider the negative space he inhabited in, for example, discourses around  rape and prostitution? These can be seen to be embedded in assumptions about male ‘nature’ and sexual desire (inflected for class, race, etc) even when the focus of attention has been on the woman, whether as a victim of sexual assault or a sex worker. Normal male sexuality has tended (indeed still tends) to be represented as inhabiting an ahistorical, timeless space, founded on the imperatives of biology. We know a great deal more about the female victims of sexual violence than about the men who committed these acts, although in recent work the historian Joanna Bourke has begun the endeavour to shift the focus.[4]

Given that the media is continually paying attention to dubiously 'scientific' claims that the normal male is transhistorically driven by overwhelming and incorrigible sexual urges formed on the primeval savanna, I should really, really like to see quite a lot more investigation of the ways in which male sexuality has been as influenced by historically contingent factors as it is usually considered that female sexuality or homosexual identity has. For example, an evolutionary-psychology argument has been advanced to suggest that it is somehow ‘natural’ and ingrained in the DNA for men, given their insurgent urges, to surf the web for porn to masturbate to, because of the innate qualities of the male sexual drive. Having looked at the enormous anxiety around masturbation and spermatorrhoea among British males during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this seems to me to be a somewhat problematic proposition.[5]  Similarly the idea that men are all about spreading their seed around does not really fit with recent work on contraceptive practices during the same period by Szreter, Fisher and others,[6] which has strongly indicated that men were concerned about limiting family size under pressure of economic circumstance or concern for the health of their wives; or with work by other scholars about the involvement of male partners in obtaining illicit abortions.[7] Just as the history of race and racial attitudes is now turning to consider ‘whiteness’, the history of sexuality at the moment needs to contemplate the currently huge void around the quote-unquote normal male.

That is one area in which it seems to me work is still lacking, and it laps over into a more general concern  that although we have had several excellent studies of the homosexual subcultures of Victorian London[8] we still have relatively little idea about other forms of Sex in the City, not to mention the provincial town, the suburb, the countryside. It may well be harder to recover the traces of heterosexual activities and subcultures but is it entirely impossible? I would cite here the subtle and nuanced recent work by Szreter and Fisher which addresses the cultures of courtship as well as marriage.[9]

            This segues into my sense that what I should also like to see is more in the way of specifically-located studies of how sexual attitudes and ideologies played out in terms of behaviour and responses and implementations. It is thirty years since the publication of Frances Finnegan’s meticulous study of the cultures of prostitution in Victorian York, Poverty and Prostitution and Judith Walkowitz's chapter on prostitution in Portsmouth and Southampton at the time of the CD Acts.[10] We have had a good deal on the debates on attitudes towards prostitution, on policies for its regulation and control, and on the institutions for ‘rescuing’ prostitutes,[11] but, at least in the UK, rather little on how these all played out on specific local streets and other spaces. Maria Luddy's recent work on prostitution in Ireland is exemplary in its attentiveness to specific locations.[12] A few younger scholars  (e.g. Stefan Slater, Julia Laite) are also now looking more closely at prostitution and its policing at the local level in the UK.[13] There is still room for much work in this area.

            Another area in which I think the admittedly challenging task of looking at issues of implementation and responses is the way forward is sex education and the wider question of the acquisition of sexual knowledge. I very much admired Susan K Freeman’s 2008 study of sex education in the USA, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s,  which looks at diverse sites in which deliberate sex education was happening and emphasises the very specific and local factors which influenced how it took place and what the content included, and indeed, had a major impact on whether it was taking place at all.[14]

            Freeman also gives significant attention to various extra-curricular ways, besides these carefully structured pedagogical approaches, by which young people acquired sexual information during the period. This is an area in which I would imagine oral history has quite a lot to offer. The process of acquiring sexual knowledge more generally from the range of sources available is one that I should like to see addressed, including (as Szreter and Fisher have made so lucidly clear in their recent book),[15] the role of agnotology,[16] the deliberate obfuscation of knowledge or refusal to contemplate it.

            I should also like to see a lot more comparative and transnational work: although this really has to be on the basis of solid local studies. From having been involved in several projects on European sexualities, it is clear that the state of scholarship varies widely from country to country and region to region, that people are not necessarily working on the same issues in ways that are intellectually compatible and that you can’t always make people work on areas and aspects that you consider to be an important part of the picture. There are in addition questions of language, of translation, of access, of availability of the primary sources, of opportunities to discuss work in progress and exchange ideas.

            Since I am very strongly convinced that an understanding of the historical dimension is vitally important to contemporary discussions of sexuality, I should like the field to acquire yet more academic credence, and for it to have more impact on current debates.


[1] Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[2] Lesley A Hall, Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality 1900-1950 (Oxford: Polity Press, 1991).

[3] Angus McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[4] Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present (London: Virago, 2007).

[5] Lesley A Hall, ‘Forbidden by God, despised by men: masturbation, medical warnings, moral panic and manhood in Britain, 1850-1950' Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 2, Jan 1992, reprinted in Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe edited by Professor John C. Fout, University of Chicago Press, 1992; ‘Masturbation’, Encyclopedia of European Social History, Vol. 4, Simon and Schuster, 2001; '"It was the doctors who were suffering from it": the history of masturbatory insanity revisited', in Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education 39/6 Dec 2003.

[6] Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception 1800-1975 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Simon Szreter, Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain, 1860-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[7] Willem de Blécourt, 'Cultures of abortion in the Hague, early twentieth century', in Franz Eder, Lesley Hall and Gert Hekma (eds), Sexual Cultures in Europe: Themes in Sexuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp. 195-212;  McLaren, The Trials of Masculinity.

[8] Sean Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Harry G Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the 19th Century (London: I B Tauris, 2003); Matt Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Morris Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); Charles Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex Between Men in Britain's Age of Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[9] Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[10] Frances Finnegan, Poverty and prostitution : a study of Victorian prostitutes in York (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Judith R. Walkowitz Prostitution and Victorian Society : women, class and the state (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[11] Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in Britain, 1860-1914, Routledge, 1999; Laurie Bernstein, Sonia's Daughters:Prostitutes and their Regulation in Imperial Russia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1995) ; Edward Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: the Jewish fight against white slavery, 1870-1939 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982); Alain Corbin, Time Desire and Horror:Towards a History of the Senses (London: Polity Press 1995); Alain Corbin,  Women for Hire: Prostitution and sexuality in France after 1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990); Frances Finnegan, Poverty and Prostitution: A study of Victorian prostitutes in York (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Mary Gibson, Prostitution and the State in Italy, 1860-1915 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986); Jill Harsin, Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth Century Paris (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985); Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (London; Routledge, 2004); Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the nineteenth century (London: Routledge, 1990); Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: women, class and the state (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

[12] Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[13] Stefan Slater, ‘Pimps, Police and Files de Joie: Foreign Prostitution in Interwar

London’, London Journal, 32 (1) 2007; Julia Laite, ‘Taking Nellie Johnson’s Fingerprints: Prostitutes and Legal Identity in Early Twentieth-Century London’, History Workshop Journal, 65 (1)

2008; ‘Paying the Price Again: Prostitution Policy in Historical Perspective’, History and Policy 2006; ‘The Association for Moral and Social Hygiene: Abolitionism and Prostitution Law in Britain (1915-1956)’, Women’s History Review, 17 (2) 2008

[14] Susan K Freeman, Sex Goes to School: Girls and Sex Education before the 1960s (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

[15] Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Prtess, 2010).

[16] Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008).