Jeff Weeks is the doyen of history of sexuality in Britain. His 1979 volume Sex, Politics and Society remains a foundational text. Indeed, the historian working in this field in modern Britain sometimes feels that any contribution made is no more than a footnote to Weeks or an expansion of points he has already made. He may be less acknowledged than he deserves: his ideas are of that kind which sink in and become part of one's own structure of thought, rather than chafing irritants with which the scholar is compelled to enter into dialectical dispute. It is perhaps not inappropriate to liken Weeks to his eminent precursor Havelock Ellis (and it is good to report that this volume includes his long out-of-print essay on Ellis), although he might resist such an identification.
Weeks has a much more overt and worked-out theoretical basis than Ellis, but nonetheless his commitment to diversity, his refusal to rest on convenient simplistic formulae and conventions, his openness to new evidence and ideas, and above all his positioning of his historical scholarship in a context of contemporary political concerns, ally him to this British tradition blending awareness of ethical issues with a meticulous commitment to investigation and understanding. Weeks perhaps underestimates Ellis's own sense of his project as part of an ongoing process of elucidating the problematic area of human sexuality; however this particular essay is clearly located as an early piece and Weeks no more than Ellis would want his least pronouncement treated as holy writ, rather than as a stimulus to further work and action.
Making Sexual History presents a broad range of Weeks's writings, gathered from a range of material previously published in diverse locations between 1977 and 1999. They are arranged in three groups. Part I ‘Contested Knowledge: Writers on Sexuality' discusses five important theoreticians of sexuality: Havelock Ellis, Mary McIntosh, Dennis Altman, Guy Hocquenghem and Michel Foucault. Part II ‘Histories of Sexuality' discusses the issues and challenges that face the historian of sexuality. The impact of AIDS is dealt with, and also forms the keynote for the final section ‘Making History' which considers very recent history and indeed, looks forward to the post-millennial future.
While paying tribute to the importance of Foucault, Weeks suggests that he was not quite the pioneer he is sometimes made out to be, but rather, his work ‘complemented, and helped to systematize work already going on' (p.128) in the new sexual history influenced by developments in sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, the new social history, and of course the rise of the feminist and gay movements of the 1970s. Weeks continues to adhere to its social constructionist model. Sceptical (as anyone who knows the history of such attempts must be) of ‘gay gene' and ‘gay brain' theories, he points out that what is fundamentally interesting are ‘the meanings these propensities acquire... the social categorizations that attempt to demarcate... their effect on collective attitudes and individual sense of self'. Thus, for the historian, ‘it does not depend one iota on whether homosexuality is inherited or acquired': what matters is how it is perceived and experienced in specific contexts (p.59).
What, we may ask, is the relevance of this to Midland History? On one empirical level, it is by closely analysed studies of phenomena precisely located in space and time that the complexities of sexual life in the past are being teased out. Simon Szreter in Fertility, Class and Gender has demonstrated that there were a plethora of population declines from the mid-nineteenth century brought about by differing strategies in which class, occupation and geographical locality were significant influences. Patrick Higgins, in Heterosexual Dictatorship, has drawn attention to provincial police ‘witchhunts' against homosexuals in the 1950s and the local networks of association that these revealed.
But it is appropriate to let Weeks himself have the final word. As he points out in the chapter ‘Sexuality and History Revisited' (p. 126):
[I]t is being recognised that far from being a minor adjunct to the mainstream of history, sexuality in its broadest sense has been at the heart of moral, social, and political discourse. We cannot properly understand the past, let alone the present, unless we grasp that simple fact.
LESLEY A. HALL, WELLCOME LIBRARY FOR THE HISTORY AND UNDERSTANDING OF MEDICINE