10/12/11 - sexual norms

In today's exceprt - sexual norms have varied widely throughout history:

We cannot find distinct gay men or lesbians in the past because distant cultures had no conception of sexuality as an identity, as Michel Foucault, James Davidson and Giulia Sissa have shown (Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self, Vintage, 1988). The ancient Greek man may have cruised the Acropolis looking for teenage boys, but he was just as happy to find a female slave—and he went home to his wife. It is tempting to imagine such past cultures as oases of toleration, when people didn't care who a man slept with. Tell that to Timarchus, deprived of his citizenship in ancient Athens for supposedly selling sex (James M. Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008; Giulia Sissa, Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2008).

Today we think of Islamic societies as sexually repressive and homophobic. But, unlike in early Christianity, sexual pleasure in early Islam was not seen as bad in itself, as long as a man just had sex with his own wives or slaves. Muslim authorities even excused coitus interruptus for the purposes of birth control. Sufi mystics adored the beauty of male youths, with their downy cheeks, as a pathway to adoring the beauty of God and some men adored young men for more sensuous reasons. At the same time the effeminate man who had sex with other men was scorned and stigmatised. During the 19th century western orientalists began to denigrate (or sometimes exoticise) Islamic societies for what they saw as a tolerance for homosexual relations. In response Persian and Arab intellectuals began to repudiate the heritage of male-male love. They were not just echoing government mandates or western experts, however. Rather, nationalists were demanding that their governments modernise society by supporting modern monogamous romantic marriage (Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, Cambridge University Press, 2009; Afsaheh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, University of California Press, 2005).

The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault argued that Victorian sexual repression was a myth, that instead of a silence there was a proliferation of discourses about sex. Medical doctors, psychiatrists and sexologists obsessively categorised sexual variations. But Hera Cook argues that sexual repression was a reality. She does not see sexual desire as a natural force that was suppressed; rather, if sex was constructed, people had to learn about sex and, if the only messages they received were negative, sexual expression would be inhibited. In fact, she argues, abstinence was an important means of birth control just about until the invention of the pill. 'I have a headache tonight, dear', was a way middle-class women refused to have too many children (Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex and Contraception 1800-1975, Oxford University Press, 2004).

Victorian sexual silence had its advantages for some—close female friendships were celebrated, even when women longed to kiss and hug each other all night—because society thought they weren't sexual. In fact, Sharon Marcus argues, intimate female friendships and even female partnerships bolstered conventional Victorian marriages (Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928, University of Chicago Press, 2004; Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, Princeton University Press, 2007). But, as the recent BBC film The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister shows, some of these women were having passionately sexual relationships.


Anna Clark


The History of Sexuality


Published in History Today Volume: 61 Issue: 9 2011
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