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"The idea of a history of sexuality is both conceptually dubious and methodologically impossible". Discuss.

"The idea of a history of sexuality is both conceptually dubious and methodologically impossible". Discuss.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kate Richardson. Originally submitted for Historiography at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Professor Ciaran Brady in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Kate Richardson. Originally submitted for Historiography at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Professor Ciaran Brady in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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“The idea of a history of sexuality is both conceptually dubious and methodologicallyimpossible” Discuss.In this essay, it will be argued that the idea of a history of sexuality is neither conceptuallydubious nor methodologically impossible. Rather it is conceptually complex andmethodologically problematic, due to many factors. The varied interpretations of “sexuality”,the debate as to whether sexuality is a continuous or discontinuous notion and the complexnature of modern sexual categories conceptually complicate any history of sexuality whileflawed evidence, bias imposed by modern perceptions of sexuality and the political nature of modern sexuality, the multidisciplinary nature of the subject and great variation of individualexperience of sexuality, present problems for the methodology of a history of sexuality.Despite these challenges, however, a worthwhile history of sexuality is possible.The varied interpretations of the word “sexuality” present a conceptual challenge to the ideaof a history of sexuality. “Sexuality”, like many concepts, such as marriage and family can be interpreted in a manner specific to one culture or in a broader, more universal way.
Thestructuralist definition of sexuality, as the defining of the self by one’s sexual acts anddesires, strongly influenced by Michel Foucault’s
 History of Sexuality
, is specific to modernwestern societies.
 The consideration of sexual acts and desires as key to identity, not subjectto another overriding element of personality such as spirituality, as in the early Christianchurch, or gender identity, only arose in western societies in the late eighteenth century.
Foucault demonstrates this change by comparing the tendency in Europe in the earlyeighteenth century to regard sexual transgressors as criminals, whereas thereafter, they cameto be regarded as deviants, to whose identity sexual deviancy was vital. By this narrowstructuralist definition, the history of sexuality dates from the late eighteenth century, and is
Some definitions of marriage, for example, might include a ceremony held in a church, while others, such asthe Roman definition only stipulate that a man and woman should openly live together. “Family” is also open tointerpretation. Generally associated in modern society with blood relatives and in-laws, the Romans includedslaves and freedmen in their familia, the closest approximation they had to the term “family”. Mary T.Boatwright, Daniel J.Gargola, and Richard J.A. Talbert,
The Romans: from village to empire
, (Oxford, 2004), p.210.
Michel Foucault,
The history of sexuality: Volume 1 an introduction
, translated by Robert Hurley, (London,1979), first published in French 1976, pp. 38, 40, 43, 105, Roger Horrocks,
 An introduction to the study of  sexuality
, (London, 1997), pp. 25-6, 86 and Hera Cook, “Demography”, in
 Palgrave advances in the modernhistory of sexuality
, H.G. Cocks and Matt Houlbrook (eds.), (Basingstoke, 2006), pp. 19-40, p. 21, David M.Halperin, “Is there a history of sexuality?”, in
The Lesbian and gay studies reader 
, Henry Abelove, MichèleAina Barale, David M. Halperin, (eds.), (London, 1993), pp. 416-31, p. 416.
 An introduction to the study of sexuality
, p. 105.1
specific to western culture, so that any such history outside these limits is conceptuallydubious.However, this is not the only interpretation of sexuality. The
Oxford English Dictionary
 provides two alternative definitions. The first defines sexuality as “a person’s sexualorientation or preferences.” This definition causes difficulties, as the categorising of sexual preferences into fixed “orientations”, based on objects of desire is also a phenomenon of modern western societies, influenced by the attempted scientific analysis of sexuality bysexologists in the late nineteenth century.
There are some indications however, that somenotion of sexual preferences pre-existed the sexologists, in one particular culture. Theclassical Athenian treatise, Plato’s
, includes a story told by Aristophanes,explaining why people have a preference for sexual relations with a particular gender (that wewere all divided in two by the gods and are now always looking to reunite with our other half,which is a particular gender).
While this part of the
is comical, it indicates thatPlato believed that some people have specific gender preferences. Thus this definition,although it is also specific to our culture still indicates the viability of a history of sexualityfor certain times and cultures outside of the last 250 years, making a partial history of sexuality possible. The second
Oxford English Dictionary
definition of sexuality is the“capacity for sexual desire”. This definition clearly has a long history. A great many ancientcivilisations, such as the Romans and Anatolians had gods of sexual desire (Venus, Cupidand Ishtar). This interpretation of sexuality therefore opens up a long history of sexuality. Sowhile narrow definitions of sexuality would make a history of sexuality highly dubious beyond certain times and cultures, there are alternative definitions which allow for variation,making the idea of such a history feasible.This broader interpretation of sexuality is still problematic. Actual sexual desires can never  be known with any certainty, as they are sometimes never expressed outside of anindividual’s thoughts. People constantly interact with their society, knowing what behaviour is acceptable and what is deviant, so that if they express their desires, they do so into a
John H Gagnon, and Richard G. Parker, “Introduction”, in
Conceiving sexuality
, John H. Gagnon and RichardG. Parker (eds.), (London, 1995), pp. 3-16, pp. 3, 11 and 423 and Voss, Barbara L., “Sexuality in archaeology”,in
 Identity and subsistence: gender strategies for archaeology
, Sarah M. Nelson (ed.), (Plymouth, 2007), pp. 33-68, p. 36.
, translated by Benjamin Jowett, from Internet Classics Archive,(http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html), accessed on 7 November 2010.2
complex societal framework .
Few people today would admit to inclinations towards incestor bestiality, knowing the strongly prohibitive attitude of society towards such desires.
If sexuality is taken to be the “capacity for sexual desire”, does this mean that a history of sexuality is impossible? A comprehensive history is certainly impossible, but that is true of all history. It is important to consider what a history of sexuality comprises. A history of religion is not simply a study of the beliefs of many individuals, but concerns the interactionof religion with society, its practice, changes and continuities in the over time. In the sameway, while sexual desires are central to a history of sexuality, the practice of sexuality, thetreatment of deviants and the interaction of sexuality with society are also important.Therefore a flawed, but still worthwhile, history of sexuality can be written.The concept of a history of sexuality is further complicated by the constructionist-essentialistdebate, as to whether sexuality is a continuous or discontinuous concept.
Either view couldmake a history of sexuality conceptually dubious. If sexuality is a transhistorical andtranscultural constant, the extreme of the essentialist argument, favoured by historians such asJohn Boswell, how can it have a history?
If the constructionist view that society and cultureshape sexuality, so that there is nothing fundamental to sexuality except that which anindividual society imposes, as argued by Henry Abelove and once argued by David Halperinis correct, how can modern historians recognise all of these sexualities as one concept tostudy? However, sexuality is neither a transhistorical, nor utterly discontinuous. The modernwestern view of sexuality, in which people are divided into categories according to theobjects of their desire is, as discussed above, relatively new. Such a categorisation does notaccord with the classical Athenian sexuality, where sexual role rather than sexual object wasimportant, so that while an adult citizen male might have sexual relations with anyone of lower social status, he must have an active penetrative role, in accordance with his social position.
This lack of distinction made between sexual objects clearly demonstrates somevariation in different times and cultures in sexuality. Sexuality is not entirely discontinuouseither but gradually changing, as is demonstrated by Halperin himself, in the softening of his
Judith Butler,
 Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of sex
, (London, 1993), pp. 1-5.
The history of sexuality: Volume 1
, p. 38.
Valerie Traub, “The present future of Lesbian historiography”, in
 A companion to Lesbian, gay, bisexual,transgender and queer studies
, George E. Heggarty and Molly McGarry (eds.), (Oxford, 2007), pp. 124-145, pp.124, 139 and David M. Halperin,
 How to do the history of homosexuality
, (London, 2002), pp. 60, 105.
H.G. Cocks, and Matt Houlbrook, “Introduction”, in
 Palgrave advances in the modern history of sexuality
,H.G. Cocks and Matt Houlbrook (eds.), (Basingstoke, 2006), pp. 3-18, p. 9 and Voss, “Sexuality inarchaeology”, p. 45.
K.J. Dover, “Classical Greek attitudes to sexual behaviour” in
Sexuality and gender in the classical world 
,Laura K. McClure (ed.), (Oxford, 2002), pp. 19-33, p. 26 and Halperin, “Is there a history of sexuality?”, p. 418.3

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