- The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870–1930
Concepts of masculinity, which a generation ago seemed largely unproblematic, have become a major subject of historical inquiry, and the period that has aroused the most intense interest is the turn of the twentieth century, when a sense of crisis seized much of western Europe and North America. In The Trials of Masculinity Angus McLaren seeks to add to these investigations. Geographically, he roams from western Canada and the United States to central Europe, with a concentration on England and France. His subject is the social and cultural construction of the boundaries of normative masculinity—and the pivotal role in this process of the identification of various kinds of deviance. He identifies a range of legal trials in which issues of proper masculine character, conduct, and sexuality sharply emerged, and he uses these as points of entry into the swirl of opinions—popular and professional, legal, medical, and political—that such cases aroused.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, McLaren finds that in making judgments of character, judges and juries were swayed by arguments involving gender ideals (what was the “manly” thing to do?) as well as class ones (what was the “gentlemanly” thing to do?). Hence he believes that a key element in the English case of a matrimonial agency engaged in fraud was the derision that could be heaped upon the venal, foolish, and unprepossessing men who schemed to marry above their station. Turning from hapless suitors to seducers and bigamists, he discusses why remarriage could be viewed in both France and England as a greater moral danger than adultery, as well as why an Englishman aiding his lover in seeking an abortion could be convicted of murder.
In the sensational English trial of Kitson v. Playfair (1896), McLaren focuses upon a contest involving, among other questions, that of whether a doctor might rightfully betray a female patient’s confidence. In McLaren’s analysis, the case revolved less around a clear determination of professional ethics than around the ability of the plaintiff to portray an eminent physician as violating the canons of gentlemanly behavior toward a defenseless lady. From the heights of London society, McLaren then jumps to murder trials involving working-class men in rural British Columbia. In many cases, he contends, the outcome hinged on whether a defendant could convincingly argue that, in killing either a violent or a sexual aggressor, he had appropriately behaved “like a man.”
In the second half of the book the legal trials increasingly become medical controversies, as the determination of appropriate masculine conduct slides into the determination of the nature of normative male sexuality. Here McLaren takes up an issue that many scholars have pondered: whether sexual deviants of a variety of sorts—from “inverts” and “perverts,” to murderous “sadists,” to “exhibitionists” and “transvestites”—were discovered by anxious sexologists and authorities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or whether they were in important ways created by them. McLaren leans heavily toward the latter judgment as he recounts the barrage of both popular and professional, legal and medical commentary that simultaneously stigmatized and accorded special symbolic significance to men who seemingly refused to place themselves in appropriate relations to other men and to the “opposite” sex. [End Page 517]
This is an intriguing, imaginative study, though its geographical, topical, and contextual leaps result in a somewhat blurred vision. At times McLaren pushes his argument into reductive Foucauldian categories; then, as if anticipating criticism, he acknowledges greater complexities (as in the penultimate paragraph of the book, when he gestures to the varied motives of legal and medical professionals), without sufficiently developing these in the work as a whole.