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Theorizing Female Inversion: Sexology, Discipline, and Gender at the Fin de Siècle
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The question of how to theorize historical discourses of sex has received much critical attention since Foucault first developed his influential model of sexuality as the product of historical and socioeconomic contingency.1 Foucault’s approach has rightly been criticized for marginalizing issues of gender, as queer and feminist critics have turned attention to the complex intersections between concepts of sexual behavior and ideas of gender.2 Investigations of female sexuality in particular, ranging from the reconstructive lesbian histories of Martha Vicinus and others to the queer cultural histories of female gender advanced by Judith Halberstam, have complicated our understanding of how to theorize the experiential realities of historical sexual subjects whose words and thoughts have not always been preserved.3 These distinct, frequently opposing studies typically approach the theorization of sexological taxonomies in relation to ideas of modern sexual identity formation, importantly scrutinizing the impact and validity of identity labels and identifying gaps in existing histories of sexuality. But how can we understand the meanings of sexual concepts at the point of their inception? What does a historic semantics of sex tell us about the gendered emergence of sexual theory, including both the role of studies of female sexuality for the emergence of sexology and the contributions of women to the theorization of sex outside the scientific realm?

This article shifts attention from issues of sexual identity to questions of discipline formation, exploring the role of constructions of female sexuality in the making of a scientia sexualis as well as the theorization of inversion within feminist discourses of the later nineteenth century. It focuses on the notion of “sexual inversion,” a term denoting same-sex phenomena that emerged in debates around the foundation of a unified German Empire in 1871 and became hugely influential in same-sex writings published across Europe at the end of the century. In France, for example, Marc-André Raffalovich published his affirmative study of same-sex sexuality as L’uranisme: Inversion sexuelle congénitale (Uranism: Congenital Sexual Inversion), published in 1895, while the earliest English study of same-sex sexuality by John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis was first published in German translation as Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (Contrary Sexual Feeling) in 1896 before appearing in English in 1897 as Sexual Inversion. Gert Hekma has shown that within these sexological discourses inversion referred to the idea of same-sex sexuality as a kind of gender inversion.4 More recently, Claudia Breger has examined the meanings of “female inversion” at the turn of the twentieth century. She usefully suggests that to understand more fully the production of knowledge about gender and sexuality, including female contributions, we need to examine the scientific terminology alongside wider cultural metaphors of inversion.5 While Breger’s analysis is closely linked to current debates about identity and queer theory, the focus of my own investigation is on the making of a gendered sexual theory. I concentrate on the last decades of the nineteenth century, when concepts of inversion first circulated. I show that the discourse of male inversion was tied to the emergence of sexual identity, coined to describe male same-sex practices and overtly politicized in discourses of the emerging modern state. In contrast, female inversion was largely tied to issues of social rather than sexual difference, at least initially, and to the mapping of distinctly configured roles for men and women. Accordingly, a notion of inversion also played a role in broader cultural discourses around the so-called woman question of the 1880s and 1890s. Critics have documented how misogynist responses to emerging feminism typically focused on what they perceived to be the “mannishness” of the so-called New Woman. I suggest that feminists in turn appropriated a notion of female inversion understood as a form of rational female masculinity, formulating an affirmative feminist project that politicized gender but marginalized female same-sex sexuality.

The article addresses methodological as well as thematic questions by focusing on some of the distinctions and overlappings between German and English sexual discourses at the turn of the last century. The first section, “Perverse Positions, Reverse Positioning,” situates my work in relation to existing scholarship, explaining my approach, including its focus...

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