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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 148-159

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Looking Back:

Scholarship in Early American Sex

A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America. Edited by Janet Moore Lindman and Michele Lise Tarter. Cornell University Press, 2001.
Anne Orthwood's Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia. By John Ruston Pagan. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Sexual Revolution in Early America. By Richard Godbeer. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

"The golden age of cultural theory is long past," Terry Eagleton declares in his new book, After Theory (1). Today, scholars seem to be writing about bodies instead of big ideas; as Eagleton puts it, "an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing" (2). Eagleton is onto something; much recent scholarship does focus on the body, sex, or sexuality. But he is wrong to lament the fact. In the arena of sex and the body, the work of cultural theory is bearing its first real fruits. We are in the midst of a sea change in social and political attitudes toward sex and sexuality, and scholars lead the vanguard. Sex scholarship is changing the world.

On 26 June 2003, the US Supreme Court handed down a judgment in Lawrence et al. v. Texas that legalized homosexuality as well as homosexual conduct. The decision was based explicitly on a new understanding of the importance of history in matters of sexuality. Asubsequent state supreme court decision in Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage.

The Lawrence decision drew on a brief filed by a coalition of American historians. When it was announced, historian John D'Emilio, one of the authors of the brief, commented with delight that "History matters!" (Organization of American Historians). To be precise, the history of sexuality matters; the work of George Chauncey, Nancy F. Cott, D'Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman, Thomas C. Holt, John Howard, Lynn Hunt, Mark D. Jordan, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, and Linda P. Kerber, the authors of the amicus brief, has had a clear impact on American law and society. Each of these scholars has written important books on sex, sexuality, gender, homosexuality, lesbian history, or the history of the family. Their brief, which will be required reading in undergraduate courses on the history of sexuality, is a remarkably concise, cogent, and persuasive argument. It is also evidence that the scholarly study of sex and sexuality is important work.

In this essay, I focus on scholarship in early American sex, which is not only a cornerstone of the Lawrence decision but which [End Page 148] is also of key importance to the developing field of sex studies. The great insight of the field is that sexual culture changes over time; this conclusion could not be supported without historical investigation of the sexual sensibilities before ours.

One of the most significant areas of scholarship in this decade has been work that looks back at the history of sexuality. Tracy Fessendon, Nicholas F. Radel, and Magdalena Zaborowski describe this work as the effort to give "concrete shape to the significant Foucauldian insight that sex has a history" (4). All of this historical and cultural work is partly based on Michel Foucault's writings about sexuality, although it is hard to believe that the notion that sex is a historical phenomenon could possibly originate anywhere. We could trace out many genealogies for the historical model of sexuality (including a feminist genealogy that might start with Gayle Rubin rather than Foucault), but the Lawrence decision is probably the most concrete expression of it, while the historiography of the decision itself offers a fascinating synopsis of the progress of the field.

Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion, which declares that laws prohibiting homosexual sodomy are unconstitutional, reversed the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision which had determined that the right "to engage in sodomy" was not protected by the federal Constitution. The Kennedy opinion cites amicus briefs prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cato Institute as well as the coalition of historians. The finding quotes D'Emilio and Freedman's Intimate Matters (1988), along...


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