- Sex and the Gender Revolution. Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London
Randolph Trumbach’s study of an eighteenth-century gender revolution of momentous proportions concerns the restriction of conventional sexual identities for men and women in Britain. Before this transition, a variety of sexual activities occurring among different couplings of people fell within a large, undifferentiated [End Page 494] range: sodomy, masturbation, and non-penetrative sexual activities, along with penetrative reproductive heterosexuality, existed as options available to men and women as they moved through stages of life. In other words, no single, dominant set of practices fixed sexual identity as that located between a man and a woman aiming towards reproduction (compulsory heterosexuality); sexual activities between men, for example, either in groups or in couples, might occur during young adulthood and did not necessarily constitute a person’s identity according to exclusive categories. The existence of a libertine culture in the eighteenth century points to a distinctive attitude toward a wide-reaching enjoyment of sensual pleasure; yet, according to Trumbach, male libertinism itself underwent redefinition, as sexual activity eventually became limited to relations between men and women. The old version of sodomite libertinism, exemplified by Lord Rochester, was dying out by the first decades of the eighteenth century, replaced by exclusive heterosexuality. Sodomy became identified with a third gender, associated with a passive deviant male confined to the molly house. And everywhere, men felt called upon to prove a conventional masculine identity through three standards: heterosexuality, patriarchy, and romance.
This is a thumbnail sketch of Randolph Trumbach’s first volume of an ambitious and sustained exploration of sexuality in eighteenth-century London. His published work over the past two decades, focusing more on homosexual practices than the volume under consideration, has established Trumbach’s authority as an historian of sexuality, but the reader is reminded, too, of the fundamental structures laid out in his first book, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family (1977). His story also rests on a complex picture established by recent work of historians and literary scholars: the drive towards solidifying property relations through long-term marriages, the rise in cultural forms of romanticism buttressing the imaginative experience of love relationships; an increasing presence of urban institutions designed to regulate social life in the metropolis. His interest lies in relating sexual practices to structural shifts in authority and social class, a process extending from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. This broad outline pays homage to Lawrence Stone’s account of the eighteenth century, particularly given the interrelation between romantic relations and patriarchy. Yet Trumbach’s story is far more expansive, taking into account every level of society and showing the rise of romantic heterosexuality as an uphill struggle against all kinds of resistances. With psychological subtlety, Trumbach documents the shift in consciousness with copious quotations from prominent eighteenth-century figures, while bolstering his arguments with data culled from legal records representing a wide social spectrum. From this evidence, it appears that men of all classes complied with the heavy demands of exclusive heterosexuality with varying degrees of difficulty and only at great cost to the people around them.
Trumbach argues that escalating levels of prostitution and violence against women within and outside marriage (most of what he recounts here is marital violence) reflected an almost universal need for men to prove their masculinity through domination over women. At times, too, he implies that violent behavior and consorting with prostitutes demonstrated the repression of sexual desire for people other than wives or women in general. With meticulous care, he investigates the rise in extramarital sex and illegitimacy that accompanied the social [End Page 495] endorsement of exclusive romantic love confined to heterosexual marriage. By far the majority of the book (more than 300 of the 430 pages of text) is devoted to prostitution, illegitimacy, rape, adultery, and violence. Using detailed evidence from Consistory Court records concerning divorce, Trumbach recounts situations of appalling viciousness, generated by real-life melodrama...