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Dangerous Sexualities in Victorian England Judith R. Walkowitz (foreword by Catherine R. Stimpson). City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Women in Culture and Sodety series; Catherine R. Stimpson, series editor. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1992. xiv + 353 pp.; ill. ISBN (d): 0-226-87145-2; ISBN (pb): 0-226-87146-0. Ann Cvetkovich. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. χ + 227 pp. ISBN 0-8135-1856-3 (d); ISBN 0-8135-1857-1 (pb). James R. Kincaid. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. xi + 413 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-415-905958 . Thomas Prasch Sex is what we make of it. Sexuality may be natural, but its meanings are not. Sexual identity, difference, norms, dangers—all come by their meanings through culture and within culture through discourse, however much those meanings are made to seem natural by the mechanisms of culture. As an emphasis on the sodal construction of sexual meanings has increasingly dominated cultural studies, so historians influenced by critical theory have reshaped the questions they ask. They look to the past for points of tension between competing discourses, sites where the social construction of that which seems "natural" is most clear. And they look for the making of boundaries, ideas of taboo or danger, where they can see the drawing of lines around the acceptable boundaries that define norms of sexual identity and behavior against an other, and where, perhaps, they can hope to explain why at that point in time the line gets drawn just there. The three books under review share not only the common territory of Vidorian sexuality, but also the premise that sexuality is sodally construded . Thus, for Judith Walkowitz, the sexual dangers for women of the urban landscape is a produd of mass-media campaigns in the 1880s that culminate with the Ripper scare. For James Kincaid, the differences between Vidorian ideas of the erotic child and of the child lover and our own suggest that both are construded. For Ann Cvetkovich, the emotional affert assodated with femininity and with the sensation novels of the 1860s is produced by the novels themselves. This basic premise entails several corollary assumptions. First, the assertion that sexuality is sodally construded implies a politics, insisting © 1994 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. ι (Spring) 88 Journal of Women's History Spring that we see in that construction the operation of power. The ability to control discourse is itself, as suggested by Michel Foucault (whose work strongly influences the books under review), a mechanism of power central , in fact, to the production of power. Further, definitions of sexual boundaries create margins and others. Thus the power to define boundaries is always, for those defined outside of them, disempowering. Second, the process of sodal construction works discursively, and thus leaves its marks in texts. Where there are shifting constructions and changing boundaries of sexuality, the texts themselves will bear the signs of conflid. The historian's task, then, is to read texts for the discursive struggles they reveal. A third, less obvious corollary, but one made central by all three authors under review, is that history is necessarily diachronic, as much about the present as the past. The corollary follows from Foucault's insistence that there is no place outside of discourse, no "objective" site from which to observe. Because historians exist within and contribute to contemporary discourse, the questions they look to answer about the past reflect that discourse. That is, after all, why new histories must always be written: because the questions change, and our map of the past changes with them. AU three authors highlight this dynamic by anchoring their investigations in present conflicts. Walkowitz sees the rhetoric of sexual danger still limiting women's access to public spaces; Cvetkovich connects the problems of the politics of affect both to contemporary feminist issues and to AIDS activism; and Kincaid perpetually plays Victorian conceptions of the child against the pedophilic taboos of today. All three books, then, demonstrate the uses of theoretical conceptions of social construction to historical research on sexuality, although each...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 87-97
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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