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  • Liberal Exclusions and Sex between Men in the Modern Era:Speculations on a Framework
  • Charles Upchurch (bio)

In 2006 Palgrave Macmillan published Palgrave Advances in the Modern History of Sexuality, drawing together a range of scholars to explore the diverse fields of interest within the study of the history of sexuality. This comprehensive and well-researched overview of the current state of the field draws attention to the many ways it has advanced and matured over the past decades, but in the process it also highlights one central idea that is still regularly reproduced as it was first written a generation ago. In tracing the history of the field, the introductory essay by editors H. G. Cocks and Matt Houlbrook soon arrives at the point in the second half of the nineteenth century when "psychologists, sexologists and other experts began to regard homosexuality not merely as a set of illicit or unnatural acts but as the symptom of a psychological state which governed the rest of the personality. In Foucault's famous words, the homosexual described at this time was 'a personage, a past, a case history . . . and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and a mysterious physiology.'"1 Cocks and Houlbrook are not alone in reproducing this passage, as it is cited in dozens of books and articles published within the last decade alone.2 [End Page 409]

Foucault's analysis in general and this passage specifically are still at the center of a great deal of work in the history of sexuality, although much has also been done, especially in the past ten years, to expand on and move past the framework he first sketched. Cocks and Houlbrook highlight much of this new work in their volume, with Cocks's contribution demonstrating that spiritualism in the late nineteenth century was an alternate site for the development of identities that might positively incorporate same-sex desire, independent of the medical analysis so central to Foucault's argument. Linda Dowling has shown how Hellenism provided a similar set of resources for individuals at Oxford in the same period.3 Harry Oosterhuis has added greater context to the observations of Foucault by demonstrating that the categories of the most influential work of sexology were shaped over time by a dialogue between doctor and patient.4 These arguments of Oosterhuis, Dowling, and Cocks call into question certain elements of Foucault's analysis by applying new bodies of source material to the questions raised by his work while still operating within a framework compatible with most of his arguments. Foucault is now regularly faulted for using evidence in an impressionistic way, for not subscribing to the rigors of accepted historical methodology, and for placing too much emphasis on the abstract accumulation of power by institutions as a causal factor in explanations.5 Institutions may have gained power over time due to the processes that Foucault has pointed to, but individuals working through institutions also had their own more concrete motivations. If from a distance this process seemed to result, for example, in the accruing of social power by the medical profession at the expense of the church, it should be counted as an insufficient and generic explanation of motivations.

As the scholars cited above are already proving, the task at hand for the historian should be neither to dismiss nor wholly to accept Foucault's theoretical framework but rather to use his observations as a potential starting point for the more rigorous investigation of the available evidence.6 Such theoretical frameworks can be guides to making sense of the sources, but in the end the historian must reconcile that evidence and the theory, always privileging the former to the latter.7 This article seeks to continue the work [End Page 410] of contextualizing the argument of Foucault cited above by approaching it from a different angle, following a new body of evidence, and reaching some new conclusions as a result.

The issue at the center of this investigation involves the reconciliation of evidence related to sex between men in the eighteenth century with the work that was done on homosexuality in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. David Halperin has put forward one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 409-431
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-28
Open Access
No
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