- Palgrave Advances in the Modern History of Sexuality
Palgrave Advances in the Modern History of Sexuality, as its somewhat clunky title implies, is intended to introduce graduate and advanced undergraduate students to the current key debates among scholars of the history of sexuality since the mid-eighteenth century. It speaks with an effective blend of authority and accessibility. The book is organized thematically, with eleven single-authored essays devoted to demography, sexology, law, marriage and reproduction, race and empire, cities, religion and spirituality, pornography and obscenity, prostitution, childhood, and transgender. [End Page 391] The editors are to be commended for assembling an impressive cohort of contributors, most of them acknowledged experts in the history of sexuality, and several contributors, while still providing an overview of a particular theme, illustrate their survey by drawing extensively on their own research. Consequently, students will be granted access to much of the most innovative and up-to-date scholarship in the field and will also be able to appreciate the extraordinary diversity that has characterized the methodological and interpretative approaches adopted by those engaged in the writing of the history of sexuality over the last three decades. Overall, the quality of the individual chapters is very high, although there is the inevitable unevenness that tends to afflict all edited collections.
In the volume's most effective contribution, Chris Waters provides an expertly nuanced introduction to the history of sexual science that rightly emphasizes sexology as a complex and contested social practice in need of rescuing from resilient myths that present it as either a heroic movement of sexual liberation or merely a refashioning of established prerogatives of control and regulation. Elizabeth Clement provides an equally astute essay on prostitution, using the history of commercial sex to explore the intersections between gender, morality, economics, and power. In contrast, one of the least successful chapters is Sarah Leonard's rambling survey of the historiography of pornography and obscenity, which might have been more usefully reconfigured as a broader discussion of the changing status of the erotic within popular and elite culture. Most chapters, however, provide a solid, often compelling introduction to their topic. For example, George Robb's essay on marital sex is a somewhat pedestrian survey, although it does include the important caveat that, while recent research has confirmed that Victorian marriages were more sexually active than was previously believed, it should not be taken as an indication that husbands and wives enjoyed sexual equality. Hera Cook's chapter on demography makes a sensible plea for the value of statistics (notably fertility data) in recovering the history of sexual behavior, especially when such evidence is deployed with other testimony. Her insistence, however, that the history of sexuality should eschew discourse in favor of a solid empirical foundation is compromised by her decision to dedicate a substantial portion of her essay to a digressive and highly speculative argument that nineteenth-century middle-class men regularly made use of the services of prostitutes. Harry Cocks opens his chapter with a necessary reminder of the continued importance of religion in shaping sexual behavior and values, repudiating simpler narratives in which legal, medical, or therapeutic authorities usurped that place from the end of the nineteenth century onward. However, such worthy declarations are undercut by the main body of his essay, which narrowly focuses on attitudes toward same-sex desire and has virtually nothing to say on the relationship [End Page 392] of religious belief to the issues of adultery, birth control, and abortion. Moreover, while he provides detailed coverage of nineteenth-century Anglican discourses on sexuality, he says nothing whatsoever about changing attitudes toward sexuality within the Catholic Church.
The fact that Cocks dedicates seven pages of his essay to the Oxford Movement while saying nothing about, for instance, Vatican II betrays a broader parochialism in the volume as a whole. The editors claim that their survey encompasses the history of European and American sexuality. However, the majority of the essayists are experts in British history...