- Desire: A History of European Sexuality
Desire is tailor-made for a one-term survey course in the history of sexuality. In an attractive, clearly written volume of only 221 pages of text, Anna Clark has synthesized much of the influential work in the history of sexuality published in the last thirty years. After a brief theoretical introduction, the author weaves this wealth of material into eleven chronologically organized chapters that, for the most part, follow the conventional periodization of Western civilization curricula.
Clark breaks this longue durée story into three phases influenced by Foucault’s distinction between premodern and modern approaches to sexuality. Chapters 2 through 4 provide descriptions of the sexual ideologies of classical Athens and Rome, Judaism and early Christianity, and the Western Middle Ages. Chapters 5 through 8 switch focus from ways of thinking about sex to regimes of regulation, addressing successively the Middle Ages and Reformation, the colonial conquest of the Americas, the Enlightenment, and the Victorian era. Chapters 9 through 12 investigate the arrival of a loquacious sexual modernity, exploring the paradoxical consequences of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century efforts to define norms, harness sex for state building, and liberate humans through sex. Nowadays, Clark concludes, secular Westerners have foresworn belief in a natural desire that will set us free and have constructed in its stead a quasi-consumerist right to our pleasure.
In her treatment of premodern sexuality, Clark invokes a term she coined—“twilight moments”—to describe how ideas about sex shaped the actual behavior of individuals as revealed in judicial or inquisition sources. Twilight moments refer to “those sexual activities or desires which people are not supposed to engage in, but they do” (6). As a conceptual tool, twilight moments serve to describe those behaviors and desires neither culturally lauded nor utterly proscribed; examples covered in Desire include municipally regulated prostitution, homoeroticism in Renaissance Italy, and interracial sex in the Americas. As Clark has argued in this journal, the metaphor of twilight moments is useful to grasp a “gray area between the prescriptive ideal and the abject” where behaviors or desires were not quite tolerated but did not create stigmatized identities. The concept of twilight moments thus seeks to encompass the power to preserve social hierarchies engendered by secrecy, silence, and shame.1
Desire is admirable for its ability to synthesize so much material in an engaging and readable format. Endnotes and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter orient students toward solid scholarship and sources for further research. Inevitably, of course, covering so much in a [End Page 554] slim volume necessitates brisk summaries that lack the contextualization and nuance of the classic monographs and case studies from which Clark draws. While the concept of twilight moments is intended to improve upon the overly simplistic notion that premodern Europeans thought of acts rather than people as “deviant,” the term’s methodological significance is laid out very briefly in the introduction and will elude many readers. Also, students with little background in premodern history—probably much of the book’s audience—may react to the somewhat abrupt shift of focus toward “sexual regulation” in chapter 5 with the belief that it was somehow invented at that moment. It would have been helpful to include more attention to the nature of the sources available to historians and how they have shaped the kinds of stories we can tell. Nevertheless, these are less criticisms than opportunities for instructors to lead substantive discussions. This book will be a good starting place for those discussions.
1. Clark defined the concept in more detail in her “Twilight Moments,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 14, nos. 1/2 (2005): 139–60.