- The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, vol. 1, The English Phallus, and: The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750, vol. 2, Queer Articulations
Thomas A. King’s two-volume The Gendering of Men, 1600–1750 offers a wonderfully rich, wide-ranging, and densely argued reconsideration of the emergence of gender and sexuality in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Indeed, so wide-ranging and densely argued are King’s volumes (which, together, comprise over eight hundred pages of text and detailed notes) that this short review will necessarily do an injustice to them; however, both volumes are highly recommended to anyone interested in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century English culture and in the historical formation of gender and sexuality as putatively “natural” categories.
King’s study begins with a seemingly straightforward observation: traditional patriarchal society never required an investment of power and entitlement in all men because they were men; indeed, as King reminds us via Randolph Trumbach, in traditional patriarchal society, not just women and children but most men were the property of other men. While that may seem a straightforward observation, no one, I think, has so thoroughly considered its implications. In a culture so fully structured by relationships of super- and subordination, one’s sense of place, of status, of self derived from one’s proximity to—that is, one’s subjection to and dependence upon—a [End Page 563] body of power, most notably, the monarch’s, a body of power that, in turn, conferred power. The achievement of (relative) power and status was thus a practice publicly enacted between bodies, not a quality privately originating in bodies. “Male entitlement,” King writes, “was therefore tenuous, limited to certain spaces and times, a privilege to be exercised and not a bond defining men as psychologically and ideologically equivalent. Men’s sense of selfhood, it follows, was not yet properly a gendered subjectivity, if by gender we mean the subjective experience and social enactment of oneself as a member of a natural group of sex” (1:5, emphasis in original). What King traces brilliantly are the ways in which the emergence of men as a “natural group of sex” was integral to the emergence of a privatized and universalized public sphere resistant to an older order of absolutist subjection; that is, the emergence of gender and sexual subjectivities was inseparable from the political transformations of the long eighteenth century.
While King builds on the work of previous scholars in the field, what sets his study apart, what makes it so surprisingly innovative, is his (re)introduction of the term “pederasty” to the discussion of the formation of modern genders and sexualities. As a form of same-sex behavior that is by definition dependent on asymmetrical relations of power, “pederasty,” for King, names “the erotic enactment of early modern subjection and thus its difference from a modern economy of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual subjectivities” (1:25). Pederasty, that is, was a form of same-sex behavior that functioned, not inevitably in opposition to order, but to reproduce and, thus, confirm a social and political order of super- and subordination; King is exceptionally persuasive, it seems to me, in demonstrating that we have misread what is actually evidence of pederasty in the historical record—accounts of James I’s favorites, libertine poetics, for example—as evidence of private, subjective desire between men. In reading scenes of pederasty as scenes of desire “between men,” we replicate the mystification performed by the emergence of gender (that is, the occlusion of relationships of subjection)—even when the emergence of gender is our object of study. In King’s account, the surprisingly prominent rejection of sodomy we find in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries should in fact be understood as a rejection of pederasty, which, in turn, should be understood as a rejection of absolutist subjection. What...