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Reviewed by:
  • What is Sexual History? by Jeffrey Weeks
  • Emily Skidmore
What is Sexual History?, by Jeffrey Weeks. Cambridge & Malden, Polity Books, 2016. xi, 187 pp. $59.95 US (cloth), $19.95 US (paper) $15.99 US (e-book).

Jeffrey Weeks's What is Sexual History is the most recent addition to Polity Books' "What Is History?" series. Books in this series are designed to provide students with an overview of a given sub-discipline (in this case, this history of sexuality), and they are intended to offer a synopsis of the field's development, as well as the central areas of contention and debate. Jeffrey Weeks is an excellent choice to author such a volume on the history of sexuality, as he was one of the founding members of the field, having entered the academy in the 1970s after being involved in activist organizations, including the Gay Liberation Front (glf). This book follows many [End Page 660] others that Weeks has written, including Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century (Quartet, 1977), Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Society since 1800 (Longman, 1981), and Sexuality and its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities (Routledge, 1985). This most recent publication provides Weeks an opportunity to reflect on a field that he helped to establish, and yet it is not overly self-reflexive — in fact, he is rather modest in claiming his own role in the field.

For a slim volume, What is Sexual History? covers a great deal of ground, discussing a wide range of issues, and as such, serves as an excellent introduction to the field. Indeed, the book instantly grabs the reader by conveying the breadth of work that falls into the field of the history of sexuality; Weeks explains in the introduction that historians of sexuality discuss, "fertility, reproduction, birth control, abortion… celibacy, masturbation, fantasy, erotica, pornography and purity… transnational sex work as well as marriage (same-sex and other-sex), singleness as well as partnerships (couple and polyamorous), cohabitation and living apart, causal sex, abstinence, and asexuality" (3). The book then progresses across seven chapters, each of which contains Weeks's assessment of a particular moment of the field's development, from the rise of social constructionism in the 1970s and 1980s (discussed in chapter two), to the growth of gay and lesbian history and the subsequent rise of queer history in the 1990s (chapter three), to the "sex wars" (chapter four), to the globalization of sexual history (chapter six).

The book concludes with a final chapter titled "Memory, Community, and Voice," which reflects back on one of the central components of early histories of sexuality: connection to community. The field of the history of sexuality emerged out of activist commitments, many of its founders were independent scholars, activists, and junior faculty members who were self-consciously writing histories that might be useful to their communities. As the field has become established and more-or-less embraced by the academy, it is now possible for scholars to write books that speak only to academic audiences. Weeks's final chapter, then, is a reminder that histories of sexuality have an important role in communities, as well, arguing that "memory is a critical element in community practices, and is created and nourished through the establishment of sexual archives and giving voice to those denied it in the past" (10). Thus, even though the series in which this book appears is aimed at students, it contains useful reminders for scholars in the field, as well.

Overall, Weeks's What is Sexual History? is particularly well suited for teaching, as it introduces students to the field, provides an overview of the wide range of topics that scholars in the field engage with, and then ends with a collection of suggestions for further reading that is sure to [End Page 661] spark the imagination of those unacquainted with this scholarship. Furthermore, Weeks's writing is engaging and approachable, and the volume's slim size and low price-point suggests that this could be an excellent addition to a wide range of syllabi at the undergraduate level. Lucid and compelling, this book deserves wide readership. [End Page 662...


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