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Reviewed by:
  • What Is Sexual History? by Jeffrey Weeks
  • Robert A. Nye
What Is Sexual History? By Jeffrey Weeks. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. Pp. 180. $16.00 (paper).

Jeffrey Weeks is perfectly positioned to write a comprehensive history and analysis of the history of sexuality. He was an early activist and chronicler of the gay liberation movement in the UK. He trained as a sociologist, but his first books on sexology and the politics of the homosexual rights movements in Britain had a distinctly historical perspective. His first book on the history and regulation of sexuality in Britain from 1800 to the present came out in 1981, and several more volumes on the history of sexuality, gender, and sexual morality have followed. However, he has not lost touch with other activists and with their efforts to preserve the memories and mementos of the last fifty years of political struggle. This book is meant to be a general short introduction to the field; it is both an academic historiography based on a broad array of primary and secondary sources and a history from below that draws on the memories and lived experiences of the author and his contemporaries. The text is 130 pages, but the notes and suggestions for further reading add another 45 pages. [End Page 126]

Weeks frames his history of sexuality broadly as comprising the materiality of bodies and reproduction, technology, law, health, class, and race, as well as the consciousness, desires, and emotions—sexual and political—of the successive generations that have lived through the last half-century. He stresses that historians and historical actors alike make use of narratives for understanding the past that are shaped in part by the most urgent questions of the present but that our present identities are shaped by social and cultural structures of long standing. These two perspectives, Weeks argues, must be considered equally in a history of the recent past. Perhaps unconsciously paraphrasing Karl Marx, Weeks argues that "we make our own histories, but rarely in circumstances of our own choosing" (5).1

In methodological matters, Weeks acknowledges the importance of theory in illuminating the complex ways that bodies, identity, and emotions are permeated with the discursive power relations of politics, class, and gender hierarchies and constructed in their social and cultural contexts. Sexual history is more than who did what to whom—it is also a history of representations. But Weeks is skeptical of history that relies on theoretical foundations alone; sexual histories must begin with family and demographic history, and they must consider the contemporary normative and nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality and the influence of new technologies. Yet, sexual history should be less concerned with how these material categories change over time "than with the shifting patterns through which gender and sexual meanings are produced, the emotions they invoke, and the constant interactions of a complex present and a living past" (66).

Starting with the militancy of the first generation that actively resisted heterosexual norms and legal standards in the 1960s, Weeks shows how successive generations of nonnormative sexual "others" have gradually loosened the notions of personal identity that were so crucial in that rebellious decade. The conceptions and limits of sexual orientation have become more fluid, as have those of gender identity. Gender performativity and queer theory have become common features in theorizing about sexual and gender ontologies. At the same time, Weeks is quite clear about the ways that heteronormativity has also been systematically reconfigured to realign and reassert the standard of norm and exception in order to preserve a binary status quo. We are still very far, he suggests, from a society of diversity in which all individuals are treated equally and feel themselves to be equal. [End Page 127]

Weeks has two informative chapters on the mainstreaming and the globalization of sexual history. Courses, texts, videos, and other cultural materials on sexuality are now regularly offered in history, social science, philosophy, and literature courses in higher education. Specialized journals in sexuality studies are flourishing, and most interdisciplinary approaches to the subject have found historical analysis to be an indispensable tool for understanding the sexual past and in accounting for...


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pp. 126-128
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