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  • The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America by Greta LaFleur
  • Kara M. French
The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America. By Greta LaFleur. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, 2018. 300 pages. Cloth, ebook.

The history of sexuality has long been characterized by two seemingly polarized scholarly impulses—the desire to understand human sexuality in its own terms, organic to the historic terrain in which it originated, and the search for a “usable past” (15) that can support movements for sexual liberation in the present. Greta LaFleur’s study of natural history and early American sexuality endeavors to satisfy both goals, with admirable and thought-provoking results. The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America takes on the not insignificant challenge of unearthing sex “before sexuality” (9) and decentered from the individual subject; in other words, sex and sexuality before the advent of modern sexual identities and the invention of the concept of homosexuality, which Michel Foucault canonically dated to 1869. To do so, LaFleur turns to natural historical sources unexplored by the history of sexuality, while also developing a new mode of reading sources centered on environmental influences rather than individual experiences. Her examination of natural history’s influence on other popular genres—such as Barbary captivity narratives, execution narratives, cross-dressing narratives, and anti-vice narratives—brings “environmental logic” (6) to the history of sexuality and shows how readers and writers of British North America believed that the natural environment provoked different sexual behaviors.

The genre of natural history was widely popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and an important medium by which many in the Atlantic world absorbed knowledge of colonial enterprises. Though LaFleur is clearly influenced by scholars of race who have mined discourses of natural history to understand emerging theories of racial difference, she is correct in stating that “natural history has received virtually no attention from historians of sexuality” (4). LaFleur uses the terms environmental and natural historical somewhat interchangeably, in a way that may seem unfamiliar to scholars of environmental history. To Lafleur, “environmental logic,” as articulated through the language of natural history, means that “the climatic, humoral, physical, and social milieu of the body was understood to be a determining force, at least as much as individual inclination” (6). Though her “environmental logic” of sexuality is thoroughly grounded in natural historical texts popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and this definition encompasses “the wide range of natural, physical, and social phenomena” (19) thought to influence the human body. This terminology is clearly defined for readers in the introduction, as well as the first chapter, which examines how sexuality was expressed through racial classifications in J. Hector St. John de [End Page 328] Crèvcoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), and the work of other natural historical writers.

After providing the basic vocabulary by which to read sexuality through the lens of natural history, chapter 2, “The Complexion of Sodomy,” deepens LaFleur’s analysis by examining sodomy’s “power as a racializing figure” (67) in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century captivity narratives. Though sodomy as a criminalized sexual act has been both a formative and perennial concept in the history of sexuality, its relationship to race making remains relatively under-studied. LaFleur interprets references to sodomy in Barbary captivity narratives as being inherently about British North America’s confrontation with Islam. White Christians contrasted themselves to “Turks” (1) and various Muslims by defining these external groups through their engagement in sodomitical practices. Narratives like that of English captive William Davis, who proclaimed the “‘Turks’ of Algiers” “altogether sodomites” (92), explained this difference by presenting sodomy as the product of environment, not merely a single sexual act or behavior; indeed, Davis considered the Turks to be “sodomites” (92) for their love of luxurious sleeping cushions and their thin linen breeches, not for their sexual practices. To Davis and captives like him, the former created the latter; excesses in luxury provoked excesses of all sorts. LaFleur presents a range of Anglo-American narratives that seemingly show a horror and fascination with Christian captives being stripped...


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pp. 328-331
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