12.10.27, Phillips and Reay, Sex before Sexuality

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Matthew M. Mesley

The Medieval Review 12.10.27

Phillips, Kim M. and Barry Reay. Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Themes in History. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 200. ISBN: 978-0-7456-2523-2.

Reviewed by:
Matthew M. Mesley
University of Zürich

Kim Phillips and Barry Reay, in their Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History, provide a concise and accessible scholarly synthesis on a topic whose historiographies are ever expanding and often specialist in nature. Moreover, they do so with a nuanced and critical eye to some of the conceptual baggage that modern historians can carry with them. Following in the path of James Schultz and Karma Lochrie, Sex before Sexuality restates the ways in which heterosexuality is often taken for granted in studies of the past, even while the concept is recognized to be as much a construct of the modern era as is homosexuality. Scholars have long acknowledged that earlier societies, such as that of Ancient Greece, conceptualized "same-sex" desires and acts as more or less acceptable according to different notions of gender, status, and power. Phillips and Reay highlight how, in various contexts, "heterosexuality" is still treated as the default classification. This has a number of repercussions--sex or desires, shared or expressed between men or between women, are isolated; they are discussed in relation to crime or deviance, or viewed as "other" or queer, rather than as sometimes part and parcel of pre-modern sexual cultures. Indeed, as they make clear, in the past "sex accommodated what we would term homosexual desire" (5).

Their message then is that we need to acknowledge the problematic nature of using contemporary categories of sexual identity in interpreting pre-modern texts and images. This argument is consistently well made, as is their attention to the complexity of meanings pre-modern sex and its depiction could be accorded. Throughout, their analysis stresses the discontinuities between pre-modern and modern sexual cultures, but they are careful to show that there was not a unitary conception of sexual behaviour in the past.

Their focus is also broad, covering as it does both the medieval and early modern periods; they explore not simply how same-sex (and opposite sex) acts were perceived in relation to legal and religious views of sodomy, but the various contexts in which two men or two women could communicate desire, erotic or otherwise. As might be apparent, it is sex, rather than sexuality, that is placed under the microscope here--for, as the authors argue pre-modern people did not apply sexual categories that are utilized today to delineate sexual preference. What is more, sexual desires or proclivities were not associated with specific sexual identities, although they might be used to speak of a particular kind or type of person. Their perspective is perhaps not radical--others certainly have warned of the dangers in using conceptual categories that presume or assume sexual identity--but their analysis is always engaging. Other terms, such as "same-sex," "desires," or the "erotic" could be (and have been) problematized, and the authors recognize that "sex" is itself a word that needs to be unpicked. However, the point that Phillips and Reay drive home is that a stark Foucauldian "acts vs. identity" dichotomy is avoidable; that we can recognize that women and men in the past had particular interests or tastes, or perhaps an awareness that they had a sexual inclination, but this needs to be investigated using the vocabulary employed at the time.

Turning to the chapters themselves, the first, "Sin," provides a useful overview of the ways in which sex was discussed by early Christian thinkers, but also sets out the actual social and cultural contexts in which sexual behaviour occurred in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Christian theologians conceptualized sexual desires and acts within a framework of sin and salvation; indeed, patristic thinkers might sometimes frame desires as more sinful than acts, for they viewed the former as a barrier to spiritual growth. The authors show, however, that not only was there a disconnect between discourse and practice, but also that specific thinkers should not be viewed as contributing to some overarching thesis of "development." As they go on to suggest, "efforts to cast sex as sinful were repeatedly fractured--by disagreement, dissent and considerations of gender" (19). Not only did the Church find itself disseminating competing messages about sex to both the laity and the clergy, reflecting in part the diversity of circumstances in which sex was discussed and policed, but within the clerical classes there were divergent and inconsistent views about sex and sexual behaviour. While there are a few awkward narrative transitions in their discussion, the authors do a good job of utilizing a range of recent scholarship to show the complexities of the Christian intellectual heritage about sex. Further, they demonstrate how discussions of desire and sexual sin were important, but not the only or determinant factor in conceptualizing the ideal Christian life.

Chapter 2, "Before Heterosexuality," discusses first the flexible nature of medieval attraction, suggesting that we would do well to interrogate the terminology used to describe sexual feelings or emotions. That said, most of the chapter makes the case for how central marriage was in medieval and early modern discussions of sex, and how sexual behaviour outside of marriage was framed in terms of its relationship to this "organising concept." Thus, for example, sex could be tolerated if it was pre-marital as long as a "fruitful" marriage was intended. An emphasis on marriage and also on reproduction however cannot be read simply as heterosexuality, because the relationship between marriage and sex was not structured around a sexual object choice (see p. 53). The significance of marriage also had consequences for how sexual behaviour was depicted or conceptualized--but other trajectories are also explored: gendered ideas about the body, and how this shaped attitudes towards sex, orgasm and reproduction are touched upon, as is how sex was also viewed in terms of class, status and power hierarchies. In such sexual regimes, what was accepted or at least tolerated for some could be viewed as beyond the pale for others.

In Chapter 3, "Between Men," the authors argue that male-to-male sexual interaction was not exclusive to a particular class of man, but was something that any man might engage in because "it was part of being sexual" (60). Following the work of David Halperin, the authors explore different areas in which male-male attraction, desires and acts have been situated--principally sodomy, male friendship, and effeminacy. Throughout they reiterate the ordinary nature of same-sex male sexual or affective interaction, but also that there were possibilities within these cultural systems to choose primarily or exclusively to have sex with men--and that this did not mean that such men viewed themselves as part of a separate group within society. Their discussion of male friendships is also particularly compelling, because they neither insist that the language used was always erotic nor do they write it off as having nothing to do with sexual feelings. As they make clear, the boundaries between friendship, intimacy, and desire are sometimes difficult to distinguish.

In the succeeding chapter, "Between Women," the authors first argue that to look for lesbians in pre-modern sources, or to seek out a "genealogy of lesbianism," limits the analysis before it is started. Instead, they suggest Valerie Traub's methodology is more helpful; Traub has looked at how contemporaries understood or framed visual and textual representations of women that expressed desire or intense emotions for each other. However, they suggest that intimacy between women may not have only been expressed in sexual ways, and that desire might encompass other types of relationships. The authors make clear in both this chapter and in the former that sexual behaviour was frequently interpreted according to shared cultural notions of what was deemed acceptable male or female sexual roles. Understandings of gender not only influenced the way certain sexual acts were discussed, but the people involved often understood their feelings or actions in terms of sexual difference, rather than in terms of sexual identity.

In "Before Pornography," the authors explore the ways in which what might be viewed as erotic stimuli in texts or images may have had diverse and conflicting meanings, and that we cannot assume the reaction of medieval or early modern audiences. Their central point is that it is wrong to equate the sexually explicit in texts and images with the erotic or sexually arousing. We miss out on meanings that could have had didactic or educational functions, or were concerned on one level with political critique or social commentary. All in all, the authors reiterate the problematic nature of using our own categories about pornography and its objectives, and applying this as the frame of reference in interpreting past sources. They argue that "medieval culture could incorporate a kind of useful obscenity" (119), which had more significance than simply a potential to shock or titillate.

In summary, this is a useful book that is both scholarly and entertaining (a combination that cannot always be taken for granted). If there were to be criticisms levied, these would be directed at a few minor issues which distracted this reader from an otherwise strong thesis and execution. The final chapter, for example, which is classified as an epilogue and is a fascinating survey of the ways in which sexual interactions between Western travellers and the inhabitants of the "New World" were conceptualized, is rather short and underdeveloped. More broadly, although I welcome their historicist and cogent reading of the primary and secondary material, the authors perhaps could have engaged more with queer scholarship or literary theory. Sometimes, the works of authors are used a little like straw men, even if it is an effective way to make their point. It might be interesting to see how historians could collaborate with, rather than set up against, those whose aims are a result of asking different questions about the sources. Yet I think the text also forces me to reflect upon my own ideas, and thus I squirm at the medicine Phillips and Reay rightly administer. In some ways it is difficult not to feel a sort of nostalgia for earlier scholarship--I share similar sentiments to Karma Lochrie, who wrote "my need to believe in medieval heteronormativity is still understandable for me, for if heterosexuality did not exist in the Middle Ages, what happens to deviant sexualities? How is resistance possible for queer scholars without a heteronormative whipping boy." [1] Even now I still question whether identity should be banished entirely from the medievalist lexicon; whether sex or sexual behaviour did not sometimes shape a person's conception and expression of themselves as an "individual," even if this was as an individual within particular social or cultural groupings. Setting these minor caveats aside, Phillips and Reay have delivered a very useful book which champions the idea that we should not be oblivious to the ways that modern assumptions can govern the way we view past sexual cultures. They argue persuasively for complexity and a plurality of interpretations; and their push to place discussion of pre-modern sex within its specific cultural and historical contexts, yet to explore this broadly in the light of previous scholarship is timely and welcome. --------


1. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn't (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), xiv. As Lochrie continues, "Relunctantly, and under protest, I have come to conclusions similar to Schultz's by way of different routes, and I hope others equally reluctant scholars will begin to relinquish their belief, as I did."

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Author Biography

Matthew M. Mesley

University of Zürich