Category Archives: sexuality

158: Carolyn de la Pena’s The Body Electric

In The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American, Carolyn de la Pena examines the relationship between bodies and machines in American from the 1850s to the 1950s.  Using novels, cartoons, trade mags, health fraud investigation records, newspapers, manuals, and other primary sources, de la Pena recovers a wide range of technologies and devices designed to restore the body to its natural state.  In doing so she shows how industrialization led not just to a reorganization and mechanization of production and society, but to a technologically-mediated experience of the body as well.

The Body Electric is divided into three general sections: Dudley Sarget and Gustav Zander’s weight-lifting machines and training programs designed to “balance” the body through uniform muscle development and “unblock” energy trapped within; technologies like electric belts, vibration devices, and magnetic collars (mostly from 1880 to 1930) that supposedly injected energy into the body to increase its reserve force; and radium (radioactive) waters that were taken as tonics and in baths to flood the body with heat and energy, mostly from 1902 to 1940.  Throughout, de la Pena examines the relationship between these technologies and gender (increasing male strength; electrically stimulating male sexuality; curing neurasthenia), class (upper classes went to gyms; middle classes bought a wide range of technologies; working classes bought radium dispensers), and race (a Dr. Pancoast at UPenn treated African Americans by applying x-rays for up to 15 minutes at a time “allegedly” to turn their skin white.)   She also shows how these treatments were often supported with the language of science: the laws of Thermodynamics; offsetting entropy; electric transfer; energy.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this book is that much of this “better living through technology” discourse held on until the atomic bomb, and some of it, like using physical fitness to cure neurasthenia, lives on in only slightly modified language today.


90: Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May shows how the Cold War policy of “containment” shaped and was shaped by the combination of anti-Communism and the 1950s cult of domesticity.  May builds her argument around the newly available (in the 1980s) Kelly Longitudinal Study, a 20-year psychological study of the development of personality in marriage that covered the 1930s through the 1950s and included some 600 informants, as well as movies, newspapers, popular magazines, and contemporaneous writings by professionals in various fields.  In doing so, she explains that the nuclear family became far more important for the white American middle class in the 1950s than it was at any other time in the 20th century because of a broader shift toward privatization and individualization of social ills in an age of profound national insecurity.

Per May, the 1950s were less about placid cultural stasis than they were about controlling potentially “explosive issues,” particularly sexuality and the bomb.  Because ‘fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of rapid social crisis,’ sexuality and the bomb became linked both visually (as with ‘bombshell’ Rita Hayworth’s image on the bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll) and culturally (as with crusades against homosexuals and pop culture fantasies of sex and violence).  Sex was forbidden to women outside of marriage, but once in a marriage, women were expected to be highly sexual, always-attractive partners, as though sex, like nuclear power, could simultaneously destroy and hold together families.  They were also expected to stay home with their children, in their own nucleated, sexually charged version of containment.

Within these restrictive suburban nuclei, many women, especially educated ones, felt isolated and insecure about their inability to live up to social expectations.  Unlike in the 1930s, however, in the 1950s people increasingly blamed themselves (instead of the larger system) for personal dissatisfaction, and the “therapeutic model” replaced political activism.  Because they contained sexuality and alienated women, families and the suburban homes in which they lived thus contained the seeds of the countercultural revolution.

While May’s sample is restricted to white, middle-class women and is thus not indicative of all women in the 1950s, she does effectively link cultural repression to the atomic insecurity that created it… and to the cultural explosion that it fomented.

80: Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town

In Wide Open Town, Nan Boyd argues that San Francisco’s bar-based queer culture was just as important to the development of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement there as were the city’s more mainstream activist groups.  The book relies primarily on some 40 oral histories with San Francisco bargoers, owners, and LGBT rights activists, as well as tourist guides, periodicals, clippings, photographs, and public records to construct (in often meticulous detail) a narrative of how the development of San Francisco’s gay scene swelled into a fight for civil rights.  Although the writing style is a bit heavy-handed at times, Boyd’s innovative research and methodology create a narrative that is anything but closed or canonical.  Rather, by limiting her scope to San Francisco before 1965 and structuring the book in terms of community formation rather than strict chronology, Boyd is able to open up the development of San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement and analyze (or characterize) it in terms of a variety of local contextual factors.  As she moves through topics as diverse as the gay male community, tourism, and female impersonation; the lesbian community, prostitution, and the female body; policing and the construction of homosexuality as behavior- versus desire-based; homophile activism and class-based differences over separatism and assimilation; and coalition-building, she explores the relationships between economics, use of space, police and media oppression, and the development of a community into a class-for-itself.  The result is a narrative that characterizes San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement as a multi-class, space- and place-dependent grassroots movement.  Boyd’s work thus argues that, for this movement in this place and time, “the politics of everyday life were every bit as important as the politics of organized social movement activism.” (242)

While Wide Open Town’s main argument effectively breaks down any “great man” narratives that might plague this particular social movement, the more fascinating elements of the book (by far) are the methodological tools and sub-arguments it uses to achieve its purpose.  Methodologically, Boyd’s emphasis on space and economics allow for an incredibly thorough analysis of the development of bar-based (grassroots) activism.  Her emphasis on space affects her argument in two ways: first, because she limits her analysis (and her conclusions) to a single city, she is able to include city-specific factors like the Gold Rush, local resistance to anti-prostitution and anti-liquor laws, the presence of the military (and the AFDCB) during WWII, and local politicians and court cases in her analysis.  She can thus investigate relationships between local factors that would be invisible at a national level but that would arguably (and demonstrably) have affected the character of local communities more than national or Federal laws and events might have.  Emphasizing space also allows her to consider particular spaces within the city, especially gay bars and clubs, and to show how the physical construction and concentration of these spaces (and their relationship to non-queer spaces) helped build community.  Her emphasis on economics also has profound effects on her analysis: by constructing bars and prostitution in terms of economics (as well as in spatial and moral terms) she is able to explain queer culture in San Francisco as persecuted socially but necessary economically – and thus, eventually, powerful politically.  The sub-arguments that develop from Boyd’s creative use of these methodological tools are, accordingly, powerful arguments in themselves.  She argues, for instance, that sex and race tourism protected gay spaces and gay economies even as they exploited them; that military targeting of gay bars in the 1950s actually fostered the development of separate gay spaces (and thus gay communities) rather than eliminating them; and that the development of lesbian social and geographic spaces was intimately bound up with prostitution and thus with  the policing of the female body (which explains, at least somewhat, the myth that lesbians do not concentrate geographically.)  Thus, Boyd’s innovative methodology and sub-arguments work to open up the narrative of the movement to a multitude of possible causes and implications.

While Boyd’s extensive research and innovative methodology definitely construct a new narrative of the beginnings of San Francisco’s gay rights movement, the book does face some organizational and methodological challenges.  Although Boyd clearly portrays a grassroots movement that does not rely on top-down activist groups, her writing style often paints a different picture.  She begins each chapter with an oral history that touches on some of the main themes of the chapter – thus indicating that her chapters are, in fact, organized around her data and not around her own theories – but the strong organizational tools and clear statements of thesis and conclusion at times seem to indicate a mistrust of the reader.  I can’t remember the last time that I complained about strong thesis sentences and conclusions, but sometimes Boyd seems to be so focused on driving home her point that the vast primary research on which that point is based takes a back seat to exposition.  Often, I found myself paying more attention to the structure of the book than to its content, which I think does Boyd a great disservice.  In addition, while Boyd’s decision to bound her study geographically and temporally really allows her to hone in on local bars, politicians, drag queens, regulatory bodies and activist groups, in some ways this boundedness does her a disservice as well.   Although she is able to pinpoint local factors affecting a movement, these boundaries keep her from providing much information about the movement in other cities or about its interaction with other civil rights movements.  The lack of this wider context is particularly evident with respect to the homophile movement’s emphasis on representation and assimilation.  I realize that the national stage is not the focus of her book, but stronger emphasis on connections to national movements (or even national media) could help the reader understand both the wider context her subjects would have had access to and the importance of investigating San Francisco’s bar-based culture.  

Despite these issues, Wide Open Town reads as a well-researched, well-thought-out book, and I really enjoyed Boyd’s analysis of a movement I previously knew little about.  And despite its relative disconnect from other social movements, the book does relate to several other works.  In its organization and methodological complexity, it bears a strong resemblance to Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, which is not surprising as both authors had Mari Jo Buhle as their dissertation advisor.  In its carefully bounded scope and focus on letting the sources develop the narrative – not to mention its emphasis on the grassroots element of a social movement – it aligns closely with works like Clay Carson’s In Struggle.  And in political theory, it likely relates to many works, but the one book it consistently reminds me of is Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox – not because Boyd advocates some abstract utopian political project, but because the tension Boyd sets up and resolves between bar-based and homophile cultures, where the bar-based communities want to be left alone to develop their own communities-in-themselves while the homophile societies speak in the assimilative language of individual civil rights, resonates so clearly with Mouffe’s concept of liberal democracy.  This book is an interesting contribution to the study of social movements, both in its subject matter and in its construction.

72: Jane Hunter’s Gospel of Gentility

In The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China, Jane Hunter argues that women missionaries in turn-of-the-century China were able to use missionary work to greatly expand women’s sphere even as they supported submissive roles for women and lived relatively circumscribed lives at the mission.  Hunter accesses this paradoxical construction of American womanhood in China primarily via the letters and private papers of some 40 female missionaries from different denominations who worked in China from 1900 to 1922, when some 60% of Protestant missionaries in China were women.  She also includes information from interviews and the archives of two mission boards.  Because their status as outsiders in Chinese culture throws the missionaries’ gender norms in high relief, the book highlights the feminization of Protestantism and the ways in which American womanhood intersected with work, religion, and cross-cultural exchanges.

Hunter is careful to stress that female missionaries in China had a wide variety of experiences and interpretation of gender constructs.  Often, the lives of female missionaries were spatially and culturally circumscribed: married female missionaries rarely left the domestic sphere of their home and children, and single women only occasionally made contact with potential “clients” for conversion.  Few female missionaries taught in languages other than English or attempted to learn Chinese, many refused to use Chinese artifacts, and many suspected Chinese servants of “contaminating” the minds of their children even as those same servants liberated them to do their missionary work.  Some found the insular, largely female world of the mission comforting, a welcome alternative to spinsterhood in America or a place to develop intimate same-sex relationships.  For most, the female missionaries thought the Chinese were a barbarous people badly in need of conversion, and many tried to recreate Victorian America in China.  And from what little we see of the Chinese, this last part – the American culture the missionaries embodied and recreated – was by far the most interesting.

While Hunter’s emphasis on letters home sometimes leads her to emphasize personal feelings over structural explanations, and more information on Chinese perceptions of the missionaries would definitely strengthen her analysis, her in-depth analysis of missionary communities in China provides a fascinating look into turn-of-the-century Protestant reform culture.  Less radical and more circumscribed than their peers in settlement houses in America, American women missionaries in China still banded together as middle-class women who wanted to reform the masses to protect themselves.  Like other books on reform during this time period, Gospel of Gentility suggests that the reformers themselves had more at stake than their potential reformees.


66: George Chauncey’s Gay New York

George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 uses archival and oral sources to debunk three myths about gay male culture in turn-of-the-century New York: the myth of isolation, the myth of invisibility, and the myth of internalization.  In doing so, he shows that a well-developed gay culture existed in New York long before Stonewall.  Further, by reconstructing the spaces, symbols, events and people that made up gay male culture from the turn of the century to WWII, he both establishes the social construction of a gay male identity and argues against any cultural analysis that posits linear progress or a liberation politics as a key component of this identity.

Chauncey studies the development of gay culture in four New York neighborhoods: the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Times Square, and tries to pinpoint the moments when a gay presence became visible in each.  He bases his argument on a huge quantity of primary materials, including police and trial records, diaries, documents from the District Attorney’s office and the city magistrate, records of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, the Committee of Fourteen, and anti-prostitution organizations, and old gossip sheets like the Broadway Brevities.  And the worlds that he meticulously reconstructs from this mountain of empirical data reveal several unique cultural patterns: gay rituals and institutions that foster a collective identity, gay migration patterns that parallel ethnic migration patterns, a kind of semiotic ingenuity that allowed many men to lead double lives, and a consistent definition of homosexuality as the passive acceptance of penetration rather than as a desire for someone of the same sex.  This behavior-based definition allowed working-class and middle-class men in modernizing New York to treat “fairies” in the same way that they would female prostitutes, while the myriad spaces of New York’s permissive sexual underworld (including the rooms at the YMCA) allowed for a flowering of gay sexualities and sexual expression, especially during Prohibition.  By the 1930s, pansy culture provided opportunities for voyeuristic escape from middle-class life, even as gay culture was increasingly seen as a threat to the post-Prohibition moral order.

 Throughout, Gay New York builds an interpretation of culture from empirical evidence about particular spaces, performances, people, and objects in New York.  Chauncey thus locates gay male culture in both a particular time and place and a particular social, economic, and cultural milieu: a modern New York grappling with the social upheaval of industrial capitalism.


53: Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s African-American Women’s History

In her 1992 article “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of race,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham argues that feminist scholars need to bring race into their analysis of social power.  Race for Higginbotham is both a “decentered complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle” AND a “metalanguage” that has a “powerful, all-encompassing effect on the construction and representation of other social and power relations.”  Integrating race and gender into a study of social power de-homogenizes both sides of the equation: racializing gender challenges the assumption that all women are the same, and gendering race challenges the assumption that all people of a particular race are the same.  Destabilizing these two categories also helps make other social divisions, like class, visible within them.  And all of this destabilization gives us a more nuanced picture of the relations of power in American society.

In the course of challenging the homogeneity of race and class, Higginbotham draws on plenty of cultural theory to analyze speeches and writings by black intellectuals and white feminist scholars, court cases, and histories of mostly 19th-century black experiences as well as some 20th-century examples.  In the process, she historicizes the development of race as a tool of oppression that is rooted in slavery; because race thus signifies the master/slave relationship, it exists as ideology on top of class and property relations and conditions gender and sexuality.  However, because race develops out of material relations of oppression between groups, it also serves as what Bakhtin calls a “double-voiced discourse:” race is simultaneously the language of black oppression AND black liberation.  And, recognizing the liberatory possibilities of racial discourse, Higginbotham concludes with a call for black female historians to write race into gender by writing histories that open up spaces for agency; we will become fully human in and through discourse.

While I’m concerned about what feels like a cherrypicking approach in her choice of examples, and even more concerned that she seems to be more interested in discourse than in real, material actions and places, I think her call to look for the intersections and divisions in race and gender as categories can lead to very productive thinking about power in a more holistic way.


33: D’Emilio & Freedman’s Intimate Matters

This one got a bit technical… oops 😉

John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman’s Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America has the modest goals of surveying the history of American sexuality from the colonial era to the present AND rewriting both American history and sexuality in the process.  The authors draw on mostly secondary sources  to make three main arguments: that political movements to change sexuality usually occur in the context of larger economic, social, and political upheavals; that gender inequality and sexual politics are inseparable, and that sexual politics develop out of both real and symbolic (or representational) issues.  They are also keep to connect individual sexuality with larger cultural constructions of it, and to show that struggles over empowerment and oppression outside the bedroom are often connected to those same struggles within it.

The authors divide their history of US sexuality into four periods, and trace continuities and ruptures within and among them.  (No, don’t worry, they don’t tell a story of slow but steady progress.)  These are:

  • 1600-1780: pre-industrial, colonial era supported sexual diversity and an emphasis on procreation and families that was supported by social and religious institutional regulation of extra-marital sex (though we know from Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale that unwed pregnancies were neither uncommon nor particularly forbidden, as long as the couple got married)
  • 1780-1880s: industrial capitalism pulled sexuality out of the family and into the marketplace with a wide variety of results, including an increased emphasis on romantic sexuality (and a decreased association between procreation and sexuality), which middle-class women supported because it gave them more autonomy; declining fertility among the white middle class; and a new interpretation of sexuality as the means to personal intimacy within marriage. Tolerance for nonmarital relations and sexual lifestyle experiments expanded.
  • late 19th and early 20th centuries: a “sexual revolution” in the middle class further separated sexuality and reproduction; working class sexuality was now prominently displayed in new dance halls, road houses, and amusement parks; same-sex sexuality became more visible; sexual expression got attached to personal gratification; and moral reformers showed a decrease in tolerance for sexual diversity, as evinced by moral crusades, lynchings, attacks on immigrants, and antiobscenity movements.
  • 1920s-1960s: after 1920, sexuality moved further into the commercial and public realms, so that sexual opportunities widened; eroticization and equalization of gender roles went hand in hand; increasingly visible youth culture dated and had sex; homosexual subcultures formed; new sexual culture valued freedom and diversity
  • 1970s-1980s: from the left, Hugh Hefner, feminists, gay libbers and other sexual libertines challenged the family in the 1970s; conservatives used the AIDS scare in the 1980s to crack down on sexual “permissiveness”; this combination led to extreme polarization.

This book was published in 1988, when available literature on sexuality was only just beginning to broaden its focus, so some of their sections are, sadly, overly dependent on white, middle-class New Englanders – who, as we know, represent everyone.  They also seem to think that sexuality is all about discourse rather than actual pleasure.  But they do work in material on black, Indian, and working class sexuality when they can; they integrate the cultural construction of sexuality into larger frameworks of social, economic, and cultural power; and they are wonderfully clear and easy to read.