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When Sex Became Science

Monday, February 4, 2019 - 07:00

One of the consequences of lining up a set of all relevant articles from a single source is that I end up covering articles that are marginal to my personal interests--and keep in mind that this project is largely diven by what I personally find interesting. (If people want me to focus on things I find boring, they'd have to pay me a lot of money to do so.) In the case of the Journal of the History of Sexuality this means a group of articles about the field of sexology, as it developed in the late 19th century. (Once the topics move into the early 20th century, I consider myself authorized to skip them, since that's how I set up the focus of the Project.)

In the next several blogs, expect some of my impatience and frustration with "sexology" to leak out around the edges. Expecially when it comes to the misogyny that was embedded in the history of the field. But even more than impatience with the field of sexology itself, I'm frustrated by how often people today will repeat the myth that the sexologiests "invented" homosexuality. While there are narrow and rigid definitions by which that claim might be considered true, in the popular imagination it gets interpreted as meaning that same-sex love didn't really exist before the late 19th century. That there were no women who loved women or men who loved men, there were just some random physical practices and some conventional social performances that wishful thinking tries to associate with modern homosexual identities.

If there's only one message I hope to spread via this blog, it is that taking that sort of narrow definition requires a fairly willful erasure of the earlier evidence for ways of being that have clear connections to modern queer identities of all types. So bear with me for a few weeks while I tick the sexology articles off the list. Then we can get back to the fun stuff again.

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Bauer, Heiki. 2009. “Theorizing Female Inversion: Sexology, Discipline, and Gender at the Fin de Siècle” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 18:1 pp.84-102

Bauer examines the discourse around female homosexuality at the turn of the 20th century in the context of the discipline of “sexology”, i.e., the supposedly scientific study of sexual desire and expression. Bauer points out that the dominant Foucaultian approach to historical understandings of sexuality has in many ways marginalized issues of gender, centering the male experience as the default. How does this gendering of sexual theory affect the ways in which sexuality is understood and studied? Rather than focusing on questions of sexual identity, this article looks at how the field of sexology developed, and on the concept of “sexual inversion” as applied differently to men’s and women’s experience.

The concept and term “sexual inversion” begins appearing in psychological literature in the 1870s in Germany and somewhat later in French and English literature. The basic concept is understanding same-sex sexuality as a disorder of gender identity (an “inversion” of gender norms). To understand how this affected the field of sexology, one must study the concepts and metaphors that were invoked by this language. Focusing on the last decades of the 19th century, Bauer shows how the discourse around male “inversion” was tied to issues of sexual identity and sexual practice, and politicized with respect to the emerging ideas about the state. In contrast, ideas about female “inversion” focused on social rather than sexual difference, and on the idea of distinct and separate roles for women, and women in society.

Misogynist reactions to the feminist ideas emerging in the late 19th century highlighted the concept of the “mannish” woman (under the rubric “The New Woman”). Feminists picked up a version of that concept, framing a type of affirmative female masculinity that marginalized same-sex sexuality.

Envisioning homosexuality in terms of gender “inversion” relies on a concept of fixed, binary gender roles that can be reversed (and can be identified as being reversed). But much of the early sexological literature focused solely on male subjects, treating women as an afterthought, if at all. This overlooked the interrelationship of female inversion with feminist principles and the place that masculinity held within that context.

Further, the developing discourse around male homosexuality included the participation of male homosexuals themselves, who had a stake in shaping how the field developed. In contrast, female homosexuals initially participated as passive subjects (topics of study) and not as participants in the emerging philosophical debate. Thus, studies of women who self-identified as “inverts” tend to focus on a later period (especially post-WWI Europe).

The concept of “sexual inversion” referred to a range of behaviors that intersected with, but was not congruent with, homosexuality. Later theorists note that this interplay of topics has sometimes divided the field between historical surveys of behavior and identity that sidestep theorizing, and theoretical models that fail to align with historic realities. Others argue that rather than critiquing the inadequacy of sexological categorization, the very idea of classification should be critiqued. Existing histories of sexuality that derive from male-focused theories often miss gendered gaps in the historic record, as when phenomena that are identified as “new developments” from a male perspective can be found at earlier periods within a female context.

One approach to address these gaps is to study the types of sexual knowledge that were in circulation at different historic periods. Another approach (which Bauer takes) is to examine how the structuring of debate around sexuality works to marginalize women’s experiences and especially women’s same-sex experiences. While sexological literature about female inverts focused on sexual intercourse (or the desire for it), it had little place for the “feminist” invert who used masculinity to critique cultural metaphors for gender.

The next section of the article discusses the interplay between theories of male sexual inversion and the political context of modern nation formation and how both masculinity and femininity were conceptualized in that process. Socio-political concepts themselves were gendered, with cultural or linguistic nationality being viewed as feminine while male sexuality was associated with statehood and political nationalism. Within this context, women who had sex with women were both legally invisible and not a threat to the concept of statehood that was under debate.

There follows an in-depth discussion of the work of Krafft-Ebing and how it distinguished psycho/physiological “inversion” from same-sex sexual activity. Krafft-Ebing argued for a parallel understanding of male and female sexual functions as part of his logical arguments against criminalizing sex between men, in the process undermining the previous idea that women were not capable of committing “real” sexual acts together. Part of his argument was that, given that men's and women’s same-sex acts are equivalent, and given that women have been engaging in same-sex acts throughout history, but that women’s same-sex acts have typically not been criminalized, then men’s same-sex acts should not be criminalized either. [Note: I’m vastly oversimplifying my understanding of the argument here.] However this argument overlooks the significant social and legal differences in the treatment of men and women throughout history (never mind the differences in their sexual practices).

Women began participating more in the theorization of sex in the first decade of the 20th century (see, e.g., the German novel Sind es Frauen? (Are They Women?)). These women’s voices treated the subject of gender and sexuality with more fluidity and as more intertwined with feminism than men had. In the period between the two World Wars, the image of the “mannish” New Woman (as exemplified in Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness) became the popular model for female homosexuality. But in embracing the concept of a gender binary that could be reversed, in some ways this image marginalized same-sex desire, turning it into a pseudo-heterosexuality. As a political strategy, it was unsuccessful (some argue) precisely because it was associated with anti-feminist stereotypes. (Feminists had been subject to political attacks on the basis of being “mannish” since well before this era.)

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