Is sex a suitable historical subject?

Should historians study the history sex? For many people it is not immediately obvious that sex is an appropriate historical subject. Several reasons might be raised against it. Addressing such objections is a way of sharpening our understanding of just why sex is a valid and important topic for historical consideration. I will pose three potential objections and my response to each of them.

1. Sex belongs to biology rather than history

The assumptions lying behind this objection are: (1) sex is an unchanging biological human characteristic; (2) historians deal above all with change over time. Although it might be acknowledged that sex is an essential feature of humanity (for without it there would be no human beings), from an historian’s point of view it is uninteresting since it is a biological constant: sex and human reproduction remain fundamentally the same acts and processes today as they have done for many millennia and hence there is little to be learnt about sex by studying it in history.

The problem with this argument is that it is founded on an extremely narrow understanding of what sex is. Manifestly sex is crucial to human reproduction, but to consider sex solely in terms of its reproductive role would be absurdly reductionist. Humans have sex for many reasons: pleasure and attraction are examples of physical reasons; there are emotional motivations such as to strengthen the bonds of a relationship or to affirm love; there are reasons associated with power, either expressing it, exerting it or gaining it; sex may amount to a transaction, for example as a means to gain money, a job, experience, confidence, status, reputation or prestige; sex may be used to retaliate against someone, to punish somebody, to gain revenge, or to stake a claim over someone; it may result from social pressure, emotional or physical coercion, boredom, or a wish to have a spiritual experience. In short, human sexual behaviour stems from various and highly complex factors, and these are not limited to biology and psychology—they also encompass social and cultural factors. (Further consideration of the reasons why humans have sex can be found here.)

Sex is (typically) an act performed alone or between two or more individuals, but it is always occurring within a social and cultural context. Hence it is loaded with social and cultural meaning. To masturbate, for example, is to engage in an act about which there is a large body of commentary over such things as its supposed relationship to individual sexual and psychological health or its wider social and cultural perception. Society and culture change over time, and hence the meaning attached to human sexual behaviour, and indeed the behaviour itself, also changes. For example, the social acceptability of same-sex acts or casual sex varies according to time and place; at certain points in history such acts were viewed as sinful and those committing them subject to punishment, whereas at other points they may be socially acceptable (although stigma may still attach to them). Layers of meaning accompany sex—sex is never simply a biological necessity, any more than eating can be reduced solely to a biological necessity (restaurants, dinner parties, seating arrangements at the dinner table, etiquette, the use of cutlery, recipe books, cookery programmes, dieting, feasting, fasting, forbidden foods—these are just some of the signifiers of social and cultural meaning that accompany the basic necessity that humans need to eat). And, as examples of how both eating and sex may constitute complex behaviour and strategy, it may be remarked that paying for an expensive meal may a strategic means to have sex; or sex may be the strategic route to receive an expensive meal.

The recognition that sex is a complex form of human behaviour, that it always occurs within a specific social and cultural context and that it is loaded with social and cultural meaning opens the way to its historical study. Historians concern themselves with all forms of human behaviour and all human groups (long gone are the days when history was primarily about kings, queens, wars and high politics). And we are particularly interested in the study of society and culture, social change and cultural change. Various historical questions arise from these concerns when considering sex. Above all, we may ask what the impact on sexual behaviour has been by, among other things: changing technology, the emergence of mass culture, urbanization, improvements to medical care, increased knowledge about sexual diseases, the decline of the Church, increased literacy, the advent of contraception, feminism, multiculturalism, capitalism, and widening geographical and social mobility.

The multifaceted social and cultural meaning attached to sex suggests that sex is more than just an act. It is also thought; indeed, most sex takes place in the head, and far more time is spent thinking about sex than engaged in its act. The way we think about and reflect upon sex is shaped by various factors: social background and upbringing, education, morality, law, media, culture, peer groups, to name a few. Again, all these are subject to historical change, and hence the way humans think about sex is also subject to historical change.

To regard sex as a biological (or psychological) constant is clearly to take an excessively limited view of it. Indeed it may be the case that by far the most interesting and useful study of sex is sociological and historical.

2. There is insufficient evidence for sex to be the subject of historical inquiry

There are clearly obstacles to understanding sexual behaviour: most sex is private, and few people leave any record of their sexual behaviour beyond the obvious evidence of offspring. For students of modern (above all, twentieth-century) sexual behaviour the situation is actually very promising: sex has been the subject of extensive social, anthropological and psychological research over the past century (examples include the Kinsey Reports on male and female sexual behaviour (1948 and 1953) or the various reports of Shere Hite). Furthermore, in the relatively more ‘open’ culture of the contemporary world, it is not hard to find numerous frank accounts of sexual behaviour in diaries, memoirs, media interviews, etc.

For the historian interested in pre-twentieth-century sex, however, there are obvious difficulties. The occasional diary or memoir recording sexual behaviour is the extremely rare exception, and as such is of questionable value as evidence typifying the wider society from which it comes. In most cases historians lack any direct evidence of the behaviour, thought or feelings of the overwhelming majority of people who lived in the past. But this is not an unusual problem confronting the historian; if historians were deterred by lack of direct evidence then much of the past would remain forever a blank.

There are in fact various sources the historian may consult. In addition to the occasional diary, letter or biography, evidence of sexual behaviour can be found in the records of both secular and ecclesiastical courts. Other administrative documents (such as parish records in England) provide evidence for marriages and baptisms, and can often help in our knowledge of the prevalence of pre-marital sex. Arguably richer evidence can be found when we turn to understanding in greater depth the social and cultural meaning of sex. Images such as prints and paintings, as well as other cultural artefacts, can be interpreted as expressions of the values and beliefs about sex; so too literary texts, moral and legal treatises, and theological and philosophical works. The cultural and intellectual historian is well-versed in the interdisciplinary use of a variety of evidence in order to reconstruct the mentalities, assumptions, value- and belief-systems of the past.

Sex is no more hampered by a lack of evidence than many other historical topics; indeed, the fact that sex is such an essential and universal aspect of human behaviour means that there are probably more evidential traces of sexual behaviour, and more examples of thought about and representation of sex, than is the case for many other subjects.

3. Sex is an indelicate subject

Undoubtedly many people find sex an embarrassing or uncomfortable subject. It would have occurred to very few people before the mid twentieth century that sex might be an appropriate topic of historical inquiry; most scholars would have considered sex to be an indecent focus of intellectual inquiry. That in itself raises interesting historical questions: why was sex regarded as a distasteful subject by historians (and indeed by most other scholars)? And why are courses on the history of sex now to be found in most history departments? What has brought about this striking shift in attitudes?

However, for those who do regard sex as an indelicate subject and feel that an apology needs to accompany its study, it is worth quoting an aphorism from Francis Bacon’s Novum organum (1620), a philosophical treatise concerned with how knowledge and understanding can be advanced:

But with reference to the vileness or even the ugliness of things, which (as Pliny says) must be brought in with an apology, such things must be taken into natural history no less than the finest and most precious. For natural history is not thereby defiled. For the Sun enters sewers as much as palaces but still stays clean. Besides, I erect and dedicate no Capitoline pyramid to human pride, but lay in the human intellect the foundations of a sacred shrine to the pattern of the world. And that is the pattern I follow; for what is worthy of existence is worthy of knowledge which is the image of existence, and things vile subsist as much as fine ones do. Indeed, just as the finest perfumes are sometimes produced from putrid substances such as musk and civet, so too are splendid light and information sometimes given off by vile and sordid instances. But that is quite enough of that, since this kind of squeamishness is manifestly childish and effeminate. (I.120; trans. by Graham Rees)

Fortunately we live in an age in which few people demand such an apologetic justification for studying sex.