Virtual Special Issue

Virtual Special Issue: History of Sexualities


By Matt Cook and Marybeth Hamilton

This Virtual Issue of History Workshop Journal brings together eighteen articles on the history of sexualities, selected from the many pieces published on the topic in the years since the journal’s inception.

Histories of sexuality and of gender were woven into the fabric of the History Workshop project from the outset. Many of the founding editors came together at the first Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1970; three years later, the seventh history workshop at Ruskin – on women’s history – included a range of papers touching on dimensions of sexuality and sexual control. From the moment of its founding, the History Workshop collective was braced by intersecting historic and personal passions; there were three couples amongst the founding editors. Throughout the decades there has been a mix of sexualities, with little sense for gay and lesbian editors of the personal or professional marginalization some found away from the collective.

Image from George Sims, Living London (1901). “Backstage at the Holborn Theatre”.

The history of sexuality didn’t have to fight for legitimacy in the journal: work on that topic was appearing within its pages and in conversation with other strands of socialist and feminist history well before the sub discipline became more established in university history departments in fits and starts from (roughly) the mid 1990s. That the history of sexuality proved integral to the journal owed in large part to the imperatives of the History Workshop project and it is no accident that among the pieces collected in this issue are several authored by members of the editorial collective (Weeks, Mason, Bray, Roper, Hamilton, Summers, Khan, and Matt Cook). In the words of the editorial that opened the first issue, the movement aimed to bring “the boundaries of history closer to people’s lives”, and in the era of the journal’s founding, that meant exploring the politics of sex. History Workshop emerged in parallel with revolutionary upheavals in sexual practice, identity, and politics – upheavals that stressed the political dimensions of even the most personal experience. This context shaped perceptions of what counted as “history” and what purposes the practice of history might serve.

For many contributors, the purpose of historical research involved a recovery of forgotten legacies, explorations of the lives of radical predecessors who navigated the sometimes treacherous currents of sex. Francoise Basch finds such a resource in the work of nineteenth-century American women’s rights campaigners whose activism historians often dismissed as mere liberal reformism but that had at its core a searing and startlingly plainspoken critique of marriage as legalized “sexual slavery”. Anne Summers explores the visionary internationalism of the British activist Josephine Butler, whose campaigns against state-regulated prostitution proved far more subtle and attuned to the rights of prostitute women than the simple label “social purity” might suggest. Tim Mason’s reflections on Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to her lover Leo Jogiches delve into one woman’s struggles to create a fully mutual, deeply engaged political, emotional and sexual partnership. What makes Mason’s piece so powerfully affecting is its rueful acknowledgement of the demands that the correspondence make on the historian’s own subjectivity. Luxemburg’s intimate struggles, he suggests, remained just as relevant in the early 1980s, despite the fact that men and women now have “an openly erotic vocabulary” to articulate their desires, along with “serried ranks of social and psychological generalisations against which to test our personal relationships and to help us in articulating them with our political goals. (“How much do they help?”).

Yet if the past could offer inspiration, it also abounded in cautionary tales. Judith Walkowitz’s examination of British women’s campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts explores how a movement to combat women’s sexual victimization ended up empowering forces of sexual repression and control. That story of unintended consequences, she suggests, had direct implications for then-current feminist campaigns against pornography and sexual violence, which were already playing into the hands of the Moral Majority and the New Right. For her part, Hera Cook casts a critical eye on feminist histories of contraception, which she argues were too quick to write off the revolutionary impact of the birth control pill and to frame it instead as a technology of patriarchal control. In the process they ignore the evidence of women’s own testimony, the embodied experience of personal freedom that the pill allowed.

What connects all of these pieces is their sensitivity to the complex dance of pleasure, desire, politics, and power. Simply to state those interconnections is to evoke the work of Michel Foucault, and there is no question that the influence on sexual knowledge and power and the construction of sexual identities reverberates throughout these pages. Alan Bray’s nuanced exploration of the signs of male friendship in Elizabethan England echoes Foucault not only in his attention to discourse, but in his insistence that this exploration does not reside at the historical margins. In any study of the history of sexuality, “the margins illuminate the centre”: mapping the boundaries of permissible intimacy between men turns out to reveal uncharted fault lines, critical elements in sixteenth-century English dynamics of political power. As part of his sweeping reinterpretation of sexuality in eighteenth century England, Tim Hitchcock turns a Foucaultian lens on anti-masturbation tracts and sex manuals, whose words and silences alike constructed new possibilities for bodies and their pleasures, helping to shape what Hitchcock describes as a “phallocentric” sexual economy whose basic assumptions dramatically altered the definition – and, he suggests, the experience – of what constituted “sex” itself.

At the same time, historians who have congregated under the History Workshop banner contest Foucault as often as they deploy him, extending and complicating his arguments and addressing some of his more glaring blindspots. Yasmin Khan and Bodil Folke Frederikson redirect our gaze to intimate lives lived beyond Europe and north America, too often the focus of history of sexuality work, and explore the impacts of colonial epistemologies and regimes of power. Examining the petitions of impoverished mothers to Victorian London’s Foundling Hospital, Lynda Nead asks whether Foucault’s relentless insistence on “the web of power” is adequate to either the fraught emotions revealed by the petitions or the historian’s responsibility to treat their experience with sensitivity and nuance. Different questions about historical evidence are raised by the most recent essay in this collection, Caspar Meyer’s “Foucault’s Clay Feet”. Meyer casts a fresh eye on one of the pillars of Foucault’s argument, the gender-blind construction of desire in ancient Greece, by examining the Greek vase paintings on whose evidence Foucault rested much of his case. Exploring the everyday uses of these objects, Meyer raises questions about the materiality underlying the historical record and the need for historians to attend to the embodied practices enmeshed in the uptake and production of ‘discourse’.

Yet to pivot this discussion around Foucault is in many respects misleading. The first article in this collection, drawn from the journal’s first issue, is a pathbreaking essay by Jeffrey Weeks that draws not on Foucault (the first volume of his History of Sexuality had yet to be published in English) but on the work of the social scientist Mary McIntosh, on the historical research of Judith and Daniel Walkowitz, and, more obliquely but critically, on the intellectual ferment created by the movement for gay liberation and the questions it raised about the political and social embeddedness of personal life. Reading across the journal as we made our selection, we became aware of a particular tone and flavour, one that placed less emphasis on sweeping theoretical manoeuvres than on the complexities of their quotidian enactments – a focus evident in Matt Cook’s examination of the emotional nuances of individuals’ responses to the AIDS crisis, in Julian Jackson’s deeply personal reflections on the legacies of the homophile movement in France, and in Marybeth Hamilton’s exploration of the vexed intersections of sexuality, race, and performance in the tumultuous career of Little Richard. In her essay on early modern witchcraft, meanwhile, Lyndal Roper shows us how psychoanalytic perspectives can enrich in our understandings of desires, fantasies and passions past. She signals ways of dealing with and acknowledging the apparently irrational, inconsistent and inexplicable, and so the vicissitudes of intimate and internal lives.

While the work gathered in this issue reflects the collective’s distinctive approach to the past, it mirrors too the lacunae and shortcomings of the discipline, its vagaries and shifts over the years. The pieces display a distinct leaning towards the anglophile world, with a focus on Europe and on Britain especially, an emphasis that the journal has only more recently begun to redress. Likewise in keeping with the bias of the discipline, the majority of the pieces we have selected explore the nineteenth century onward, the period that saw the emergence of “sexuality” as both a field of study and a self-conception, experienced as the core of one’s inner nature, the secret essence of the self. Those articles focusing on earlier periods nevertheless signal powerfully what that modernist bias occludes.

This collection registers major conceptual shifts in the field: from the close alliances with sociology and social history in the earlier pieces to growing interest in language, culture, materiality and the body in the more recent work. Explicit discussion of postcolonial and queer theoretical turns may be under-represented in the essays here (there have been other more obvious homes for this work), yet the project of defamiliarising the past and destabilising fixed identities weaves through them – most especially in the articles by Valerie Traub, Matt Houlbrook and Chris Waters, and Yasmin Khan.

Together our selection powerfully demonstrates the challenges the enquiry into sexuality brings with it. To analyse sexuality in history is to delve into elusive, sometimes ineffable terrain. It requires a reflexive awareness of contemporary blinkers that can limit our vision. Garnering even the most partial of understandings has required historians to be creative both in the sources they’ve gathered and in the interpretative and theoretical lenses through which they have viewed them. Overall the essays in this collection suggest the scope and the perils of the undertaking. They evoke the demands of reading between lines and attending to subtle gestures and nuance; of sensing the density and richness of silence.


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access to all of the articles below for a period of 6 months.

Jeffrey Weeks Sins and Diseases’: some notes on homosexuality in the nineteenth century 1 (1976)
Judith R. Walkowitz Male Vice and Feminist Virtue: Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in 19th-century Britain 13 (1982)
Tim Mason Comrade and Lover: Rosa Luxemburg's Letters to Leo Jogiches 13 (1982)
Francoise Basch Women's Rights and the Wrongs of Marriage in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America 22 (1986)
Alan Bray Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England 29 (1990)
Lyndal Roper Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany 31 (1991)
Valerie Traub Sex and gender: The perversion of 'lesbian' desire 41 (1996)
Tim Hitchcock Sex and gender: Redefining sex in eighteenth-century England 41 (1996)
Marybeth Hamilton Sexual politics and African-American music; or, placing Little Richard in history 46 (1998)
Hera Cook The English Sexual Revolution: Technology and Social Change 59 (2005)
Julian Jackson Sex, Politics and Morality in France, 1954–1982 61 (2006)
Matt Houlbrook and Chris Waters The Heart in Exile: Detachment and Desire in 1950s London 62 (2006)
Anne Summers Which Women? What Europe? Josephine Butler and the International Abolitionist Federation 62 (2006)
Bodil Folke Frederiksen Jomo Kenyatta, Marie Bonaparte and Bronislaw Malinowski on Clitoridectomy and Female Sexuality 65 (2008)
Yasmin Khan Sex in an Imperial War Zone: Transnational Encounters in Second World War India 73 (2012)
Lynda Nead Fallen Women and Foundlings: Rethinking Victorian Sexuality 82 (2016)
Matt Cook Archives of Feeling: the AIDS Crisis in Britain 1987 83 (2017)
Caspar Meyer Foucault’s Clay Feet: Ancient Greek Vases in Modern Theories of Sex 85 (2018)


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