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Sex and Society: A Research Note from Social History and Anthropology1

  • Ellen Ross (a1) and Rayna Rapp (a2)

“The personal is political” was a central insight of the wave of feminism which gathered momentum in the 1960s. Within that phrase is condensed the understanding that the seemingly most intimate details of private existence are actually structured by larger social relations. Attention to the personal politics of intimate life soon focused on sexuality, and many canons of sexual meaning were challenged. The discovery of erotic art and symbols as malecentered, the redefinition of lesbian sexuality as positive and life-affirming, and the dismantling of the two-orgasm theory as a transparently male perception of the female body were among the products of this critique.

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2 The definition of what constitutes sexuality is currently under debate. Some analysts stress the biological basis of the experience, focusing on organic and neurological response; others, more committed to a psychoanalytic perspective, stress the role of fantasy—originating in childhood—in eliciting these responses. As the recent work of Michel Foucault suggests, however, both positions presuppose that “sex” as a category of human experience can be isolated and is uniform throughout history. We agree with Foucault's contention that the concept of what activities and sensations are “sexual” is historically determined and hence part of a changing discourse. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, tr. Robert, Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

3 Gagnon, John and Henderson, Bruce, “The Social Psychology of Sexual Development”, in Family in Transition, ed. Skolnick, Arlene S. and Skolnick, Jerome H., 2d ed. (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), pp. 116–22, 118.

4 The classic works are Masters, William H. and Johnson, Virginia E., Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966); and Human Sexual Inadequacy (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970).

5 A summary of this transformation is found in Gordon, Michael, “From an Unfortunate Necessity to a Cult of Mutual Orgasm: Sex in American Marital Education Literature, 1830–1940”, in Studies in the Sociology of Sex, ed. Henslin, James (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1971), pp. 5377.

6 For example: Ellis, Havelock, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 19371942); Henriques, Fernando, Love in Action. The Sociology of Sex (New York: Dutton, 1960).

7 Henslin, James M., “The Sociological Point of View”, in Studies in the Sociology of Sex, pp. 16; Gagnon, and Henderson, , “The Social Psychology of Sexual Development”; Ford, Clellan S. and Beach, Frank A., Patterns of Sexual Behavior (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), chapter 13.

8 Foucault, The History of Sexuality; Jeffrey Weeks, “Discourses, Desire, and Sexual Deviance: Problems in a ‘History’ of Homosexuality”, unpublished paper, Sociology Department, University of Essex (England), 1979; and “Movements of Affirmation: Sexual Meanings and Homosexual Identities”, Radical History Review no. 20 (Spring/Summer, 1979): 164–80; Robert Padgug, “Sexual Matters: On Conceptualizing Sexuality in History”, ibid., pp. 3–24.

9 Chodorow, Nancy, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978); Dinnerstein, Dorothy, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); Flax, Jane, “The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Within Feminism”, Feminist Studies 4, no. 2 (06, 1978): 171–89; Mitchell, Juliet, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974); Rubin, Gayle, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Reiter, Rayna R. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975).

10 Lasch, Christopher, Haven in a Heartless World (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

11 Personal communication, June, 1979.

12 Geertz, Clifford, “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man”, in New Views of the Nature of Man, ed. Piatt, J. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 93118; reprinted in Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

13 Keesing, Roger M., Kin Groups and Social Structure (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), chapter 7.

14 Rapp, Rayna, unpublished field notes, Provence (France), 1969, 1970, 1971–72.

15 Thumwald, Richard, “Banaro Society”, Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 3, no. 4 (1916): 251391; summarized and cited in Rubin, “The Traffic in Women”, p. 166.

16 Davis, Natalie Zemon, “Ghosts, Kin and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France”, Daedalus 106, no. 2 (Spring, 1977): 87114, 101. See also Flandrin, Jean-Louis, Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality, tr. Richard, Southern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 1923.

17 Davis, , “Ghosts”, pp. 102–03.

18 Classic essays on incest prohibitions are found in Grabum, Nelson, ed., Readings in Kinship and Social Structure (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), chapter 14; Fox, Robin, Kinship and Marriage (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1967), chapter 2. Levi-Strauss' most famous work, Elementary Structures of Kinship, trs. Bell, James H., von Sturmer, John R., and Needham, Rodney (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) is founded on this question.

19 Tilly, Louise and Scott, Joan, Women, Work and Family (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978), p. 26; Berkner, Lutz K., “Recent Research on the History of the Family in Western Europe”, Journal of Marriage and the Family 35 (08, 1973): 395405; Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), chapter 2.

20 Stone, , Family, Sex and Marriage, pp. 44, 46–48.

21 Thompson, E. P., “The Grid of Inheritance: a Comment”, in Family and Inheritance, ed. Goody, Jack, Thirsk, Joan, and Thompson, E. P. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 349.

22 Macfarlane, Alan, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978), p. 82.

23 Corbyn Morris, “Observations on the Past Growth and Present State of the City of London” (1751), cited in J. Hajnal, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective”, in Population in History, ed. Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. C. (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1965), pp. 101–43.

24 Stone, , Family, Sex and Marriage, pp. 615616.

25 Goody, Jack, Production and Reproduction: A Comparative Study of the Domestic Domain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 63.

26 Thompson, , “Grid of Inheritance”, p. 360.

27 Thompson, E. P., “‘Rough Music’: Le charivari anglais”, Annales E.S.C. 27 (0304, 1972): 285312, 293, 305.

28 Henriques, U. R. Q., “Bastardy and the New Poor Law”, Past and Present 37 (07, 1967): 103–29, 118.

29 Interesting speculations on generational power relations in handicraft families appear in Medick, Hans, “The Proto-Industrial Family Economy”, Social History 1, no. 3 (10, 1976): 291315; and Gillis, John, “Resort to Common-Law Marriage in England and Wales, 1700–1850”, unpublished manuscript.

30 Rapp, Rayna, unpublished field notes; Conrad Arensberg and Kimball, Solon T., Family and Community in Ireland (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968, 2d ed., p. 55.

31 Gillis, John R., Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770-Present (New York and London: Academic Press, 1974), pp. 2223.

32 Ibid., p. 38.

33 Ibid., chapters 2, 3, and 4.

34 Davis, Natalie Zemon, “The Reasons of Misrule”, in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1975), pp. 97123, 104–05; Flandrin, Jean-Louis, Les amours paysannes (xvie xixe siècle) (Paris: Editions Gallimard/Julliard, 1975), pp. 142–43; and Families in Former Times, pp. 3435.

35 Caspard, Pierre, “Conceptions pré-nuptiales et développement du capitalisme dans la Principauté de Neuchâtel (1678–1820)”, Annales E.S.C. 29, no. 4 (0708, 1974): 9891008, 993–96; Shorter, Edward, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1975), pp. 102–05; Drake, Michael, Population and Society in Norway, 1735–1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 138–45.

36 Shorter, , Making of the Modern Family, pp. 102–03. The sources on which his account is based are listed in notes 53–59, p. 298.

37 Caspard, , “Conceptions pré-nuptiales”, p. 995.

38 Flandrin, Jean-Louis, “Repression and Change in the Sexual Life of Young People in Medieval and Early Modern Times”, Journal of Family History 2, no. 3 (09, 1977): 196210, 200–03, 205.

39 Dougherty, Molly, Becoming a Woman in Rural Black Culture (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978), part 3, pp. 71107.

40 Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America”, Signs 1, no. 2 (Autumn, 1975): 129. See also Cott, Nancy, The Bonds of Womanhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

41 Gélis, Jacques, “Sages-femmes et accoucheurs: I'obstétrique populaire aux xvne et xviiie siecles”, Annales E.S.C. 32 (0910 1977): 927–57; Mireille Laget, “La naissance aux siècles classiques. Pratique des accouchements et attitudes collectives en France xvne et xviiie siècles”, ibid., pp. 958–92.

42 Knight, Patricia, “Women and Abortion in Victorian and Edwardian England”, History Workshop 4 (Autumn, 1977): 5769, 58–59.

43 McLaren, Angus, Birth Control in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Croom Helm, 1978), p. 242; Knight, “Women and Abortion”, p. 60.

44 See Davies, Margaret L., ed., Maternity, Letters from Working Women, reprint ed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), p. 56.

45 Gillis, John R., “Servants, Sexual Relations, and the Risks of Illegitimacy in London, 1801–1900”, Feminist Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1979): 142–73; McBride, Theresa M., The Domestic Revolution (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1976), chapter 6.

46 Elwin, Verrier, Kingdom of the Young (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947).

47 Jean-Louis Flandrin, “Contraception, Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Christian West”, in Biology of Man in History, eds. Forster, Robert and Ranum, Orest, trs. Elborg, Forster and Ranum, Patricia M. (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1975), pp. 2347.

48 Flandrin, , Families in Former Times, pp. 211–12.

49 SirPollock, Frederick and Maitland, Frederick William, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, 2 vols., 2d ed. reissue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968): 2, chapter 6; Goodsell, Willystine, A History of Marriage and the Family, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1934); McGregor, O. R., Divorce in England. A Centenary Study (London: Heinemann, 1957).

50 Flandrin, , Families in Former Times, pp. 180–84.

51 Henriques, , “Bastardy and the New Poor Law”, pp. 118–19.

52 Quoted ibid., p. 119.

53 Gillis, “Domestic Service and Sexual Relations in Nineteenth Century London”, paper presented at International Conference in Women's History, University of Maryland, November, 1977.

54 Flandrin, , “Repression and Change”, p. 204.

55 Walkowitz, Judith R. and Walkowitz, Daniel J., “‘We Are Not Beasts of the Field’;: Prostitution and the Poor in Plymouth and Southampton under the Contagious Diseases Acts”, Feminist Studies 1, nos. 3–4 (Winter-Spring 1973); 73106; Walkowitz, Judith, “The Making of an Outcast Group”, in A Widening Sphere, ed. Vicinus, Martha (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977): 7293, 85–87; and Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

56 Ruggiero, Guido, “Sexual Criminality in the Early Renaissance: Venice 1338–1358”, Journal of Social History 8 (Summer, 1975): 1837; Trumbach, Randolph, “London's Sodomites: Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the Eighteenth Century”, Journal of Social History 11 (Fall, 1977): 133; Weeks, Jeffrey, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London and New York: Quartet Books, 1977), pp. 144; Louis Crompton, Review of Coming Out by Weeks; Socialism and the New Life by Jeffrey Weeks and Sheila Rowbotham; and Homosexuality and Literature, by Meyers, Jeffrey, in Victorian Studies 22, no. 2 (Winter, 1979): 211–13.

57 Weeks, Coming Out, pp. 1920.

58 This view is implicit in Weeks, Coming Out; it is the hypothesis which Gayle Rubin is currently investigating in her research on the evolution to homosexual communities in twentieth-century Europe and America (personal communication, December, 1979).

59 Levine, David, Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism (New York: Academic Press, 1977).

60 Tilly, and Scott, , Women, Work and Family, pp. 9396. See also: Lees, Lynn H., Exiles of Erin. Irish Migration in Victorian London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979) for a discussion of changes in ages of marriage of rural Irish who migrated to London at the time of the famine; and Tilly, Louise A., “The Family Wage Economy of a French Textile City: Roubaix, 1872–1906”, Journal of Family History 4, no. 4 (Winter, 1979): 381–94.

61 Tilly, and Scott, , Women, Work and Family, p. 96.

62 Shorter, Edward, “Illegitimacy, Sexual Revolution and Social Change in Modern Europe”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1 (Autumn, 1971): 231–72.

63 Snorter's, “Female Emancipation, Birth Control and Fertility in European History” [American Historical Review 78, no. 3 (06, 1973): 605–40], opened a debate on the sources of Europe's high birth and illegitimacy-rates in the era of early industrialization. On illegitimacy, the weight of scholarship supports the view that the urban migration of young women made them especially vulnerable to illegitimate pregnancies. See Tilly, Louise A., Scott, Joan W., and Cohen, Miriam, “Women's Work and European Fertility Patterns”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 6, no. 3 (Winter, 1976): 447–76; De Pauw, Jacques, “Amour illégitime et société à Nantes au xviiie siècle”, Annales E.S.C., 27 (1972): 1155–82; Lottin, Alain, “Naissances illégitimes et filles-mères à Lille au xviiie siècle”, Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 17 (04 1970): 278322; Fairchilds, Cissie, “Female Sexual Attitudes and the Rise of Illegitimacy: A Case Study”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8, no. 4 (Spring, 1978): 627–67. Michel Frey suggests that Paris women in the mid-nineteenth century living as “concubines” wanted to change their relationships into legitimate marriages, and that marriages were least likely to take place between couples with the lowest paying employment. See “Du manage et du concubinage dans les classes populaires a Paris 1846–1847”, Annales, E.S.C. 33, no. 4 (0708 1978): 803–25.

64 Trumbach, , “London's Sodomites”; Weeks, Coming Out, pp. 3542; Mackintosh, Mary, “The Homosexual Role”, in Family in Transition, eds. Skolnick, Arlene S. and Skolnick, Jerome I., 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), pp. 231–42, 236–38.

65 Weeks, Coming Out, part 4.

66 Ibid., p. 89.

67 Davidoff, Leonore, “Mastered for Life: Servant and Wife in Victorian and Edwardian England”, Journal of Social History 8 (Summer, 1974): 404–28, 413–14.

68 Gillis, , “Servants, Sexual Relations, and the Risks of Illegitimacy”, p. 167.

69 The discussion that follows is based on Hudson, Derek, Munby, Man of Two Worlds. The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby 1828–1910 (Boston: Gambit, Inc., 1972); and on Leonore Davidoff's interpretative study, “Class and Gender in Victorian England: the Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick”, Feminist Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1979): 87142.

70 Hudson, , Munby, p. 69.

71 Davidoff, , “Class and Gender”, pp. 87100.

72 Although they have very different theoretical perspectives, both Eli Zaretsky and Christopher Lasch believe that sexual identity takes shape in “personal” space. Zaretsky, Eli, “Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, Part I”, Socialist Revolution 3, nos. 1–2 (0104 1973): 69126; and Lasch, Christopher, “The Family as a Haven in a Heartless World”, Salmagundi 34 (Fall, 1976): 4255; and “The Waning of Private Life”, Salmagundi 36 Winter, 1977): 315. Feminists have defined the issue differently, insisting on the patriarchal nature of the interconnections between the “personal” and the “political.” See Kelly, Joan, “The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory: A Postscript to the ‘Women and Power’ Conference”, Feminist Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1979): 216–27; and Petchesky, Rosalind, “Dissolving the Hyphen”, in Eisenstein, Zillah R., ed., Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), pp. 373–89.

73 The labeling of sexology and psychoanalysis as “ethnoscience”, suggesting a folk system of understanding which is quite logical, but based on “wrong” assumptions linked to turn-of-the-century social perceptions, is Gayle Rubin's. Seeing the context in which these models of personal relationships developed as a part of changes in wider social power arrangements is the contribution of Foucault and of Donzelot. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, and Donzelot, Jacques, The Policing of Families, tr. Robert, Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).

1 This paper was originally written for an innovative conference, “Writing the History of Sexuality and Power,” New York University, March, 1978. We thank the conference's organizers for their work in stimulating discussion of this neglected topic. We also want to thank those who participated in our workshop there, as well as those who heard later versions, presented at the Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians' Organization Forum, New York, February, 1979, and at the Council of European Studies Conference, Washington, D.C., March, 1979. Many friends read and criticized earlier drafts of this paper. We especially want to thank Shirley Lindenbaum, Harriet Rosenberg, Gayle Rubin, Sara Ruddick, Judith Walkowitz and Eric Wolf.

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