What Is Sexual History? | J. Weeks

In 1974, when I announced to my faculty adviser that I intended to do a dissertation on some aspect of the history of homosexuality, the decision represented an act of faith on my part. At that point, there was no “gay history,” the phrase I would have then used among my peers. The year before, I had met Jonathan Ned Katz, who, together with me and a few others in New York, founded the Gay Academic Union as an effort to bring researchers of various sorts together to explore how our skills could be used to support the gay liberation movement. Katz had already written a play, Coming Out!, whose script was drawn entirely from documents he had discovered related to the history of homosexuality in the United States. He was continuing to pursue that research, and it would culminate in the massive documentary collection, Gay American History, that he published in 1976.1 Gay American History was a groundbreaking—indeed, revolutionary—piece of work. But, to me, still in the early stages of dissertation research, documents that stretched across 350 years of history on a broad range of topics— law, culture, science, social life, and more—did not necessarily demonstrate the feasibility of writing the kind of tightly knit, focused monograph that a history department expected from a graduate student.

The conviction that such a project could be done was finally proven to me when I read Jeffrey Weeks’s 1977 book, Coming Out.2 Weeks had found enough documentation to be able to construct an interpretive history of gay activism—or “homosexual politics,” as his subtitle described it—that stretched for almost a hundred years. I was aiming for a more limited time frame, since the history of continuous activism in the US did not extend that long. But, to me, still in that graduate student phase of “can I do it?” and venturing into a subfield in which there was no literature to guide me, Coming Out was like a gift from the heavens. It gave me the confidence to believe that, yes, this could be done.In the forty years since publishing that pioneering book, Weeks has continued to be a groundbreaking historian, producing an array of work on the history and politics of sexuality.3 He is no longer almost alone in this endeavor. The field has expanded enormously over the forty‐plus years since Coming Out was published. When Estelle Freedman and I began in the early 1980s the work that led to Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, we felt able between us to read the entire literature in the field.4 A decade later, when I taught for the first time a graduate course in the history of homosexuality, my syllabus stretched from early modern Europe to the twentieth century. I joked with my students that one could probably read the entire historical literature on same‐sex love, social life, culture, and politics in the course of a single summer and still have time for a lengthy vacation.This is certainly not true today. Historical studies of sexuality have mushroomed. An abundance of literature that stretches across millennia, cultures, and continents explores topics that pioneers in the field could barely have imagined. The very idea of attempting to survey that literature and characterize the broad contours of the field would seem to me like a totally intimidating project. And yet that is precisely what Jeffrey Weeks has dared to do in his latest book, a contribution to the What Is History series produced by Polity Press. In a mere 130 pages, Weeks manages the feat of tracing the development of the field from its earliest days, identifying dominant themes and subject matter, and analyzing and commenting upon some of the key theoretical frameworks that have driven this scholarly endeavor. In this essay, I will briefly summarize the core elements of this survey, and then reflect on a couple of the important claims that Weeks makes.Weeks begins by setting a context and outlining a framework for the historiographical discussions that will follow. The contrast between the early 1970s, when work on the history of sexuality started to take off, and the state of the literature today is sharp and clear. Then, Weeks states, the pioneering writers felt as if they were “venturing into unexplored territory,” whereas now the field “is flourishing” and historians have produced a “vast and ever‐growing continent of knowledge” (1, 4). The perspective at the heart of much, though admittedly not all, of this literature is what Weeks describes as a “critical sexual history,” namely “the belief that sexuality is a fundamentally social, and therefore historical, structure.” What is commonly understood as “a biological truth” is, instead, “shaped by culture” (4, 11). Moreover, for most historians working in the area, the subject of sexuality is inescapably enmeshed with the exercise and distribution of power. Rather than an account of the sexual acts in which people in the past engaged, a critical sexual history more often focuses on matters of representation, on how ideas and values about sexuality become vectors for the imposition of norms of behavior and a justification for the oppression of those who do not comply.Weeks then moves on to consider what he describes as “the invention of sexual history” (23). He nods respectfully in the direction of those scientific and medical writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who produced the first historical accounts of sexuality. Their intended purpose was to deploy accounts of sexual life in the past to justify arguments for change in the present. They offered a progressive narrative of society, one in which knowledge of the past would contribute to the improvement of society in the future. But for Weeks, the real story begins in the 1960s and early 1970s. Influenced by the protests and radical movements of the 1960s, many historians began to embrace a “history from below” (32). Instead of having history primarily cover the lives and deeds of the men who shaped the economy, ran the government, and led the military, the study of everyday life and ordinary people became the substance of what was commonly described within the profession as a “new social history.” When one combines this shift in the scholarly field with the rise of radical, militant feminist and gay liberationist movements, the ground was laid for the growth of a new, critical history of sexuality.

Rather than attempt to survey the vast range of topics covered in the historical literature on sexuality, Weeks chooses to zoom in on two: LGBT history, and histories of gender, sexuality, and power. In a chapter titled “Querying and Queering Same‐Sex History,” Weeks recounts how the writing of this queer history was “at first a work of recovery” (41). Grassroots history projects with close ties to movement activism formed in several cities. Instead of being grounded in academia, LGBT history initially constituted “a practice of history against the grain, a democratic collective activity that was both scholarly and political” (41). Weeks moves us through the theoretical frameworks and debates that shaped the literature: the social constructionism that seemed to dominate in the 1970s and early 1980s and its challenge to an essentialist perspective; the effort by scholars like Eve Sedgwick to sidestep this debate with alternative concepts like minoritizing and universalizing; and the later effort to see sex and gender as ultimately performative.5 Weeks comments along the way that sexual history, and particularly the history of same‐sex behavior and relationships, has been “burdened with a surfeit of theory” (14). This has led over time to activists and theorists speaking “dramatically different languages” (53). Weeks finds a vast gap between the activist, community‐based world that helped to create an LGBT historical literature and an academic world in which theory seems more important than content. Without himself taking an explicit stand in these debates over theory, he makes a comment that nonetheless suggests where his sympathies lie. “Theories,” he writes, “themselves tend to have a limited lifespan” (20).

Weeks next directs his attention to the feminist engagement with the culture and history of sexuality. Here, too, dramatic tensions emerge. The 1982 Scholar and the Feminist Conference was “a critical moment in the evolution of second‐wave feminism,” he declares. It “crystallized” a deep divide among feminists in the United States (57). On one side were those who single‐mindedly stressed “the dangers of sexuality for women” and who saw men as the inescapable problem (58). On the other side were those who were more open to considering the varied ways that sex could, potentially, be a source of self‐realization and empowerment for women while also acknowledging the ways it could and did oppress women and keep them subordinate to men. This latter group was also sensitive to the ways that race and class mixed together with gender to create a hierarchy of relationships to sexuality as a vehicle for control. Studies of such topics as the social purity movement of the nineteenth century and the eugenics movement of the twentieth exposed the complex relationships among different groups of women and how women themselves could become the agents of oppression against other groups of women.

Having discussed these two broad areas in the literature of sexual history, Weeks shifts his focus to two other topics of consequence: the mainstreaming of sexual history and its globalization. Weeks is very clear about why mainstreaming not only makes sense, but should be a desired goal:

Mainstreaming involves recognizing the centrality of sexuality to the operation of power in a wide range of historical processes in the modern world … sexuality is not marginal to wider historical developments, it is integral to them. Sexuality is a prism through which we can understand more fully the scale, intensity and effectivity of social change … as sexuality goes, so goes society, and as society goes, so goes sexuality. (76–77)

Over the last fifty years, simultaneously with the development and growth of the field, sexuality in Western capitalist societies has certainly come to be significantly more visible in society and culture; individuals have come to experience a greater sense of agency and choice in this sphere of life; and, at least in the United States, sexuality plays a larger role than ever in political discourse. By mainstreaming sexual history, Weeks is suggesting, the work produced over several decades can be a valuable resource for understanding and responding to these changes.

Although Weeks is unambiguous about the value, and necessity, of sexuality making its way into the mainstream of historical knowledge and narratives, he seems less clear to me about the extent to which it has happened. At the very start of the book, he declares that sexual history “has made great strides from the margins to the mainstream” (1). Later he asserts only “mixed success” in the reshaping of historical narratives. “At best,” he claims, “we see the emergence of an additive history … rather than a transformative one” (75). But then, in the final pages of the book he returns to a very optimistic assessment: “Sexuality research in general and LGBTQ history in particular are no longer marginal activities: they have become a major aspect of the historical endeavor” (124). I will return to this issue of mainstreaming later in this essay and reflect on some of the complexities of how to understand it. It is not an easy subject to evaluate, and I can understand why Weeks shifts back and forth as he discusses it.

It makes sense that Weeks would devote a chapter of this concise book to the subject of globalization since, in the contemporary world, it is virtually impossible to ignore. From fears of trade wars to the increasing movement of peoples across national borders to the ways that economic collapse in one country can trigger a much larger crisis, the ties across and between nations are everywhere to behold. Weeks acknowledges a turn toward transnationalism in sexual history in the last two decades, one that echoes a broader movement toward transnationalism in the writing of history more generally. In this new literature, sexuality and reproduction have been shown to be “a key aspect of colonial governance … central to the ‘civilizing mission’” of European imperialism in Africa and Asia (104). And whereas colonialist rule attempted to suppress indigenous patterns of sex, intimacy, and gender presentation, historians are helping to restore to memory the rich diversity of humanity’s sexual cultures.

In discussing globalization, Weeks places special emphasis on two outcomes of transnational explorations of sexual history. By delving into the vast range of global cultures, this latest round of sexual history raises what Weeks calls “a key dilemma”: “the extent to which we can deploy the categories that have been so resonant in Western scholarship.” He raises the question, “How relevant can [these categories] be to other cultures?” and, without his explicitly answering, it will be apparent to every reader that his answer would be “not very” (100). Indeed, one result of the globalization of sexual history may prove to be the weakening within Western histories of the very categories that have shaped the historical literature.

Weeks also notes in the chapter on globalization that, simultaneous with the growth since the 1990s of a transnational sexual history, sexuality has been forcefully injected into the discourse of international human rights. This trend first presented itself in the form of feminist issues involving women and reproduction. More recently it has taken the shape of campaigns to place LGBT issues in a human rights framework. Weeks is not willing to go so far as to attribute this shift to the work that historians have done, but he does say that, “at its best, a sexual history rooted in global perspectives can help” (115).

Looking beyond the individual chapters to the book in its entirety, I found myself taking issue with one of Weeks’s central claims. He places histories of homosexuality, of same‐sex behavior, relationships, and identities, at the center of the growth of the field. In one sense, it is not surprising that he reaches this conclusion, given the centrality of this topic to his own work and career. Yet, at least with regard to the literature on the history of sexuality in the US, if I reflect back to the first half of the 1980s, when Estelle Freedman and I were immersing ourselves in the published work on the history of sexuality in order to write Intimate Matters, there were already several dozen monographs on a “heterosexual” history and an even larger number of scholarly articles. There were histories of marriage, reproduction, and the family; of birth control and its politics; of sex work and the campaigns against it; of night life and popular culture.6 Some of this literature was being produced by male historians who were part of the shift in the profession toward history from the bottom up and a history of ordinary people and everyday life. But a significant portion of it—and a portion that was growing with each passing year—was produced by women deeply influenced by feminism who were in the process of creating in the 1970s and 1980s a truly vast field of women’s history, of which sexuality was, understandably, a key part. By contrast, the work on homosexuality, or LGBT history, amounted to just a tiny fraction of this larger literature.

That difference in the quantity of literature and, by implication, in the number of people producing it, was replicated in the curriculum of higher education in the US. One outcome of feminism’s revival was the proliferation of women’s studies programs in colleges and universities in the 1970s and 1980s. History was a core form of knowledge represented in their course offerings. In the same decades, history departments were slowly, but steadily, coming to hire faculty to teach women’s history. That history may have initially remained on the edges of the “mainstream” curriculum, and many of the women hired for those positions certainly experienced a sense of marginality and isolation in their departments. But the courses were there, the faculty was there, and the literature was there and growing.7 Again by contrast, when I defended my dissertation in 1981, to my knowledge I was only the second graduate student in the US to write on LGBT history. And there were no jobs anywhere in LGBT history or LGBT studies. It was not until 1993 that there was enough student demand for me to teach a onetime‐only special topics course in the field. That has changed, of course, in the current century, but the extent of the written literature on LGBT history is still dwarfed by the literature on sexuality that has emerged from the field of women’s history. All of this inclines me to see the tremendous growth of the field over the last forty years as less attributable to LGBT history than Weeks does.

I mentioned earlier that, of all the issues discussed in the book, the one whose conclusions are most ambiguous is the matter of mainstreaming. It isn’t hard for me to understand why that should be the case because, depending on the vantage point from which one examines the issue, one’s assessment could be very different. This is especially true when looking at mainstreaming through the lens of LGBT history. If I measure the current state of affairs by the standard of where things were when I began doing research in the mid‐1970s, the progress is undeniable and astounding. From a starting point of no‐literature‐at‐all, we are now at a place where graduate students can choose this as a subfield for their comprehensive exams, where not only survey courses but also specialized topics courses in LGBT history can be constructed, and where something like a dozen dissertations in the US are being defended each year.

That shift is also apparent in the support given by professional associations to LGBT history. The American Historical Association has had a Committee on LGBT History as one of its affiliated societies since the beginning of the 1980s.8 At its start, barely a dozen individuals attended its meetings. Today its business meeting and social hour are among the liveliest and most crowded events at the conference. In its early years, the Committee struggled to put together one or two sessions. Now there is regularly a track of LGBT history panels from the opening to the closing session of the conference. One can point to a similar shift in the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The OAH has even established an annual award for the best dissertation in LGBT history, and there are enough submissions to make it a meaningful competition.9 The book exhibits at both annual meetings reveal a similar progress narrative. When I was finishing my dissertation in the early 1980s, the only university press in the United States that was actively seeking manuscripts in LGBT history was the University of Chicago Press. Now presses are competing for titles and authors have a range of publishers to whom they can reasonably submit their work. All of this is evidence of a welcoming stance toward LGBT history on the part of the profession and its key institutions. The door is open for us and our work.

Yet, at the same time, one could reasonably argue that LGBT history exists in its own separate and enclosed silo. When I attend sessions in the LGBT history track at the annual national conferences, the audience is modest in size and almost all of those attending are specialists in the field. Scanning through the scores of sessions in the program of the annual meetings, one will only very rarely find a paper on LGBT history included in a panel on a larger topic, a topic that might be considered mainstream. Yes, a substantial amount of LGBT history is out there to be found and read and learned from. Yes, historians who do this kind of work are welcomed into the profession. But, still, I would have to argue that it exists on the margins, rather than in the mainstream, of the field of history.

Evidence to sustain this perspective comes from my classroom experience as well. On the one hand, I was hired in 1999 by the University of Illinois at Chicago specifically to offer courses on LGBT history and studies. I was hired by the Women’s Studies Program and had a joint appointment with the History Department. This would have been unimaginable in the early 1980s when I first entered the academic job market. Over the course of the fifteen years in which I taught such courses, I noticed some significant changes. More undergraduate students were willing to come out in the classroom and identify themselves as LGBT. More of the heterosexually oriented students had LGBT friends or family members. More of the students generally had attended a high school in which there was a student Gay/Straight Alliance, as LGBT student groups were commonly called. But, one thing had not changed over this decade and a half. Except for a tiny number of students who might have characterized themselves as LGBT social justice activists, in 1999 when I first started teaching these courses and in 2014 when I taught my last such course before retirement, virtually all of the students I taught knew nothing—and I do mean nothing—about LGBT history. Many of them regularly attended the annual Pride March in Chicago at the end of June, yet they didn’t know that the Pride March was held then to commemorate something called “the Stonewall Riots” or “Stonewall Rebellion.” On one hand, this was a large part of what made it so thoroughly satisfying to teach these courses. Students had not been through this material in a US history survey course or in advanced courses covering a more limited time period in greater depth. Everything they were reading about and everything I lectured on was new to them.10 How many of us in the field of history can say this? But, on the other hand, it serves as substantial evidence that the work of LGBT historians remains very much on the margins. It is not being integrated into what might be described as mainstream narratives of US history. At best it occasionally appears in the form of what Weeks describes as an “additive” history rather than a “transformative” one (75).

On a more positive note, in the last handful of years I have noticed LGBT history being woven into the narrative of monographs that would not be defined as works in LGBT history, or even in the history of sexuality. Robert Self’s All in the Family, Tamar Carroll’s Mobilizing New York, and Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America all incorporate discussions of LGBT topics into the broader story they are telling.11 One can only hope that this will be replicated more often in the coming years. It is worth noting that each of these books focuses on aspects of post‐1960s US history, when LGBT communities, activism, and issues became much more visible in both politics and popular culture.

Another aspect of mainstreaming that Weeks references at various points in What Is Sexual History? is of consequence: how does LGBT history move beyond the academy into the consciousness of the larger society? If or when it succeeds at doing this, what form will this history take? And to what uses can LGBT history, which began as an activist project, be put in the service of larger movement goals?

Weeks most directly considers this in relation to the tensions between an activist, community‐based endeavor and an academic enterprise. He rightly points to the tensions around language, accessibility, and audience. The community‐based history projects of the 1970s and 1980s framed their historical narratives and public presentations for a diverse audience of community members. The goal was to excite, arouse, anger, surprise, and delight those reading a piece or attending a talk with the archival discoveries that local researchers had made. Presentations were made in a style that was as accessible as possible. The academic enterprise, on the other hand, more often addressed itself to an audience of other professional scholars. The theoretical language of poststructuralists or queer theorists was sometimes so rarified that it was not even accessible to many academics.

And yet, while they may have written and spoken in a different style—almost a different language—both academic and community‐based historians shared an important perspective, the belief that history can be a tool for social change, that research into the past can challenge the oppressive structures and policies of the present. In the US, community‐based historians like Allan Berube played an important role in the 1990s in the developing effort to challenge and eliminate the exclusion of LGBT people from military service.12 Academic historians worked with movement organizations and submitted briefs in legal challenges to sodomy laws and bans on same‐sex marriage. The Supreme Court decisions that overturned both of these made use of historical work that argued that same‐sex acts have not always had the same meaning, that sexual identity has emerged over time, and that the meaning and place of marriage in society has evolved significantly.13 In this sense, community‐based and academic historians are moving along the same road, a road that seeks to bring LGBT history into mainstream legal and policy discussions.

Community‐based and academic historians also both participated in the production of the critical sexual history that Weeks supports. For the most part, they both understood sexuality and sexual identities as creations of culture and society rather than as biologically based. Whether grounded in social constructionism or Marxist materialism or poststructuralism or performativity, there was an overarching sense that the historical enterprise was one that documented significant change over time. “Gay” and “lesbian” were not universal categories that existed across time, space, and cultures.

Ironically, with regard to the issue of mainstreaming, this shared allegiance to a critical sexual history has meant that, to a significant degree, both sets of historians remain quite marginal. At first glance, this might not seem to be the case since LGBT history is celebrated both in the community at large and in mainstream activist circles. But, LGBT history is often reduced to recognizing the important contributions of LGBT people in the past, figures like a Jane Addams, an Allan Turing, a Sally Ride, or a Bayard Rustin. It is a version of the additive history that Weeks deplores rather than the transformative history that he seeks. And, perhaps most consequentially of all, there is virtually no appreciation for the critical sexual history that Weeks endorses. The notion of identity as a historical creation has no place in the everyday world of LGBT life or in the circles of mainstream activism, what is often referred to as “Gay, Inc.” Identity as socially constructed or as something that is performed smacks too closely of homosexuality as a choice, a concept that plays into the homophobic discourse of a right‐wing family politics. Instead, the dominant view outside of history circles is that, as Lady Gaga sings it, we were all “born this way.”

To recognize these limitations in the reach and influence of sexual history is not to deny, in the words of Weeks that I quoted earlier, that sexual history has made “great strides from the margins” and that it has contributed to the weakening of oppressive structures and policies. But, as he recognizes and I would confirm, there is still a long road to travel.


Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1976).

Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London: Quartet Books, 1977).

See, for example, Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (Harlow, UK: Longman, 1981); Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985); Invented Moralities: Sexual Values in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1995); and Making Sexual History (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000).

John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), and Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

See the bibliography in D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 401–413.

For discussion and commentary on the growth of women’s studies, see The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from Thirty Founding Mothers, ed. Florence Howe (New York: Feminist Press, 2000).

For information on the Committee on LGBT History, see www.clgbthistory.org.

On the dissertation award, see www.oah.org/programs/awards/john-demilio-lgbtq-history-dissertation-award/.

10 For a fuller discussion of my experience in the classroom, see John D’Emilio, “Forty Years and Counting,” in Understanding and Teaching US Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History, ed. Leila J. Rupp and Susan K. Freeman (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), 33–46.

11 Robert O. Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012); Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

12 Allan Berube, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History, edited with an Introduction by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

13 On Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court decision that declared sodomy laws in the United States unconstitutional, see www.oyez.org/cases/2002/02-102. On Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that declared bans on same‐sex marriage unconstitutional, see www.oyez.org/cases/2014/14-556.


John D’Emilio

Referências desta resenha

WEEKS, Jeffrey. What Is Sexual History? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. 187p. Resenha de D’EMILIO, John. The History of Sexuality: an assessment of the state of the field. History and Theory. Middletown, v.58, n. 1, p.126-134, mar. 2019. Acessar publicação original [IF].

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