Love unbridled is a volcano

Lynne Segal enjoys a race through two and half millennia of sexual matters in Europe

November 27, 2008

Fasten your seat belts! This journey will take us through two and a half millennia of history in just over 200 pages. It will be exciting, for this is not the history of sovereign monarchs, battles or evolving technology, but of sexual manners, beliefs and erotic technique. The two are not unconnected, so sometimes the going gets rough. Our guide, eminent North American feminist historian Anna Clark, introduces the notion of "sexual economies" to describe some people's social entitlements to intimate pleasures and other people's lack of sexual choices or even the right to bodily autonomy. Clark's magisterial survey in Desire: A History of European Sexuality tells us much about which individuals have been allowed to flaunt and enjoy their sexual desires, and which people were forced into sex, marriage, prostitution or worse. Clark's mapping of key moments in European sexual history is impressively thorough in its signposting of the bumps and twists of the landscape as we race through it, from classical antiquity to the present. It is a journey that would topple all but the most vigilant historian, but Clark's text skilfully draws upon the work of dozens of previous historical researchers, historiographers and theoreticians, including Freud, Foucault, Thomas Laqueur, David Halperin and Judith Butler.

Since the very object of Clark's survey is itself ambiguous, she begins with a cautious elaboration of her theoretical stance and methodology. The book opens with the words of the father of European sexology, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, recording many of the anxieties of the late 19th century as he embarks upon his own ambitious attempt to classify the potential diversity and destructiveness of different manifestations of sexual desire: "love unbridled is a volcano that burns down and lays waste all around it," he wrote in Sociopathia Sexualis (1886). This theme of sexual desire and bodily excitations as always at least partially dangerous, polluting and disorderly, provides one enduring thread that Clark finds woven through understandings of sexuality, from our earliest records of it. Yet, from the beginning, there have appeared countervailing accounts of desire, as creative, transcendent, spiritual or even revolutionary.

It is the rise and fall of these contrasting themes over the millennia, and their relationship with specific civic structures and differing historical moments, that helps Clark organise her material. For instance, even as Krafft-Ebing was using his case studies to record the dangers of sexual perversities in Vienna in the 1880s, another sex researcher, Magnus Hirschfeld, was establishing the first organised movement for homosexual reform in Germany and, like Henry Havelock Ellis in Britain, offering more benign interpretations of these same sexual practices. It was only with the rise of Hitler, accompanying massive unemployment and deepening social crisis in Germany after its defeat in the First World War, that Hirschfeld would see his books burnt and his beliefs vilified, and was forced to flee his homeland as a degenerate Jew, accused of undermining the pure Aryan soul.

Throughout most of European history, both those who feared sexuality as sinful (braiding it with symbolic representations of racial inferiority and female vice) and others who celebrated its positive potential (whether represented as physical, artistic or spiritual strength) tended to see sexuality as a powerful, natural force, tied to reproductive instincts or drives. Yet, also from classical antiquity onwards, it is possible, as Clark does, to see the regulation, acceptance or denunciations of heterosexual desire (especially controls over female sexuality) interacting with simultaneous complexities in representations of same-sex emotions, whether focusing on passionate friendship, love or lust. For instance, with its female citizens secluded at home, ancient Athenian culture tried to balance its celebration of the romantic ties between older men and beautiful boys with its ambivalence towards sex between men. However, it is only the rise of Christianity many centuries later that inaugurates extreme levels of distaste towards sexual matters, with sexual abstinence tied to godliness.

Yet even in Christendom, ambiguity is evident when the celebration of spiritual desire encompassed forms of erotic ecstatic yearning for, and fusion with, God. Moreover, despite the Church's preaching, homosexual encounters, prostitution and unmarried motherhood were often socially tolerated, although not approved of, occurring in what Clark labels "twilight moments", often simply incorporated into the social fabric. However, extreme castigation and punishment of sexual sinners always heightened in times of crisis, as in the medieval plagues of early Christendom. Sexual regulation, always harsher on women than on men, tended to relax again during periods of progress and change, as it did during the centuries of the European Enlightenment. Not only do we find one of its writers, Jean Jacques Rousseau, insisting upon the benefits of romantic love and sexual desire, but the British polemicist Mary Wollstonecraft even daring to advocate women's rights and question confinement of her sex to domesticity.

It is only in very recent times, however, that sexual desire has been widely acknowledged as culturally fashioned and fluid, no longer seen as the overpowering force it once appeared. With sex education, contraception and abortion now widely accessible in much of Europe (although not in the US), neither visions of sexual purgatory nor fantasies of sexual utopias are currently stirring the European imagination. Indeed, Clark suggests, although sex is an activity that is increasingly incited and catered for, in the process of its commodification it is becoming banal and, as we sometimes read, even boring. This is, one might think, in some ways a pity; in others, a relief.

Inevitably, there are gaps in this text - for instance, apart from mention of the "age of consent" we learn nothing about the shifting historical links between sexuality and ageing, either symbolically or in practice. However, the rich range of historical information that Clark weaves into her chapters, from state legislation, court records and details of available contraception or abortion techniques, to personal memoir, jokes and pornography, makes this ambitious overview of sex in Europe a highly accessible and successful endeavour.

Desire: A History of European Sexuality

By Anna Clark


282pp, £60.00 and £17.99

ISBN 9780415775175 and 5182

Published 28 July 2008

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