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sexology

LHMP entry

The introduction to this article identifies the turn of the 20th century as “a crucible of change in gender and sexual relations in the United States” and stakes a claim that the period from 1880-1920 was when the “Modern lesbian” emerged. [Note: One hears this claim about a variety of different points in the 19th and 20th centuries. So I’d withhold judgment about the accuracy of the claim.] This study focuses on the lesbian as a “desiring subject” -- a woman who considers her desire for other women to be a fundamental part of her identity.

This is an encyclopedia-style collection of texts that speak to specific topics in the history of sexuality. It is far from exhaustive, either in intent or execution, but rather picks specific works to use as discussion or thinking points. It was compiled for use as a set of study texts for a college course on the history of sexuality and that purpose can be seen in the inclusion of study questions after each text.

This chapter tackles John Radclyffe Hall and the sexologists’ “invert” as the next archetype. Hall was part of a subculture of “inverts” and their “wives” at a time when sexological theories were becoming familiar to the public. Despite the sexologists’ attempts to identify a unified theory of inversion, there were different models of female masculinity prevalent in same-sex circles.  Female inversion (usually accompanied by homosexuality) was the model applied to women similar to Anne Lister: ones with a masculine identification and performance, who desired non-masculine women.

Rich opens with examples of academic and feminist writing that talk about women’s lives in ways that exclude homo-affective bonds or label them as deviant. If lesbianism is mentioned at all, it is treated as being born of hostility toward men or as mere “sexual preference” or as being a direct mirror image of the male homosexual experience.

Medieval opinions about abstinence--as expressed in medical, philosophical, theological, and social literature--are more complicated and ambivalent than those about procreation. Given that much of the discourse around procreative sex frames it as driven by medical and moral imperatives (e.g., theories about how sexual desire has the goal of achieving balance and promoting health), how can abstinence fit into the same framework without being considered unhealthy?

The concepts and theories around in/fertility have shifted over the centuries much as those around sex/gender. Medieval authors were highly preoccupied with childbearing and anything that helped or impeded it. The expression of this concern was closely connected to theories of reproduction. Medieval treatments for infertility followed from the varied theoretical understandings of the process of conception and gestation.

This chapter looks at academic questions regarding the nature of male and female. With no agreed-on set of source texts or fixed principles of interpretation, the diversity and imaginativeness of late medieval interpretations was a natural consequence. But the contributions of Greek and Arabic writers and the development of structures for argumentation and presentation also affected the resulting conclusions. The formality of the field and its presentation can make it difficult to separate intellectualizing versus popular understanding.

The rise of universities, growing importance of towns, and shifts in the focus of ecclesiastical and secular courts created a new context for discussing sex differences. The rise of universities also inspired translation of vast quantities of Greek and Arabic material on natural philosophy and mediecine, providing access to classical sources that had been altered in the course of Latin transmission. This wealth of detail highlighted problems with the consistency and structure of the body of knowledge. This chapter highlights several texts grappling with this diversity.

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