Including Sexuality as a "Useful Category of Analysis" in College History Courses
Ben Lowe, January 2013
I was recently surprised to discover that none of the students in one of my senior-level history classes knew about the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, and so I became intrigued: Why wasn't this being taught in college history courses? The episode also reminded me of a turning point in my own thinking about history. Until I was in graduate school in the late 1980s, and read Joan Scott's seminal article, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,"1 I had never been introduced to gender as a way of conceptualizing and interpreting the past.
At that moment, however, I came to realize that an important dimension of history is neglected when we restrict ourselves to only certain categories of analysis, which, before the 1980s, tended to privilege the experiences of white, heterosexual men. I came to accept that gender relations are of critical importance in how we understand the way events unfold and how we measure their impact. To use Scott's words, "Gender is, after all, 'a primary way of signifying power.'"2
Several years ago I realized that the same approach is useful when it comes to understanding the place of sexuality in history. The relationship between sex and power constitutes a basic dynamic of human experience that extends across all societies and times, and can be examined at its most simple level through studying how sexual deviance has been culturally defined so as to be associated with weakness, disorder, and immorality, all of which signify powerlessness. The more I explored this aspect of history the more I could see that incorporating sexuality into our interpretive frameworks fundamentally changes how we view the past, and forces, as Scott says, a "critical examination of the premises and standards of scholarly work."3
To help students adopt sexuality as a category of analysis, I first focused on examples where power and authority are constituted through the formation of specific forms of knowledge. My students learned where Western notions of sexuality come from and how they have been shaped, suppressed, subverted, and able to re-emerge within particular historical contexts. When sexuality serves as an investigative marker in this way, it fosters new sorts of inquiries and fresh interpretations of past events.
For example, we can better understand the Holocaust when we know how Nazi eugenics was inextricably tied to controlling sexuality, which was itself rooted in a relatively new pathology of sex. We are able to explain more fully the early modern witch hunts when we recognize how they were embedded historically in a demonology of female sexual disorder. Such examples are endless, and it is most rewarding when students think critically and begin making connections on their own, as one of mine did recently in noticing the role of sex in integrating young men into the male power structure of ancient Greece. One need only replace "gendered" with "sexual" to find the same idea in Scott's call for historians "to examine the ways in which gendered identities are substantively constructed and relate their findings to a range of activities, social organizations, and historical specific cultural representations."4
Last year, Florida Atlantic University opened up a brand new LGBTQA center on campus and when it began disseminating information on academic resources I offered to help identify relevant classes in our department. When I subsequently polled my colleagues about possible courses that might be recommended to LGBT students who wanted to learn about their own history, I received a number of replies along the lines of, "I don't bring sexuality into any of my classes but probably should," or "I cover gender but haven't been able to include sexuality yet in my classes."
Why haven't departments equipped students to analyze history in this way? For one thing, I believe sexuality continues to be missing from history curricula at many colleges and universities because it is a touchy subject for many, and professors would prefer to minimize potential controversy by not bringing it up. Some students might be uncomfortable, and there is probably a genuine, legitimate fear in some schools that there could be serious repercussions for openly talking about sexuality, like loss of job security, funding cuts, or negative press. Locating and garnering outside support might help head off possible opposition and could include working with student groups (a campus LGBT organization), laying the groundwork with administrators, or reaching out to supporters in the community. The fact that sexuality engenders such political squeamishness, though, is exactly why it should be part of our history classes. Talking about sexuality, sensitively, can be respectful and academic and even rather uncontroversial.
Second, some teachers conflate sexuality with gender, and assume that if they address gender they've addressed sexuality. These two categories share obvious commonalities; but while the focus of gender is on female/male difference, sexuality stresses sexual identity and expression. In addition to helping us comprehend how patriarchal structures have shaped the past and caused us to interpret it from a largely male perspective, studying sexuality helps us understand how presuming that heterosexuality is the norm has limited a good deal of historical scholarship. For example, Cold War histories neglected for decades the important role of sexual shame that at times resulted in blackmail and even treason. And couldn't the recent dust-up over the U.S. government mandating health care coverage of contraception be less about crossing boundaries between church and state and more about a persistent legacy of early Christian/Augustinian moral strictures against non-procreative sexual relations?
Third, some might think that by bringing sexuality into our courses we are in danger of imposing an ideological agenda on our interpretations of the past, a charge once commonly leveled against gender and women's history. Most professional historians, while skeptical of too much theory for fear it will drive the discussion and end up validating preconceived conclusions, have been trained in a historical methodology that is still largely empirically-based. We know to treat evidence carefully and to do justice to our sources as best we can. Sexuality is not an ideological approach so much as a different perspective from which to look at the evidence and come to a more thorough analysis.
A final reason for the absence of sexuality from many of our courses is because of the perception that there just isn't enough time to introduce this theme into an already crowded course syllabus. Plus, where does one start? As with the history of women and minorities, we don't want to ghettoize the history of sexuality into a self-contained field taught only by members of one of the minority groups it studies, but rather incorporate it into our more general courses. Any class covering any period can address sexuality in some form, if only to introduce it as a category of historical analysis.
In my Renaissance class, I have students read Franco Mormando's excellent The Preacher's Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy because it demonstrates how the "persecuting society" that developed during the fifteenth century—demonizing witches, Jews, and sodomites—had a real historical impact. Laws were passed, people were rounded up and executed, and an overall hysteria was instilled among local populations. Mormando's splendid framing of these issues always proves to be a great launching pad for extended class discussions about language and the construction of sexual categories, how people with ill-informed prejudices in earlier times viewed difference, and how fear and ignorance can produce similar misunderstandings today.
Remembering my colleagues who saw the value of bringing sexuality in to their courses and lamented that that they hadn't yet done so, my exhortation to those of you who have been hesitant is to take that first step and just do it. You will reap great rewards in finding students eager to learn about this part of the past, and you'll be challenged to stretch yourself as a teacher and scholar, much as I was when I read Joan Scott back in 1987.
Ben Lowe is professor of early modern European history at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. He recently published Commonwealth and the English Reformation (Ashgate, 2010) and teaches a course in the history of European sexuality. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would like to thank his friend and colleague, Patricia Kollander, for reading and offering feedback on an early draft of this article.
1.Joan Wallach Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," American Historical Review 91 (1986): 1053–75.