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Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns

What do we know about early modern sex? And how do we know it? How, when, and why does sex become history? In Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, Valerie Traub addresses these questions and, in doing so, reorients the ways in which historians and literary critics, feminists and queer theorists approach sexuality and its history.

Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns

Valerie Traub

2015 | 480 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $34.95
History / Women's Studies/Gender Studies / Gay Studies/Lesbian Studies/Queer Studies
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Thinking Sex: Knowledge, Opacity, History

Chapter 2. Friendship's Loss: Alan Bray's Making of History
Chapter 3. The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies
Chapter 4. The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography

Chapter 5. The Joys of Martha Joyless: Queer Pedagogy and the (Early Modern) Production of Sexual Knowledge
Chapter 6. Sex in the Interdisciplines
Chapter 7. Talking Sex

Chapter 8. Shakespeare's Sex
Chapter 9. The Sign of the Lesbian
Chapter 10. Sex Ed; or, Teach Me Tonight


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This book was written during a particular moment in U.S. cultural and political history—after the initial efflorescence of academic gay/lesbian/queer studies and during a socially conservative and sex-negative political backlash that extended from the media and medicine to schools and the arts. This was a time of severe social and discursive contradiction around sex, with sex phobia contending in equal measure with the sex saturation of a celebrity-obsessed culture. It began—although I did not know it at the time—in conversations with Mark Schoenfield at Vanderbilt University, who gamely agreed to read all of Shakespeare's sonnets with me. A turning point came when Julie Crawford suggested that an early version of "The Joys of Martha Joyless" allegorized my own scholarly and pedagogical career. Its overall design began to coalesce during the Bush II era (2001-2009), a period characterized by governmental disavowals of the existence of anything other than reproductive marital sexuality, contributing to persistent underfunding of research into and prevention programs for HIV/AIDS and to abstinence-only policies of so-called sex education. Over the first decade of the new millennium, politicians in the United States were relieved of office for seeking out sex workers, panics about pedophilia moved from the schools into the Catholic Church to the football locker room, the feminist critique of sexual harassment was co-opted to prohibit most consensual sexual conduct within the workplace and schools, and teenagers increasingly were incarcerated for engaging in consensual erotic acts that their parents' generation performed with impunity. Across the globe political conflicts intensified over homosexual civil rights, the treatment of sex workers, HIV transmission, and women's and girls' access to sexual information and health care. Women were stoned to death for adultery and men executed for sodomy. The right to sexual and other forms of education was exploited by the U.S. government to justify the geopolitical incursions of the post-9/11 security state. The book was finished as President Obama struggled to address the crises that arose out of Bush neglect—of infrastructure, of ethical and financial oversight, of education—in ways that could only disappoint a feminist and queer Left, even as the more mainstream demands of gay organizing began to bear fruit in local, state, and national polices on gays and lesbians in the military, civil unions, and marriage equality. Contradictions were everywhere: the same year that the governor in the state in which I live signed legislation barring health-care benefits to domestic partners of public employees, National Public Radio declared it a "good year to be gay." I finished revising the manuscript while we await the Supreme Court decision on marriage rights; having first married my partner in 1986 and made it legal in my natal state of California in 2014, I am cautiously hopeful that she and I will gain access to each other's Social Security benefits before I retire. But who knows?

Sex, needless to say, has been much on my mind.

My ideas began to cohere into something like an "argument" during the six years I chaired the Women's Studies Department at the University of Michigan. One of the oldest and best resourced of such departments in the United States, composed in equal parts of humanists and social scientists in addition to several medical practitioners, this vibrant, collegial, and contentious community honed my understanding of interdisciplinarity—what it is, what makes it possible, what its limits are. Whereas I had long considered myself to be an interdisciplinary scholar, I quickly found that providing leadership to a group composed of scholars with such different perspectives and expertise required not only attentive listening but risky acts of mediation. Much of what I discovered about my colleagues in the social science and medical fields countered humanists' stereotypes of them. For one thing, they were more adept at integrating feminist and queer theory (as developed in the humanities) into their research and teaching than humanists are at integrating social science research, and their training in different methodologies made them routinely self-reflexive about the stakes of their research design. I was especially intrigued to find that they, too, are pursuing sexuality as a form of difficult knowledge. (Not that I was entirely won over; they remain tireless in lampooning the limitations of humanists, most especially our obscurantist "jargon" and our demonstrated inability to intuit the meaning of information presented on x/y axes.)

During this time, and with the help of some amazing faculty and office staff, I strove to institutionalize LGBTQ/Sexuality Studies through a variety of programmatic means, including developing a stable of undergraduate courses, devising an LGBTQ/Sexuality Studies graduate certificate, and harnessing the energies of queer faculty across campus to teach sexuality courses under the institutional umbrella of Women's Studies. My experience of the possibilities for and pitfalls of institutional change comprises a biographical substrate of the pages that follow. Another exhilarating and ambivalent effort involved collaborating with colleagues in Women's Studies and History to develop and coteach a large undergraduate lecture course on the history of sexuality. That we attempted to forgo chronology and sexual identity as organizing rubrics was as utopian as our "global" spatial-temporal design, which mandated that we "cover" much of the world through most of recorded time. My own pedagogical failures in that endeavor were as serendipitous to my thinking as were invitations to organize a conference on the topic of "gay shame" and respond in print to queer scholarship situated in the fields of comparative literature and Islamic studies. Each of these collaborations, for different reasons, pushed my thinking beyond the bounds of my expertise and comfort zone.

Indeed, a variety of affective investments have punctuated this undertaking, including alienation and anger. But these negative affects have been leavened by the intense joy sometimes experienced in my teaching, in conversations with colleagues, and in the course of engaging with a host of talented graduate students. My debt to specific colleagues and friends is noted in my Acknowledgments. Here I want to flag for special thanks those students involved in a Women's Studies graduate course on making sexual knowledge. Through discussions about contemporary sex surveys, DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) controversies about diagnosing sexual pathologies, and SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) position statements, my awareness that the frameworks through which we construct our research objects direct the questions that we ask was transformed into an organizing principle of my scholarship and teaching. Thinking in that course about the contemporary meanings of age of sexual consent laws, contemporary pornography, sex education, and discourses of sexual health deepened my appreciation of both the perennial quality of the symbolic functions of sex, as well as the import of its historical specificity. Our conversations clarified my understanding of the productive as well as constraining effects of academic disciplines while increasing my appreciation for both the pleasures and tripwires of interdisciplinary dialogue—including our different understandings of and investments in theory, history, methods, experience, and activism. At the same time, teaching students who are unaccustomed to thinking historically—or whose sense of the past is radically attenuated—reaffirmed my sense that a historical approach to sexual knowledge relations can usefully inform, nuance, and texture our approach to contemporary problems. The belief that understanding such processes of knowledge production in other times and other places might provide a conceptual framework for intervening in contemporary discourses of sex and sexuality underlies the pedagogical intent of what follows.

Post-Stonewall queer pedagogy typically has focused on whether or how to come out in the classroom. As someone who was, early in my career, forbidden by my (closeted gay male) department chair to come out to my students, I acknowledge the political import and personal significance of negotiating such everyday, banal acts of self-disclosure, which, as others have remarked, take the form of performative speech acts that require continual reiteration. Even within the supposedly queer-friendly academy today, coming out through word, implication, personal style, bodily acts, or reading assignments involves a delicate and sometimes stressful choreography of revelation and concealment, exposure and withholding, of strategizing across the boundaries of private and public for both students and teachers. Those teachers and students whose gender presentation, style, or comportment depart most radically from dominant norms no doubt dance to a somewhat different tune than those of us who could, if we so choose, pass as straight.

In its pedagogical investments, however, this book is interested less in the performance of sexual (or gender) identity than in the performance of sexual speech. Whether we come out in the classroom or pass, are straight or would like not to be, central to our pedagogical strategies is our felt experience when speaking sex. Like the performative act of coming out, candor in such speech involves a complex choreography of personal revelation and concealment of erotic interests and affiliations. Teaching sexually explicit materials involves not only deep contextualization, but forthrightness. Fellatio, cunnilingus, blow jobs, finger or fist fucking: whether couched in a high or low idiom, these words, or others like them, voiced in an academic setting (no matter whether during an undergraduate lecture, graduate seminar, conference panel, or keynote address), violate tacit assumptions about academic protocol and decorum. However progressive, feminist, or queer their views, many auditors and interlocutors react to what they perceive as a breach of etiquette, or to an imagined assault, or to the contagious quality of sexual shame. I have encountered widened eyes, downcast glances, deafening silence, and nervous as well as appreciative laughter.

It is within such contradictory contexts that my engagements with pedagogy, history, knowledge practices, and the relationship between feminist and queer modes of thinking, acting, and being have evolved. In gratitude for the opportunity to speak sex, to think sex, and to make sexual knowledge, I dedicate this book to my Michigan graduate students who, more than anyone else, have taught me what it means to teach.

Note on Spelling

I have mainly retained original spellings and punctuation in quotations from early modern texts except when quoting from modern editions. Given my hope that readers less familiar with early modern English will read this book, I have expanded contractions, distinguished i/j, u/v, and vv/w, and replaced long s for f. I also have translated typeface into modern roman type. All citations of the Oxford English Dictionary refer to the OED Online.

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