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Response to Review no. 135

I am grateful to Marcus Collins for his thoughtful and empathetic review of my book. He has attempted, with care and considerable insight, to understand my underlying intellectual project. I am not sure I would ever have used the phrase ‘public moralist’ to describe my stance in regard to that project. I share Michel Foucault’s distrust of the moralist, who wants to tell people how to behave: I prefer to see myself as someone who tries to understand the values by which people do behave, to ‘denaturalise’ the taken for granted assumptions which govern our concepts of sexuality, and to show the other possibilities that have existed, or can exist, in living intimate life.

But he is right to see my aim as a consciously public and committed one. I seek to achieve an engaged scholarship, or a scholarly engagement, not the pretence of an academic neutrality, which surely is unattainable anyway. By making where I come from clear, I can enter a dialogue with my readers. It is up to them to decide how they will deal with my evidence, where they take my insights, what they will make of my point of view. Which is why, perhaps, as Dr Collins suggests, my writing often tends to open up questions rather than offer definitive ‘truths’. Offering my version of the ‘truth’ as the only valid one leads to intellectual closure. I prefer a continuing conversation – about, inter alia, the nature of historical truth, the complexity of the social, and the multiple meanings of sexuality – which is what I seek to achieve in the book.

Have I really ‘deserted’ history? For a long time I felt academic history had deserted me. My early studies found a warmer welcome in university sociology, and later cultural studies, departments than in history schools. Whatever the picture today, histories of sexuality (and especially histories of homosexuality) were viewed very suspiciously by the historical establishment in the 1970s, when I began publishing. Despite publishing several ‘history’ books, I was never offered a single post in a history department. I have occupied two successive chairs in sociology departments. But perhaps there is a deeper truth in my career history than simply the vagaries of academic appointments. Since my undergraduate days I have been interested less in ‘pure history’ than in the interface between history, sociology and politics as a field of intellectual endeavour. Studying the evolution of sexual identities, patterns of regulation, sexological concepts, changing moral values offered me opportunities to deploy the methods of historical research, political analysis and sociological investigation. And contrary to Dr Collins’ suggestion, I have paid my dues in detailed empirical research over many years. Two examples, not one, of recent sociological investigation are in the book. Readers interested in the one referred to by Dr Collins, on non-heterosexual ‘families of choice’, may wish to refer to the book on the research, to be published in 2001. It fully addresses the question of similarity and differences between lesbians and gay men, which he suggests is an omission in the essay, itself.

Making Sexual History encapsulates an intellectual, political and personal journey. It is not all of my work, but perhaps it contains most of the main themes that have engaged me, necessarily, because these are essays originally written for a variety of different occasions and outlets, often in foreshortened form. Unifying those themes is my absolute conviction that sexuality has to be understood as an historical and social phenomenon. Of course, it is interesting and important also that we learn about the biological possibilities of the body, and the psychic imperatives of the human animal. But I am neither a biologist, geneticist nor psychologist, but a sociologically inclined historian, or a historically minded sociologist (self-identities are ever multiple and overlapping). That combination convinces me that sexual identities, like all social identities – whether gendered, class, national, ethnic or racial – must be understood as social and historical positionings which have a contingent, not necessary relationship to the ‘natural body’. Does that make me a ‘convinced environmentalist’? Perhaps. But I reserve the right to refuse that identity.

Dr Collins raises many other points which tempt me to engage with him in a collaborative conversation. I do not always agree with his interpretations, but I am grateful for the opportunity he has given me to reflect on my practice. But perhaps enough is enough. Readers should be given their space – not least to read Making Sexual History itself, and make up their own minds.