Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Date accessed: 7 July, 2022
The age of the historian as public moralist is not quite past. To be sure, most of us today are content to write for each other on matters of no particular current concern and harbour little ambition to reach a lay audience, let alone convert it. Yet political movements still need usable pasts to instruct and inspire them, and those historians who prove willing to satisfy this demand have acquired an influence outside the profession far beyond that of their peers. The New Right needed its Correlli Barnetts, second wave feminism its Sheila Rowbothams, colonial nationalism its Eric Williams', and the gay community, Jeffrey Weeks. Weeks came of age during the brief flowering of the Gay Liberation Front in early 1970s London, its exhilaratingly 'new sense of what was possible' furnishing him with 'a new personal identity... a new sense of belonging, and... a new political project' to which he has devoted himself for the rest of his life. Before gay liberation he, in common with countless others, had sought to construct a homosexual identity out of fragments: a bit of James Baldwin here, a bit of sexology there, overlaid onto personal experiences and social prejudices in his quest for some sense of who he was and how he was to act. After it, thanks in large part to writers like him, gays had to hand a common history, a collective memory, the rudiments of a shared identity.
The essays contained in Making Sexual History illustrate how Weeks has helped to refashion gay identity in Britain over the past quarter of a century. It begins with a series of studies of key theorists of sexuality, from Havelock Ellis to Michel Foucault, identifying what he claims to be a shift from 'scientific' to 'grassroots' sexology. Whereas experts sought to define 'homosexuality' in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he argues, the late twentieth century saw homosexuals intent upon defining themselves. The second and third sections, respectively devoted to history and sociology, pursue this theme of sexual agency in describing how 'the erotic is being reinvented by the new sexual movements and day-to-day experiments in living'.
But being a latter-day public moralist is no easy task in our era of specialists and professionals. One key issue is how to reconcile activism to academic research: how, in Weeks' words, his mission to 'remake the history of sexuality' squares with his ambition to 'understand' it. This appears to have been an easier task in the late sixties and seventies, when gay and feminist historians alike felt it sufficient to restore the past to its rightful owners, to identify historical oppression, resurrect forgotten heroes and, perhaps most important of all, to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of their present condition. If existing models of homosexuality, masculinity and femininity had been imposed upon women and gays in the past, it was at once possible and desirable that they should reinvent them in the present. Weeks' sympathy for such an approach can be seen in the critiques of Havelock Ellis, Mary McIntosh and Dennis Altman contained in this volume. McIntosh and Altman exploded the 'liberal' sexological consensus which Ellis epitomised, namely that 'inversion' could be categorised as a distinct condition resulting from some biological or psychological abnormality. Weeks' work has likewise sought to blur the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality, claiming with Michel Foucault that the modern 'homosexual' was a late nineteenth century creation.
Today, however, such a political stance is open to challenge from a number of angles. To begin with, the history of sexuality shows signs of outgrowing its politicised origins. While Weeks is surely right to argue that its early innovators were 'self-proclaimed sexual dissidents' driven by 'as much "political" and "purely academic"' concerns, this is no longer the case. The more respectable the discipline has become, the less overtly political are its exponents, with the worthy Oxbridge monographs produced by the likes of Michael Mason and Simon Szreter wearing the colours of no identifiable cause. The biases of straight male authors are doubtless harder to detect, but these appear dispassionate works on subjects of negligible political import. Their archival burrowing and exhaustive number-crunching also contradict Weeks' claim that 'traditional historical methods have proved inadequate to the understanding of sexuality'. Though unusual in its interdisciplinary methodology and the universal interest of its subject-matter, the history of sexuality appears to be becoming just one more sub-discipline replete its own e-mailing lists catering for arcane debates.
Quite where Weeks himself fits into a less politicised historiography of sexuality is unclear. For all his commitment, he has never been a tub-thumper. His key contributions to the history of sexuality, Coming Out (1977) and Sex, Politics and Society (1981), possessed little of the didacticism of some contemporaneous studies: hence their enduring influence. Yet for the past two decades, as this essay collection makes plain, he has largely deserted history in favour of sociological studies of a more discursive, less empirical sort. It would be interesting to know why: one reason, I would guess, is that contemporary commentary is a better vehicle for the activist-academic than historical research. The past can be mined for components of an identity, but mostly it yields detritus and junk, so much useless knowledge more distracting than inspiring for the activist of today. How, after all, can one justify studying Georgian molly-houses when one's friends are dying of AIDS?
Even if we accept a place for politics in academic research, this leaves unresolved which political line to follow. Weeks is more than aware that gay intellectuals accord to no single party whip. A major dividing line among them is the nature-nurture debate, as the social constructionist orthodoxy of the 1970s and early 1980s has come under challenge from geneticists seeking to identify a 'gay gene'. There is also the question of the relationship between lesbians and gay men. Are the two homosexualities equivalent, with each being persecuted due to its threat to male heterosexuality, or are they qualitatively different on the grounds that lesbianism faces a double dose of discrimination? Weeks is a reluctant participant in each of these disputes. On the origins of homosexuality, he remains a convinced environmentalist, claiming that his own work has 'conclusively demonstrated the power of culture in giving definition to what or who we are'. This sounds reasonable enough, but his hostility to biological explanations of sexual behaviour leads him to simplify his opponents' views. The counterargument is not that 'sexuality is simply the domain of nature', but that nature predisposes humans to sexual behaviours which, due to social pressures and personal psychology, they may act upon or otherwise. It is not 'unprovable' that a minority of individuals have an in-built predisposition to homosexual behaviour, merely as yet unproven, while to raise the nightmare scenario that such a discovery might lead to 'genetic engineering' eradicating homosexuality is not reason in itself to abandon serious scientific research. It is the duty of scientists to explore and report: that of wider society to decide what to do with their findings.
Evidently perturbed by the possibility that the geneticists are on to something, Weeks' position shifts on occasion from denying the existence of inherent sexual inclinations to denying their importance. Thus the quest for an aetiology of homosexuality is in his view the modern-day equivalent of 'count[ing] angels on the point of a needle', while the question of whether homosexuals are born or made is 'irrelevant' to the more significant issue of studying sexuality's 'social organisation'. Yet the problem cannot be so easily side-stepped, for Weeks' own work is too dependent on a constructionist methodology to remain intact once it is removed. This much can be seen in his critique of Ellis, in which he argues that the 'conceptual inadequacies' of his essentialist outlook left him 'trapped within the conservatism that his biological theories dictated.' Since Ellis' categories were so many stereotypes, it was inevitable that they proved insufficient either fully to explain sexuality or to contain it within its prescriptive typology. From Weeks' constructionist perspective, the ostensible radicalism of Ellis is exposed as 'reactionary' due to its biological underpinnings and, in an interesting twist on the hydraulic model of drives and discharges, the amorphous, polymorphous nature of sexuality 'always overflows the neat divisions that science simultaneously imposes.' Yet, insofar as constructionism is thrown into doubt, such arguments lose some of their validity.
Weeks' attitude to the relationship between homosexual men and women also appears to have changed little since the early days of gay liberation and its fond hopes for a feminist-gay alliance. The Ellis piece finds him adopting a moderate feminist line according to which women and 'inverts' were joint victims of Ellis' stunted radicalism, while his solitary attempt at sociological fieldwork, a survey of the 'democratic, egalitarian' relationships being pioneered by homosexuals, makes no clear distinction between lesbian and gay couples. Yet constructing a common front against male heterosexuality is not as unproblematic as it might first appear. In the case of Ellis, there remains a fundamental incompatibility between his demonisation at the hands of such radical feminist historians as Sheila Jeffreys and Margaret Jackson, here cited uncritically, and Weeks' own (revised) view that Ellis and like-minded sexologists were 'on the whole forces for good' due to their 'liberalising' intent. And, in his analysis of contemporary lesbian and gay relationships, Weeks could be accused of minimising the differences between gay and lesbian lifestyles while maximising the difference between them and heterosexuals. Lesbians' generally greater preference for monogamy must surely produce markedly different relationship patterns to those of gay men, yet here such contrasts are dismissed as 'stereotypes'. Moreover, in the absence of any control group, it is difficult to establish whether or not non-heterosexual relationships are more 'pure', in Anthony Giddens' phrase, than their heterosexual equivalents.
The manner in which Making Sexual History addresses such profound issues as the relationship between scholarship and politics, biology and society, lesbians and gays and homosexuality and heterosexuality testifies both to the scope of Weeks' interests and the value of his work. That the questions it raises appear more compelling than the answers it delivers show that there is still a place for public moralists. It was ever their role to make sense of complex issues using the cool certainties of political convictions - and that of critics to object to the generalisations and inconsistencies that this involves. Making Sexual History challenges us to think hard about where our sexuality comes from, how it shapes our lives and how we might in turn seek to shape it to the benefit of ourselves and society as a whole.
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.