Sexuality: A Euro-American Export

by Christopher Vitale (crossposted at Networkologies)

Degeneration and the Medical Model

Was sexuality as we know it, both hetero and homosexuality, along with the various other biases inherent thereto,  a western export? Absolutely. I usually start off my class ‘A Brief History of Sexuality from Sexology to the Digital Age’ with Foucault. I explain to my students what he means by sexuality. From there, we examine anatomical drawings, to see the major shifts between Middle Ages and Renaissance to today (for more on these see the work of Thomas Lacquer). And from there we look at a ton of texts by sexologists and about the medicalization of sex during the late nineteenth century in Europe and America, as well as the construction of the degeneration model of human development at this time, most famously put forth by Max Nordau in his incredibly popular tome Degeneration from 1895 (for more on this, see the work of Sander Gilman, Vernon Rosario, etc.).

According to this form of psuedo-Darwinianism, the white, heterosexual, non-criminal, upper-class male was at the top of a pyramid, while the insane, criminal, homosexual and perverted, and lower classes were at lower levels. White women and children were lower than white men, but while male children at least could go up the hierarchy, while everyone else could only go down.

Because heredity was imagined to only occur via blood, not via genetics (which were not till around the 1930′s, when Gregor Mendel’s pea pod experiments were rediscovered with the birth of population genetic theory, and not proven to really exist until Watson and Crick in the 1950′s), it was thought that anything one did could be passed on to your children. If you were a thief, this criminal mindset brought you closer to perversion and homosexuality, if you became a drunkard, you were more likely to become a pervert, if you masturbated, you were becoming closer to insanity and depravity, and if you did this over generations, well, this is how the colonized became as they were – or so the story goes. Obviously, we see a model designed by those in power to justify their abuses of those lower on the hierarchy.

Its amazing to realize just how recent these models were accepted as true. As a good shocker, imagine this: Josephine Baker’s first and only novel, “Her Blood in My Veins”, published in 1929, has as its central plot device the fact that the main character’s (modeled on Baker) fiance, a white man, gets a blood transfusion from her at the end of the novel to save his life after he is hit by a car and nearly dies. Of course, everyone realizes that now he will become partly black, because he has ‘her blood in his veins.’ In 1929, most of the educated public still thought that blood transfusion could cause a change in your body morphology!

Interzones: the 1920′s and 30′s, and the role of McCarthyism

From here the class goes to two primary texts about sexuality, race, and class in the interwar period, both intensively researched historical texts, George Chauncey’s Gay New York: 1890′s-1940′s, and Interzones, by Kevin Mumford, which tracks gender, sexuality, and racial intermixings in Chicago and New York during the 20′s and 30′s. And some amazing facts emerge. Firstly, notions of homo and heterosexuality were a predominantly white and upper-class phenomenon, up to and including the 1930′s, for within the African-American communities, this medicalized approach to sex had yet to really make its mark. Simply by going from the Village up to Harlem in NYC in this period, you could switch from a ‘male homosexual’ to a ‘regular man who occasionally slept with pansies’, with huge ramifications in the way you were treated by just about everyone. Or you could simply go to the docks where there were sailors, and there find the world of ‘faeries’ and ‘trade’, and if you acted like a man and were on top, no-one would think you were anything ‘but a man’.

What changed this? McCarthyism. The ‘pinko-commie’ scare of the 1950′s made the term ‘homosexuality’ a national pariah, and the word infiltrated every home through the new medium of television. It wasn’t until the 1950′s that we truly see ‘sexuality’, the medicalized version, penetrate American consciousness at all levels of society, and to some extent, Europe as well.

Colonialism and Capitalism

But this didn’t happen in the rest of the world. The medicalized model was exported via colonialism, but often incompletely so. But Christianity was often exported much more effectively. The result is that everywhere you look in the non-Euro-American world, you see clashes between the model of ‘sexuality’ and local, indigenous forms of gender and sex. In most of the non-Euro-American world, it is in fact not a sexuality model that has sway, but a gender based model. If you act like a man, and are on top, you are a man, while if you act like a woman and/or are on the bottom, you are somehow a woman on the inside, despite your organs. The notion of a masculine guy who loves other guys, wants to be in a relationship with them, or is on the bottom and still act like a man, these ideas are often quite foreign. While there are people who do these things, they are simply often classified as ‘men’ in a gender based system.

This does not mean that there are not local forms of same-sex intimacy, and in fact, these abound. For example, in Samoa, there are the Fa’faine, men who dress like women, often serve as the first sexual experience of young men to get them ready for ‘real’ relations with a woman, and who often marry ‘real men’ in the village, and these men who marry them are considered just as much men as everyone else. Similar models abound in other parts of Polynesia. In India, there are hijra, in some Native American communities the berdache, in Japan the samurai often had male lovers under the bushido code, the list goes on and on.

To demonstrate the ways in which this is still operative today, there is an article I often use with students about how anti-gay violence rose dramatically in the mid-1990′s in northern Mexico. The author argues that this is largely due to NAFTA, because this treaty lifted restrictions on the amount of American TV that could come into Mexico. The result is that communities that hadn’t really been exposed to the American idea of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ before began to encounter these terms much more frequently. The result? That men who were masculine and on top, considered ‘men’ in the more traditional Mexican approach to these things, now became stigmatized.

We see however in a place like Thailand, where colonialism came late and Christianity never held sway, how the gender model still predominates. Often LGBT activists complain that it is difficult to organize gays and lesbians there. But that is because the western LGBT model doesn’t apply.

Places where colonialism had a huge impact are those in which we often see the displacement of traditional forms of same-sex intimacy, and the replacement of these by Christian condemnation, medicalized discrimination, or both. These are legacies of colonialism. This does not mean that all precolonial non-western societies were fully tolerant of same-sex intimacies, but most were more tolerant in many than what the west imported.

Why might this be? Many have argued that gender roles in the west underwent a radical shift with the industrial revolution (see Stephanie Coontz’s excellent Marriage: A History for more on this). Gender roles became radically more polarized as men adopted the austere protestant fashions required for the workplace, and to distinguish themselves from the former aristocracy, now only women wore high fashion, were not supposed to work, while men became industrious and sober, distinct from their passions. Victorianism was born from the industrial revolution, and the medical model came to support all this towards the end of the century. Certainly, though, in the middle ages, it was rare that people were persecuted for sodomy (a VERY loose terms in the middle ages, for more, see Carolyn Dinshaw’s excellent Getting Medieval), though there were more freedoms in the Islamic world (for more, seeIslamic Homosexualities, ed. Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe).

But it does seem a chicken and egg type of question – did capitalism breed homophia? I wouldn’t be surprised if the need for men to renounce their urges in all areas of life, all in the name of work, wasn’t part of the production of the gendered division of labor, of which the proscription of same-sex intimacy was a part. This seems to me to be speculation, but not unfounded.

Either way, it seems completely evident that capitalism via the internet and other forms of mass media globalization is now spreading the western model around the globe. The results are clashes and slippages between western and local notions of same-sex intimacy in a wide variety of ways, some peaceful, some less so.

For anyone looking for more sources on these issues, I recommend the following as great places to start: Global Sex, by Dennis Altman; Queer Globalizations, ed. Martin Manalansan and Arnando Cruz-Malave, Post-Colonial Queer, ed. by John C. Hawley, Disidentifications, by Jose Esteban Munoz,Queer Migrations, ed. Eithne Luitheld and Lionel Cantu; Impossible Desires, by Gayatri Gopinath; Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America, by Lillian Faderman, etc.


~ by chris on June 8, 2010.

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