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Sexual Hegemony

Sexual Hegemony was Written by Christopher Chitty, edited by Max Wolf, and published in 2020.

The cover of the book, featuring a painting showed a naked man's hair being cut.

To put it schematically: alternate or queer sexualities—primarily homosexuality, intransitive gender identifications, prostitution, and other kinds of sex work—historically emerged along the fault lines of transformed property relations in a process of combined and uneven development. This development involved the displacement from the countryside of populations in urban centers and in institutions attempting to manage or capture this surplus within either a productive apparatus for managing the social fallout of economic development; and these sexualities figured as problematic to a bourgeois moral separation of private acts from public spaces. Irregular work and housing conditions led to irregular patterns of sex and intimacy, casual prostitution, illegitimate births, and casual sex between men. The geographical and historical role of parts of Australia and North and South America as resource frontiers generated anomalous settlement patterns, attracting predominantly male laborers to seasonal, casual, and otherwise precarious forms of employment. The sexuality of settler colonies was often irregular, and honor, rather than a homo/hetero binary, played a regulative role in policing the boundaries of legitimate intimacy between men.

1. Homosexuality and Capitalism

Homosexual repression, as such, was largely the product of an expanded state bureaucracy, increased police power, and capital's twentieth-century concern for the welfare and health of working populations. The goals of the gay and lesbian rights movement were posed internally to the developmentalist state, which incentivized nuclear family norms to curb various male excesses, forge an immensely more productive labor force, and foster adjustment to new kinds of work around the middle of the twentieth century. A transnational imagined community of queers established itself in response to organized state repression.

By considering cultures of sex between men in light of the temporality of attempts to establish early modern republics—a cycle of revolution, interregnum, and restoration—I foreground the role of contingency in the history of cultures of sodomy.

I'm excited to see what I learn from this with a trans lesbian perspective. Gay and lesbian struggles have regularly manifested to me in disjointed forms and yet I consider both to be equally important parts of my queer heritage.

Queer Realism

Queer realism is not a call for a return to positivism

Queer realism is not a theory of how power works to shape sexuality, according to some schema of repressions which is typically proposed using concepts of "normativity" or "homophobia."

The normal will not be understood as "normativity"—some free-floating regulative idea [...] I will instead conceive of the normal as a status, one which—given certain concrete socioeconomic conditions—accrues material advantages to those who achieve it or happen to born into it. This understanding restore a sociological significance to the term by reframing whatever cultural competences it marks as extensions of status property

The "queer" can then be recast as a narrow descriptive category, signifying the lack of such status property: it captures the way in which norms of gender and sexuality get weakened, damaged, and reasserted under conditions of local and generalized social, political, and economic crisis. The queer would then imply a contradictory process in which such norms are simultaneously denatured and renaturalized. Rather than marking some utopian opening up of these logics for self-transformative play, the queer would describe forms of love and intimacy with a precarious social status outside the institutions of family, property, and couple form. This critical redefinition of the categories of the normal and the queer has political implications for present, ongoing analyses of the intersection of gender, privilege, race, class, and sexuality.

[The above texts] sought to aesthetically estrange readers from liberalism's affective tonality for registering sexual and moral differences. To do so they juxtaposed alarmed reports of bourgeois reformers with a steely prose, assessing the structural causes and abstract, impersonal compulsions driving such apparent moral disorder.

[The above texts are] later, more self-critical examples of the technique. As representational intervention, these texts sought to demonstrate, by way of an estrangement from learned structures of feeling, that moral responses to abjection and poverty were themselves part of the problem.

I want to read these!

Queer realism sets for itself the modest task of dedramatizing the kinds of stories we tell about the sexualities of the past. To do so is to short-circuit the connection between individual fantasy and collective identification.

The intellectual formation thrown up by the gay liberation movement has for decades been divided, the efforts of one tendency fixed on the prize (and discontents) of formal equality and those of the other capture by overwhelming losses and defeats. One tendency tells a story that mercilessly paves over such defeats with a yellow brick road of progress. The other speaks of this past in a melancholic trance, weighed down by the immeasurable loss of life that brought an end to the gay counterculture of the 1970s.

Extremely brutal and accurate.

My appeal to realism is thus a performative intervention. "Realness" was initially queer slang for the face one had to wear in the straight world—less deception or disguise than a disengaged persona and form of comportment. According to this slightly cynical understanding, realness has the meaning of subjectivating a sense of what is possible. This kind of realness has historically provided queers with rhetorical strategies for questioning dominant ideologies while nonetheless moving within them. The importance of a disengaged persona deserves a place alongside that often dreamy appeal to some queer utopian imaginary, however politically important and worth defending that may also be.

Contingency and the History of Homosexuality

Some references to Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, a text I have read but not fully internalized. Will need to spend some real time with that one someday.

The normalization—that is, extension of the form of status property in sexuality—of working-class families provided a basis for a wider hegemony of middle-class understandings of deviant sexualities. In the early twentieth century, the nuclear family became a powerful regulatory instrument for reproducing a reliable, regimented laboring population. To counteract the high turnover of labor in Ford's factories, the paradigmatic industrial enterprise created a Department of Sociology to investigate its workers' family life and ensure the ethnic immigrants of Detroit had been transformed into proper "Ford Men."

The establishment of bourgeois sexual hegemony—which facilitated both middle-class and working-class men's adjustment to developments in modes of production by confining sexuality within private spaces and forms of intimacy revolving around the family—was tantamount to a kind of enclosure, forming an episode in a long history of accumulation by dispossession.

2. Sodomy and the Government of Cities

Trying a different technique where I mark passages with a pencil as I read, to be synthesized at the computer later.

The subject of this chapter is a political analysis of homosexual relations and the criminalization of sodomy in Florence in the late 1400's. By doing so, it attempts to disrupt a common liberal perspective of a historical divide between the sodomy of the past and "modern homosexuality".

Florence was unique in that it had relatively gentle punishments for sodomy and a willingness to extend those (mild) punishments to its upper classes. The records of those convictions focus primarily on pedarasty, a sexual power dynamic that evolved out of changing market conditions and accumulation of power among the older population. "The market had transformed apprenticeship into little more than waged child labor," and "it is the boy's position at the center of this 'cash nexus' that made his eroticization socially problematic in Florence." Pederasty was a way of playing out a class dynamic in the sexual realm.

I found this bit about the origins of anti-sodomy laws in Florence particularly interesting:

The origins of antisodomy jurisprudence in Florence reflect anxieties surrounding the crisis of feudal property relations prior to the economic downturn of the 1340s and the Black Death. In fact, much of Europe's earliest laws against vagrancy originated during this period. In England, the first laws were enacted after the Black Death in 1348 and 1349; as labor was in short supply and wages increased, vagrancy acts attempted to prevent men from wandering the countryside to find higher wages. In 1349, the Ordinance of Labourers prohibited private individuals from giving relief to able-bodied beggars; in 1388 the Statute of Cambridge restricted movement of all laborers and beggars. Workers required a letter from a local justice of the peace before departing from the "hundred, rape, wapentake, city or borough" where they lived or risked being put in the stocks

The first laws against sodomy in Florence appeared in statutes regulating vagrancy. According Rocke, "wayfarers or brigands [...] were the archetypal figures of sodomy"

The way sodomy was regulated, through primarily non-lethal punishments, had an interesting effect: instead of ridding the city of sodomy, it enclosed it into the state and held it under control. A confession would result in a pardon, and so accusations became common, effective mobilizing the homosexual population against itself and acted as a pressure valve for the political tensions that these sexual relations were built on.

Sodomy inscribed these political humors and their ambiguous hydraulic movements upon and within the bodies fo those engaged in its pursuit. Through a reciprocal movement, the establishment of a special office for accusations against sodomites inscribed the play of these forces, this economy of flesh, back into the edifice of state power.

By providing an outlet for putting sodomy into discourse and by multiplying this discourse throughout the population, the Florentine state extended power over the sexuality of its male population. It was able to regulate pederasty without repressing it, to neutralize the threat generated by volatile sexual encounters between men of different strata, to break apart the solidarities that formed among men who had sex with men—turning friend against friend, lover against lover—and, most crucially, to provide incentives for the betrayal of one's self to the state.

For Chitty, this account begins to challenge the common liberal view, which pushes the above narrative "further back along the sociohistorical timeline towards the pederasty of ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean world, further away from a 'modern' homosexual." Chitty claims this line of thinking "engages too much in a childish and speculative historicism of antiquity."

It belies false assumptions about the nearer past, as if sexual relations between men and boys in nineteenth-century Europe were somehow free of power, free of class, status, and age hierarchies. These assumptions are political blind to all forms of homosexual behavior in the contemporary world that do not conform to the progressive liberal ideal of relations between coequals—to master-slave or daddy-boy scenes, to sex among prisoners, nonconsensual sex, prostitution, sex between individuals with healthcare and those without, to interracial sex, not to mention the complex relations of dependency and mastery internal to the couple form itself. This moral and political assumption of liberalism is not only patently false, it has inscribed into our discourses on the historicality of sex a sad caricature of social thought and criticism, a disempowering conception of human freedom, implying that self-reflection and subjectivity, sexual or otherwise, could only begin when the psychiatrist or some other pseudoscientist pronounced it to be so."

3. Sexual Hegemony and the Capitalist World System

Richard Burton, or Port Cities

A broad look at how the geographical, climatological, and cultural conditions of the Mediterranean served as "preconditions for a homosexual lifeworld." Port towns were the constant of the region and that lead to specific cultural structures:

Master-servant relations were, so to speak, built into the technology of the means of circulating goods and waging wars. The architecture of the merchant ship and warship—essentially, a galley propelled by oars, with a large square sail mounted on a single mast—remained unchanged for nearly three millennia in the Mediterranean, from the merchant ships of the Phoenician empire of 1000 BCE (which were in turn modeled after the Egyptian war galleys) to the merchant ships of Venice and Florence in 1700. This technology was adapted to cabotage, or coast-hugging, which partially explains the need for slaves: Mediterranean commerce was powered by human labor rather than by wind. Globally, by 1000 CE, the sail had ousted the oar as the prime means of ship propulsion everywhere but the Mediterranean. Seagoing placed men of all ages and from many cultures and religious traditions into intimate, highly cooperative, and mostly sex-segregated labor processes. Same-sex sexual relations and bond of fraternity and love were as inevitable in such milieus as they are in today's prisons.

At the same time, the relative ease of movement between cities also created labor populations with greater mobility. From Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II (1996):

In 1461, the Venetian Senate expressed anxiety at the shortage of crews and cabin boys and asked for details: the sailors "go to Pisa ... where they are well paid ... to our loss and another's gain." Many of these sailors left because they had debts to pay or heavy fines imposed by the Cinque Savii or the Signor de nocte—the night police of Venice.

The section concludes by discussing how the outbreak of syphilis "reflected an end to the period of geographic isolation of the disease, which in turn marked the beginning of more restrictive social mores." A great deal of sex between men was happening in public or semi-public spaces of intimacy: streets, markets, and bathhouses, and pandemics served to limit these possibilities.

William of Orange, or The Lower Decks

Chitty walks through the persecution of Sodomy in the Netherlands in the 1600-1800s, drawing parallels with the previous sections about the Mediterranean.

As in the northern Italian city-states, the wave of persecution reflected a secular economic crisis of capitalism: a floating mass of surplus labor appeared alongside surplus capital seeking speculative investments abroad and at home.

In this case, the surplus capital came from a state built out of alliances between trading companies:

Rich burghers had captured the infamously ramshackle and fragmented state by fusing elite patriarchal families and merchant capital with a locally grounded patrimonial state whose purview was war-making activities. Power was thus transmitted, via an elite cult of masculinity, through male scions whose sexual integrity had to be policed to ensure the maintenance of power from on generation to the next. The capacity to father children was the sine qua non of elite manhood.

I can see here that this is was "sexual status property", as discussed in the introduction, actually looks like.

For a man or his family, the successfully achieved social fiction of an unbroken line of honorable, preferably patrilineal, descent was what counted in establishing enduring claims to politico-economic privilege.
~ Julia Adam, The Familial State (2005)

If these traders are the source of surplus capital, the "floating mass surplus labor" is the sailors who made this trading enterprise work. Particularly, sailors would find themselves thrust between periods of harshly regulated labor onboard the ships, and extended spans of vagrancy on the shores. This is one area sodomy was the most heavily policed:

Records from the Dutch East Indies Company show that sodomy persecutions were five times higher in the Cape Colony, which was founded as a supply station in 1652, than in any Dutch city during this era.Sailors engaged in "dirty passions" along lines of class and race, raising the specter of those forms of solidarity that were utterly anathema to the government of ships, not to mention a slave trade based on the fiction that some humans were less than human.

There's only one place this can take us:

Young men had much more freedom, sexual and otherwise, aboard the ships of pirates, which explains why so many sailors of this period voluntarily joined such outlaw groups whenever their vessels were captured.

As a polar opposite of the highly regulated and brutal life onboard merchant and navy ships, pirate society was "a world turned upside down", as Peter Linbaugh an Marcus Rediker write, one "made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules of customs of the pirates' social order.... Pirates distributed justice, elected officers, divided loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of the capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order." (The Many-Headed Hydra, 2000). Having seized the means of production and circulation, pirates established societies according to their own rules, societies in which homosexuality not only was allowed but was an important form of comraderie in these mostly male communities.

Here is a little story about a gay pirate:

The volume of literature on piracy is concerned primarily with maritime depredations, but the few instances that survive to reveal the more human side of the buccaneers demonstrate a willingness on the part of at least some marauders to suffer torture, deprivation, and even death to protect their lovers. One such incident occurred aboard the ship commanded by Bartholomew Roberts when a crewman, having too much to drink, made the grave mistake of insulting the captain. Roberts demonstrated that his reputation for a quick temper and as a formidable adversary in individual combat was well deserved. He drew his sword and killed the fellow on the spot. When the dead sailor's partner, a man name Jones, learned of what had occurred, he sought out the captain and showered him with vituperation. The captain was no more willing to accept insults from Jones than from his mess mate. He again drew his sword and ran the man through. The second thrust was not as well aimed as the first, and Jones was only injured. Ignoring his wound, the enraged sailor grabbed Roberts, threw him over a gun, and beat him soundly. Jones was later sentenced to receive two lashes from every man aboard for daring to attack the commander, a deed that no man would have attempted unless severely distressed.
~ B. R. Burg, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1995)

Adapting a remarkably regulative sensibility, Robert's crew agreed to ban boys and women from their ships, as these presumably caused petty disputes and dissension in the ranks Sex aboard their fleet could only be had with a coequal male compatriot operating under the articles of agreement. Far from eliminating erotic disputes, this policy effectively raised the stakes of homosexuality, producing a disciplined crew of impassioned warriors rather than a feuding gang of infatuated lovers.

Chitty basically argues that piracy and homosexuality were structurally similar and correlated in how they were positioned within the emerging hegemony:

In the early eighteenth century, the pirate and the sodomite were idealogical twins through which the ruling classes sought to understand and eliminate the social instability accompanying another global economic shift in the balances of power. Mutiny, piracy, and sodomy were, according to bourgeois conceptualizations, practices that threatened to spread in the international crews and wide-ranging geographic space opened up by commerce centered around the Atlantic. They threatened to spread through imitation or mimesis and multiply such practices like a new species or disease throughout the population of men necessary for capital accumulation, statecraft, and war but superfluous in times of peace, economic decline, and seasonal unemployment.

4. Homosexuality and Bourgeois Hegemony

Les Enfants de Sodome

Moving to revolutionary Paris, when the bourgeois were poised to seize power from the aristocracy: specifically, power over the common people.

The Revolution had begun to collapse these quaint boundaries between private acts and public space, as a portion of Paris moved their sexual activities out of the rented rooms and other private spaces into the streets and parks. This movement initiated a struggle between proletarians and the bourgeoisie over the legitimate use and moral order of the urban fabric.

This struggle wasn't abstract, it was a material political conflict:

The politicized sexuality of the revolutionary period may be understood as an autonomous unified political field, across which the bourgeoisie, aristocracy, and proletarians attempted to establish and contest the moral separation of private sexual acts from public space.

Looking at the writings of the time, we can see the same infrastructure of sexual policing emerge that we saw in Florence, except now it had

become coupled with a new quasi-scientific discourse of monstrous sexual abnormality. The shift is an indication of how much the bourgeoisie had begun to fashion the Enlightenment epistemology of sex into a weapon in the struggle against both the popular classes and the nobility, and of how extensively the pseudoscientific discourses of race had penetrated the Enlightenment mind.

Enlightenment epistemology, my old enemy. This makes it clear how the racial and sexual hegemony of the modern era stem from the same heart of eugenics and the taxonomy of people. A new way of thinking emerges that changes the meaning of war:

At this point [in history], we see the emergence of the idea of an internal war that defends society against threats born of and in its own body. The idea of social war makes, if you like, a great retreat from the historical to the biological, from the constituent to the medical.
~ Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (2003)

Sexually transmitted diseases ... came to be used as medical justification for the policing and regulation of prostitution and pedarasty in the national interest.

Le nouveau tableau de Paris [a revolutionary pamphlet] is remarkable for regarding sodomites as a "species", a biological threat to the social order, and for inscribing homosexuality at the center of a wide reworking of the political concept of the nation. The Revolution politicized sex, and homosexuality formed a unified field for advancing bourgeois claims to represent the morally legitimate core or estate of the nation. Against the norms of middle-class family formation and intimacy, necessary for the stable transmission of property and class status from one generation to the next, the alternate sexualities of the popular classes and nobility appeared abnormal and were though tot have monstrous consequences for the health of the nation. This transformation signaled a new political function of the discourse on same-sex sexuality: the practice provided an important moral basis for the struggle of the bourgeoisie against both the libertinage of the ancien régime and the sexual publicness of the lower classes. From the pamphlets that survive the revolutionary period, it is possible to identify this major shift in the politicization of sex—from a calumnious and perhaps humorous denunciation of nobles and lumières to a contestation of the public sexuality of the lower classes, from a weapon wielded initially against the aristocracy to one mobilize against prostitutes and pedarasts—over the course of the nineteenth century.

I think it's important to highlight here that what was at stake in this battle was specifically public sex, queer orgies taking place in public gardens that were politic acts staking themselves out as opposed to developing Enlightenment norms. Today we play out conflicts about the role of kink in pride, which I think shows how much ground we've lost in the intervening centuries.

These people didn't go down without a fight, though:

Another anonymous text of 1790, Les enfants de sodome, and a whole series of pamphlets responding to it together form a sort of comedic antidote to the spirit of bourgeois reaction announced by Le nouveau tableau de Paris. ... The Pamphlet is a tongue-n-cheek manifesto of abnormal sexuality. Mocking both the solemn Jacobin invocations of the ancient virtues of Rome and Greece and the political assemblies of chambermaids and tailor apprentices gathering throughout the public squares and bridges of the capital, the text declares its solidarity with the new sexual freedoms of Paris and marvels at the bravery of those who would participate in such orgies given the risks. Les enfants de sodome thus appropriates and inverts the Jacobin hierarchy of masculine virtue by valorizing receptive anal intercourse as the height of courage.

The pamphlets [following Les enfants de sodome] imagine that reactionaries will mobilize the National Assembly to step up police operations against homosexual men in order to protect the moral interests of heterosexual women and the economic interests of heterosexual female prostitutes. A speech put in the mouth of Mademoiselle Raucourt, a well-known actress famous for her libertine salons, is stages on the floor of the Comédie-Française in the Palais-Royal, declaring tribade [lesbian] solidarity with the cause of buggers against the demands of straight women for increased policing, and arguing for a kind of embodied solidarity among those who have "renounced fucking in its ordinary fashions."

Very interesting to see heterosexual sex workers specifically positioned in conflict with the aims of queer public sex. Also interesting to note that the most at-stake parties here are specifically male bottoms and female tops: the people who transgress the proper sexual "positions".

L'amour Antiphysique and Enlightenment Thought

This section begins with passages from Voltaire and Diderot concerning homosexuality to demonstrate the shift in thinking into and during the Enlightenment, tracing the movement from noble libertine sexuality into a working-class public homosexuality.

Noble sexuality in Paris was "public" in the limited sense that it was exposed to gossip, but working-class sexuality took that publicness more literally:

At issue [to the police] was not merely open solicitation on the street, which had been a more or less constant feature of life in Paris and a concern for police authority since its establishment in the mid-seventeenth century. Instead, buggers and prostitutes had begun engaging in sexual acts en plein air, with flagrant disregard for bourgeois notions of public decency, in the centers of the civic life of Paris. Pederasts were antisocial in this limited sense. They made and flaunted theatrical sexual personas on the streets, making titles such as "La Baronne, La Comtesse, La Tante, and Le Môme, cultivating a camp sensibility [!!] and attracting a rotating audience of fans and onlookers.

The Champ De Mars

In 1790, under the new French regime, a more democratic army was formed.

The democratization of war expanded the scope and scale of a libertine culture just as it expanded the reach of sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, these three processes—the mobilization for war followed by the politicization of sex and the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea—would go hand in hand for the two hundred years that followed.

Richard Jennings, or The Epistemology of the Monkey Closet

A discussion of the development of the public urinal in 1800s Paris, to which there was an extreme reaction.

To state the policy problem facing these mid-nineteenth-century sanitary reformers as clearly as possible: middle-class women considered the sight of men's penises and urethral functions to be an "outrage against decency" and demanded that municipal authorities contain or enclose such activities within an architecture that would shield them from view; however, the new architecture of enclosure concentrated the exercise of such bodily functions around a few m=nodal points along busy thoroughfares and erotically intensified the experience of urination in public by providing a semiprivate, same-sex urban space. These were, to put it figuratively, temples of urethral eroticism. The subjective responses of bourgeois women and working-class men in the architectural enclosure of public urination were part of a new political struggle over the presence of the phallus in public space, and they reveal a lot about the great divide in psychosexual subjectivity between the bourgeoisie and the working class, between men and women, and the differing notions of sexual freedom that were mutually exclusive and in competition with one another.

This nineteenth-century sexual struggle over the phallus can be sketched in broad strokes thus: the entry and influence of middle-class women into the public sphere is the decisive factor in changing norms of urban policing around public displays of sexuality—namely, prostitution and homosexuality. Middle-class women extended the domestic norms of sexual consent—consent to copresence with sexual acts—from their own households into the public spaces they circulated within. For the nineteenth and much of the early twentieth century, working-class men and women did not enjoy any kind of "privacy" in their own homes, as they lived crammed five or more to a room in boardinghouses or with relatives. The only privacy working-class people had was, paradoxically, to be had in public. As middle-class women extended such domestic norms into public spaces, the previously male-dominated public sphere was, over the course of the nineteenth century, domesticated.

European Sexuality in the Longue Durée

This section outlines and re-tells the history of the book so far in a condensed to overarching view.

Comparing feudalism with capitalism:

The essential thing to grasp about feudal property relations is that peasants did not have to "rent land or seek waged employment to survive" because they could reproduce themselves directly as communities of cultivators.

Capitalism, on the other hand, is predicated on a separation of families from their means of reproduction; it reproduces humanity through impersonal, socially mediated interactions in the market.

And it's specifically the transition period between these two states that queerness emerges.

Alternate or queer sexualities—primarily homosexuality and prostitution—emerged in the interstices of transformed property relations, through population displacements from the countryside and the subsequent concentration of those workers who were superfluous to agrarian production in urban centers, as well as within the institutions that attempted to manage or capture these surplus populations—factories, workhouses, standing armies, policing and punitive apparatuses, naval and merchant fleets, and colonial territories.

The Development of Sexual Modernity

And now, finally, we move into the twentieth century.

Patterns of late marriage, bachelorhood, births out of wedlock, casual sex between men, and casual prostitution prevailed in cities during periods of economic recession, when wages were too low to support a family, work to infrequent or itinerant, and rent too high for any kind of privacy or nuclear family structure.

Fordism extended the packaging of middle-class commodities—such as cars, appliances, housing—and their corresponding forms of life to greater swaths of the population in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia following World War II. The mass production of penicillin, first developed for soldiers, released humankind from a host of bacterial pathogens, sexual or otherwise. The postwar mass production of birth control technologies transformed women's basic relation to their biological capacity to reproduce human life. These conjunctural and structural forces led to the development of the nearly universal norm of nuclear family types and companionate marriage throughout advanced capitalist countries and the establishment of middle-class norms of sexual freedom through sexual consent. These same forces also paved the way for a whole variety of sexual lifestyles outside this norm, including homosexuality. Homosexual enclaves of the postwar era tended to coincide with settlement patterns of demobilized soldiers and sailors in the port cities that had been significant in the World Wars.

It's clear to me here how the construction the middle class is so essential to modernization. The conditions for queer life are created when economic booms and busts create free-floating populations, and sexual hegemony follows after in an attempt to regulate and monetize those same populations:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, male homosexuality and female sex work became problematic when and where previously anarchic proletarian sexualities were subsumed through the extension of bourgeois norms to greater swaths of the working-class population. In such places and times, urban elites understood this sexual behavior as deviant and mobilized forces of social control, although never totally in their reach, for its repression. These campaigns of repression tended to shore up the political support of urban middle classes. In this respect, socioeconomic progress is directly to blame for a wider basis for sexual repression. Thus the massive American economic boom of consumer society following the Second World War extended middle-class sexual norms to ever more Americans and led to the most extensive policing of homosexuality in any period of history.

I'm left wondering, then, what the better world looks like, a world where the conditions for queerness exist without the inevitability of hegemony. How do we un-alienate our society and claim responsibility for our local ecosystems without also destroying the queer culture that lives inside that alienation? It seems to me like we need a culture of grounded care and tradition built out of chosen families, and also a practice and respect for/worship of wandering outside of those traditions, places for strangers to gather (and fuck) free of forced servitude.

5. Historicizing the History of Sexuality

This chapter marks the end of part 1, about homosexuality in history, and the beginning of part 2, about homosexual history. The tone shifts pretty significantly, away from an aggregation of primary sources and towards a philosophical argument.

Homosexuality as Human Freedom

This section orbits around the way Satre reframed the conversation about homosexuality, when he asked "Does a homosexual exist?"

For Satre, it was a matter of establishing whether or not some homosexual subject presented a standpoint of homo freedom. He was deeply dissatisfied with the view favored by the prominent homosexual littéraires Marcel Proust and André Gide, who held that homosexuals are the way they are as the result of a natural compulsion, pathological or otherwise. Whether this compulsion is thought to be inborn or culturally constructed would have made no difference to Sartre. According to both paradigms, the being of the homosexual is figured as an inert, passive self-identity. Neither can account for homosexuality as being-for-itself, a consciousness that approves and chooses itself by actively transforming itself. “Does a homosexual exist?”—this is to ask if a homosexual life is different from other forms of life in the sense that it could be freely chosen as a conscious negation of social and cultural givens rather than an expression of identification with some compulsion, however natural or culturally constructed. "If he does exist," Sartre writes, "everything changes: if homosexuality is the choice of a mind, it becomes a human possibility.

To frame the question in this way is to move away from a history of deviant sexual behaviors and identities, their purely negative relation to some law or norm, and to ask instead about the transformative and emancipatory possibilities of love outside the institutions of family, state, and the couple form.

There's also a brief discussion about the consequences of merging the lesbian struggle into the gay struggle. The language and science around homosexuality was built for men, and "the extension, by analogy, of an epistemology of male homosexuality to women-identified women erases their unique political existence and history".

[Adrienne] Rich expands the category of lesbian existence beyond a genitally organized sexual attraction oriented toward women in order to “embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support.” If heterosexuality marked a compulsory experience of intimacy and life possibilities, then some lesbian alternative had to provide room for various kinds of choice.

I super agree with this, and think it's very important that as a trans woman I am both "homosexual" in this classical sense AND a woman-identified woman, and I think this contradiction is where a lot of the magic in trans lesbianism comes from.

And finally, Chitty comes back to his thesis on consent as being the most important axis of understanding homosexuality, which I really hope he comes back to because I don't actually understand it.

The problem of situationality and consent, especially as they obtain in sometimes violent cultures of sex between men, has historically formed the ideological inflection point around which a whole politics of homosexuality has turned. To the extend that same-sex desire in the past made bourgeois men vulnerable to proletarian roughnecks, whether by blackmail or robbery, to the extend that it made boys from popular classes prey to men of status and power, to the extend that it provided spectacles of shame or, alternately, infamy, and to the extend that is ultimately provided a way of regulating stranger intimacy between men.

Gay History and/as Rights Discourse

The homosexual desire for history is itself historical, the product of a specific social valorization of historical knowledge in the nineteenth century, the emergence of a dominant bourgeois class presenting its demands as universal, and a supposed opposition between the “timeless” sexual cultures of traditional peoples and the “historical” ones of the metropolis and settler societies. The presence of same-sex sexual behaviors in the former served as proof of the legitimacy, naturalness, and universality of the latter. A reaction bourgeois racial science of degeneration equated colonized subjects and European working-class populations alike as sexual primitives, residual elements from a time before civilization.

Here it: the quest for gay legitimacy as a manifestation of colonialism, and also a clear example of the way modernity seeks to colonize its own past the same way it colonizes other peoples.

Foucault’s Contradiction

First, Foucault’s general thesis of power:

The bourgeoisie and the monarchy succeeded little by little at establishing, from the end of the Middle Ages up to the 18th century, a form of power representing itself as language, a form of power which gave itself—as discourse—the vocabulary of rights. And, when the bourgeoisie had finally disposed of monarchical power, it did so precisely by using this juridical discourse—which had more or less ben that of the monarchy—which it turned against the monarchy itself.... It appears to me, in fact, that if we analyze power by privileging the State apparatus, if we analyze power by regarding it as a mechanism of preservation, if we regard power as a juridical superstructure, we will basically do no more than take up the classical theme of bourgeois thought, for it essentially conceives of power as a juridical fact.
~ Michel Foucault, “The Mesh of Power,” trans. Christopher Chitty (Viewpoint Magazine 2, 2012)

On homosexuality, Foucault was extremely skeptical of the “repressive hypothesis” and the idea that sexuality could be liberatory. However, Chitty argues that Foucault ultimately failed to address a contradiction in his own theories around sexuality.

Foucault posits a hegemonic sexual scientific understating of sexuality without accounting for how it achieved such a hegemony. This gives the impression that a formation of discourse spontaneously generated sexual subjects “through a network of interconnecting mechanisms, the proliferation of specific pleasures, and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” In the rare places where he is explicit about his own inspiration, beyond such technological atmospherics and occasional slippages back into the paradigm of the permitted and forbidden, Foucault historicized power in terms of a metanarrative of class struggle. However, the narrative unfolding of a sexual scientific epistemology in the first volume of The History of Sexuality fails to account for the entry of women and children into industrial lines of production in the mid- to late nineteenth century; subsequent labor struggles over the working day defined these “other Victorians” according to categories of age and sex.

Foucault makes the point, almost as a rhetorical aside, that sexuality was at its inception a bourgeois science, a concern for bourgeois bodies, and was only later (and with great difficulty) extended to the proletariat.

His account of “modern sexuality” is completely lopsided to the extent that it emphasizes a late period in the development of modern sexuality and does not consider the other, proletarian side of the Victorian sexual formation [...] The resulting theory of the emergence of modern sexual categories proceeds by assuming bourgeois sexuality to be hegemonic rather than rigorously accounting for how it came to be so.

As Eve Kosofsky Segwick has pointed out, “[Foucault’s history of homosexuality] is a unidirectional narrative of supersession.” Halperin’s unidirectional model of cultural evolution takes Patroklos and Achilles as its zero point and the straight-acting gay man, or clone, as its “highest expression”—with a troublesome gender transitive interlude in between.

I don’t share Sedgwick’s suspicion of narrative history, but her critique of Foucault’s and Halperin’s unidirectional narrative signals the crucial importance of a dialectical grasp of contradiction for historical thinking. [...] Contradiction, according to this conception, is a narrative strategy for representing events, institutions, and cultural formations over which multiple forces have struggled to achieve certain outcomes; recognizing this contingency [...] opens up a perspective on how struggles and contestation drive a historical process that would otherwise appear unilinear or geologically static.

Trying to synthesize this: even when trying to escape a modernist teleological framing of homosexual history, you can end up replicating it, unless you pivot your analysis specifically on the contradictions. This is surprisingly Lacanian!

The Constructivist Account of Homosexuality and Capitalism

The constructivist model, as Chitty tells of it, is the primary way that homosexuality has been historicized in modernity, and was critical in winning specific legal arguments to expand our rights. The crux of it is as follows:

as wage labor spread and production became socialized, then, it became possible to release sexuality from the “imperative” to procreate. Ideologically, heterosexual expression came to be a means of establishing intimacy, promoting happiness, and experiencing pleasure. In divesting the separation of sexuality from procreation, capitalism has created conditions that allow some men and women to organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex. It has made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on a sexual identity.
~ John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1993)

Chitty argues that while this framing may have been useful, it’s missing the crucial class perspective that looks at the changing working conditions that came from women entering the workforce to work in textile factories, and “how industry, industrial working conditions, pollution, toxicity, disease, sanitation, and crowded urban housing conditions destroyed workers’ bodies.”

By emphasizing a distinction between sexual acts and sexual identities as the historical threshold for modern homosexuality, the social constructivist formation tended to downplay the significance of forms of homosexuality less compatible with a postwar gay identity. [...] if it was good at historicizing homophobia, the formation was less adept at historicizing homosexuality, which would have required accounting for how its own concept of gay identity and its peculiar desire for a history of prejudice were themselves outcomes of a historical struggle by middle-class gay people over the essential definition and understanding of sexuality. Historical knowledge was not only key to a sense of group belonging; it also conveyed legitimacy upon a political formation struggling for recognition.

The Homosexual Desire For History

Chitty outlines how you can find criticisms of the constructivist approach at the margins of the works of those who generated it:

According to the logic inherent to every dissident religious movement, it was necessary to establish good relations with the authorities in order to be able to practice the cult. But it was equally necessary to receive the tolerance of society. Hence, the undeterred will—and very antithesis of the actual movement—to gain tolerance for homosexuality from families. Consequently, it would perhaps be naive to reproach it for conservatism: seeing as it’s in the very nature of such a movement to desire tolerance for homosexuality from the powers that be and entry into the establishment.
~ Michel Foucault, quoted in Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault et ses contemporains (1994)

There is, in a sense, a metaphorical “closet” being built, in which the possibility of gay history is limited by its need to appeal to power. Chitty seeks to historicize this moment of history-building:

Working-class homosexuals existed outside family structures that organically transmitted traditions and memories from one generation to another, either via oral tradition or via historical and literary discourses that constructed a national, historical identity. The oblivion faced by working-class homosexuals was an oblivion of historical memory, by contrast, their elite counterparts left behind a labyrinthine wardrobe of tortured interiority, self-involvement, and coded references in which subsequent generations of queer readers have wandered. That elite literary archive achieved hegemony within the imagined community of homosexuals precisely at its moment of intensive politicization in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chitty connects the specific material conditions of the AIDS epidemic in the 90s and 90s to a sudden explosion of new gay historical reflection. AIDS was a very tangible moment that people could see the loss of a gay history (a repeating cycle, but they perhaps didn’t see it that way at first), and reacted to it: “Homosexual historical consciousness exploded like a flash, assembling together and connecting up a diverse constellation of places, times, and practices hitherto foreign to historical reflection, strengthening the conviction that homosexual history was not only vital to current political struggles and senses of self but was at risk of sinking into oblivion.”

Whatever cultural continuities could be established between epochs [of forgotten homosexual history] were the result of some organic reproduction of memory and tradition from one generation to the next, less the product of some stable consumer identity mediated by markets or print culture, than the consequence of codes, behaviors, and affects transmitted from body to body within a population, much like the virus itself.

A shared grammar of sexual possibility and availability produced by practices of cruising public spaces gave these particular codes their continuity or legibility across time and place. Homosexuality was reconceptualized as an active, counterhegemonic appropriation of urban space generating unique forms of sociality and culture centered around stranger intimacy. The very behaviors, structures of feeling, and types of recognition through which a homosexual culture was shared and shaped, and around which its sense of belonging congealed, had become vectors for HIV infection. Perversely, then, the cultural identification of homosexuality with the virus generated a new form of homosexual self-consciousness in retrospect.

Homosexuality as a Category of Bourgeois Society

Industrialization and the Bourgeois Dominant

Chitty begins to discuss how, exactly, the American conception of homosexuality became the dominant one internationally, describing the American movement as being “pedagogical” in its conception, “a struggle over the publicness, public display, and social legitimacy of sexual perversions”.

In large American cities, the Christian Temperance movement and the first flowering of the “gay world” as we now know it, more or less coexisted. In fact, the YMCA was a crucial nodal point both fro network of homosexual activity and for the spread of Christian values throughout these cities in the early twentieth century. [...] One could similarly ask of the late twentieth century whether the apparently conservative fundamentalist Christian revival and the radical counterculture of free love weren’t perhaps two faces of the same spiritual awakening, each intensifying the discursive status of sex by endowing it with profoundly transformative powers.

Of course the YMCA was the center of a gay movement, because it was a political project that involved separating young men from their families into “more or less hierarchical same-sex milieus,” a repetition of a pattern throughout history.

The early twentieth century involved a “massive mobilization of elite and popular youth,” one which was highly politicized and full of erotic energy. Chitty connected this development to a tangible shift in labor:

As women entered the workforce in greater numbers during the Great War and afterward, taking on work that had been previously performed by men, the problem of reining in socially irresponsible male behaviors appeared in starker relief. Women, rather than religious ideologues, lent prohibition its moral and political force, as they endured the consequences of male excess and proved themselves to be a highly capable, reliable workforce during the war; women’s entry en masse into the workforce demonstrated to industrialists the gains in productivity to be had from a sober, disciplined workforce. They mobilized this power to reshape society by seeking to improve the conditions of the working classes.

The industrialists had a real economic reason to want to curb homosexuality:

Prostitution and homosexuality, both products of the socially disruptive mobilization for war, figured as central threats to the bourgeois project of ensuring national vitality for work and war. These were not merely moral considerations, as STIs were among the primary causes of soldiers’ medical leave, most other battlefield injuries were fatal. [...] Where market pressures and moralizing failed, the state and extrajuridical forces stepped in with force to curb male excess, shuttering brothels, razing whole urban districts catering to certain popular forms of leisure, and increasing the regulation and surveillance of women.

Concerns for workers’ welfare were indistinguishable from attempts to create a disciplined labor force for new lines of production that promised to be immensely more profitable and efficient. The family provided a powerful regulatory instrument for reproducing a reliable, regimented laboring population.

Ford’s “Five-Dollar Day” program was initially proposed to counteract the high turnover of labor in Ford’s factories. [...] Only the promotion of stable family life and a rising standard of living could transform the ethnic immigrants of Detroit into proper “Ford men.” Thus Ford’s Department of Sociology was created to investigate the living arrangements of workers’ homes, noting the presence of renters; bachelors were excluded from the profit-sharing scheme; bank accounts were checked for regular deposits; workers’ wives were advised on proper housekeeping and hygiene, and children’s attendance at school was monitored. Ford factories innovated a disciplinary regime targeting areas of housing and family life that had historically been sources of trouble and irregularities for labor power.

In short, human sexuality is not only malleable and historical; indeed, at certain points in history, such transformations of human nature were central to the forces of production and to certain objectives of statecraft.

Morbid Forms of Normative Dissolution

Gays and lesbians got a shot at dreams of the good life precisely at the moment of its political-economic liquidation.

This section went so hard that I had to set the book down halfway through. Chitty constructs a thorough criticism of the contemporary theories of sexuality.

It is fascinating the degree to which intellectuals are willing to attribute such sweeping transformative ideological powers to television shows—such as Will and Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as “groundbreaking” moments of “cultural visibility,” without any evidence that such shows demythologized homosexuality or generated more tolerant views. By comparison, the mass distribution of videos depicting hardcore gay anal sex receive short shrift or no mention at all alongside these saccharine cultural confections, which, after all, never depict the thing itself.

The disappearance of shock and titillation at previous subversive or deviant acts and perversions has less to do with cultural representations of “queeny” behavior on television and a lot more to do with the historically unprecedented availability of pornography, the intensity of youth sexual hook-up cultures, the increasing feminization of culture, the prolongation of sexuality into old age with hormone therapies and erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals, and the ways in which cybernetic technology is replacing the family in transmitting sexual norms and information to younger generations. Familiar countercultural psychedelics and newer design drugs, heightening states of empathy and bliss, have helped shatter the old bourgeois ego of yesteryear and facilitated new kinds of attunement to an unpredictable emotional landscape. Behaviors that until very recently indicated an outré perversion or the abjection of sex work—dance moves originating in strip clubs, sharing video and images of oneself naked or having sex—are now so culturally de rigueur that American children are participating with their personal cell phones, and this is all precipitating a large-scale handwringing and discomfort about adolescent pornography. At every level of society, older sexual norms and expectations are being liquidated.

This bit hit me really hard:

Although this ongoing crisis of modern sexual categories may initially have produced a utopian sense that societies were moving beyond rigid binary systems, such celebrations of intransitivity have missed the ways in which gender and sexual flexibility have also been forced upon subjects as a consequence of precarity. The intellectual valorization of fluidity has also, crucially, missed the historical ways in which “fixed” sexual binaries provided the gay and lesbian political movement with its terrain of struggle.

Are we building something new or just adding more bricks to the hegemonic structures?

It is my contention that the gay intellectual formation’s pendulum has, for various reasons I consider below, swung too far in the direction of downplaying the role of class in the history of sexuality. The principal reason is that historical discourse has played a key role in authorizing gays’ and lesbians’ bid for respectability—and so downplaying the roles of unsavory working-class, nonwhite, and queer cultures within that history became crucial to a particular kind of struggle for recognition.

I have understood this as being “anti-assimilationism,” and it is amazing to see the reasoning for it laid out so clearly in an academic context like this.

An Imagined Community of Homosexuality

The emancipatory possibility of a “transgressive reinscription” of homosexuality within these [hegemonic] institutions—as if gay marriage could begin to exert some subversive force upon the institution, or as if openly gay soldiering could queer the act of killing enemies abroad—seems implausible. Wider social acceptance of homosexuals, formal legal equality, and the imprimatur of legally recognized relationships almost certainly imply the loss of a shared experience of social exclusion and hostility that once created a sense of belonging and solidarity against church, state, and polite society. [...] As principles of group belonging weaken and sexual identities fracture into ever more queer particularities, there is no longer any counterhegemonic position from which to contest this infinitely more permissive establishment. The political ground of sexual contention and countercultural opposition have crumbled beneath our feet.

Chitty spends this chapter building a critique of Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal in order to examine the question of “what does a new culture of acceptance mean for the gay struggle?” through his materialist and proletarian lens. Chitty contends that Warner’s alignment with “scenes of criminal intimacy” can only be fully understood when you step outside of the bourgeois framing of sexual identity. The solidarity of criminal intimacies is one built out of a direct conflict over public space, one generated from particular material conditions.

Instead of making the bourgeois model of shared senses of interiority into the principle of group belonging, it is crucial to ask how criminal intimacies and cross-class encounters shaped multiple sexual subjectivities and principles of group cohesion and recognition by appropriating urban space in a struggle with forces seeking to impose a hegemonic moral order over such spaces. Rather than viewing the private individual as the contain of an inward-looking subjectivity, a critical approach seeks to understand how social space generated same-sex desires and sexual subjectivities that externalized themselves into the world.

Chitty traces how the proletariat’s criminal sexualities are well-documented as being tied to a public or semi-public gender-variant self-presentation, such as New York’s fairies of the early twentieth century. The vulnerability of this performance of gender-variance necessarily excluded the bourgeois, who had something to lose at stake. But in the 1970s and 80s, masculinity was re-asserted. The dominant paradigm of homosexuality shifted from a culture of public sexuality to the commodified and private space of the gay bar.

So long as homosexuality was a street culture, men of status risked blackmail, theft, and other forms of predation for participating in a lawless sexual counterculture. Working-class codes of recognition declined in importance as the syntax of the language community was formalized in commercial establishments openly catering to gay clientele. These new spaces of acceptance formalized previously criminal cultures of public sex, creating a buffer zone against legal forces of repression and strengthening group identity around the project of politically defending these institutions against police encroachment. The basis of the imagined community in a plebeian counterpublic was replaced by a new foundation in small businesses allowed to operate unperturbed by the state. As state violence receded, markets stepped in to meet and shape a consumer profile of gay identity.


The final section. Chitty argues that, effectively, homosexuality has been successfully enclosed by the state and can no longer serve as the grounds for a political struggle. He discusses how the concepts of “homosexuality”, “queerness”, and “normativity” were retroactively made universal.

As a social category, “queer” would then describe the morbid cultural forms by which the normative logics of gender and sexuality become irreparably damaged, desperately reasserted, and perversely renaturalized within a generalized social crisis—rather than marking some utopian release from these logics in the pursuit of self-transformative play.

A note on health:

[In a society where sickness is “inability to work”] the bodies of the U.S. wages workers will be more fatigued, in more pain, less capable of ordinary breathing and working, and die earlier than the average for higher-income workers, who are also getting fatter, but at a slower rate and with relatively more opportunity for exercise.... They will live the decay of their organs and bodies far more explicitly, painfully, and overwhelmingly than ever before; and it has come statistically clear that between stress and comorbidity they will die at ages younger than their grandparents and parents.
~ Laura Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011)

Whereas these experience of the physical deterioration of the body might be expected to create a new kind of class consciousness, a liberal moralization of health in terms of individual decisions and risk calculus blocks such apprehensions.

Raymond Williams makes the point that the major theoretical problem from understanding the hegemonic is categorically distinguishing counterhegemonic forces from forms of opposition that may ultimately be absorbed by a specific hegemony—bound by certain specific limits, neutralized, changed, or wholly incorporated. In other words, nearly all forms of opposition may in practice be “tied to the hegemonic”; in other words, “the dominant culture... at once produces and limits its own forms of counter-culture.”

Sexual role play, then, for a postbourgeois cultural theater: the options of tea-room trade or trophy husband, masculine or feminine, phone app or bathhouse, now appear to be matters of personal taste, culturally recombinable to varying degrees even within a single individual’s highly compartmentalized social milieus and self-presentations. Such, anyway, are the conditions of a partially emancipated order of gender and sexuality.

Hence the cowardly spectacle of the San Francisco Pride board of directors, repudiating the decision of its electoral committee to extend an invitation to Chelsea Manning to be a Pride Grand Marshal in 2013. In a public statement stigmatizing Manning as a criminal “facing the military justice of this country” and signaling SF Pride’s “responsibility to serve a broader community,” the president of the board, Lisa Williams, affirmed the group’s commitment to defend the American establishment against political dissent. Ironically, Manning might have been considered by the board if she had been discharged for her gender, which was compatible with the agenda of SF Pride; her exposure of state corruption, war crimes, and gross abuses of power was not. Thus, the very same political discourse that had once excluded homosexuals from American society by appealing to the interests of a silent majority is now used by homosexuals to keep members of its community in check. These new fault lines of fragmentation and division within American identity offer little room for the countercultural and subjective freedoms of an earlier period of hegemonic dissolution and gay liberation. Rather, as cultural hegemony has become more diffuse and postwar sexual communities have fragmented, authorities, including gay and lesbian elites, have tended to preserve their power by resorting to repression and force. The gay establishment found itself on the opposite side of police barricades, as a small handful of queers protesting San Francisco Pride and the Chelsea Manning decision were asked by organizers, without any hint of irony or camp, not to rain on their parade.

Further Research