Femininity and the Construction of Sexual Pathologies
The History of Sexuality concentration within the Centre for the History of European Discourses is currently working on a large research project that examines both medical constructions and literary representations of sexual pathologies associated with femininity.
The aim of this project is to produce a set of detailed studies covering a quite long historical period (from about 1730 to about 1920) and of genres and media (including literary, medical, and philosophical texts, as well as photographs, artworks and medical illustrations), in order to highlight the complex and often intermittent history of such so-called feminine sexual pathologies as hysteria, frigidity, nymphomania, and lesbianism.
Our working hypotheses will include the following:
- Eighteenth-century libertine writing typically conceives of unusual behaviours as diverting or amusingly eccentric, able to be momentarily transformed in the course of erotic contests.
- Eighteenth-century accounts of pathology are often bound up with material understandings of human physiology as constitutionally natural (based on humoral differences between bodies), rather than a notion of desire.
- Sexual pathologies at the end of the nineteenth century are frequently constructed in terms of gender normativity, so that pathologies of both genders are often seen as a sign of misplaced traits attributed to the other gender, resulting in “feminised” men, and “masculinised” women. Of particular interest in this period is the emergence of the concept of “perversion” as an explanation for all forms of sexual eccentricity or non-conformity, and the construction of a narrow definition of heterosexual, coital normativity through the pathologisation of other sexualities which frequently overlapped with fears of degeneration, or with concerns about racial, national and class identity.
In examining these hypotheses, the project will engage critically with the Foucaldian approaches that have dominated recent cultural histories of sexuality. It is now widely agreed, following Foucault, that a set of sexual pathologies was constituted around the end of the nineteenth century as part of an emerging discourse of “sexuality”. Having noted this change, scholars often move on to analyse sexual modernity in all its vicissitudes, medical, social, and legal. That is what thrives in the academy as “the history of sexuality”. But many European scholars do not attend systematically to the longer histories, often quite complex and uneven, that inform modern understandings of the sexual. Nor are dissimilar scientific and literary texts commonly considered alongside each other in such a way as to enable a broad set of claims about how notions of the sexual were constructed across Western European societies and cultures. This project will build links between a group of scholars who, while accepting the same premises and historical landmarks as their colleagues, question the kind of history to which they often give rise.
The most immediate difficulty for a detailed, long-term history of sexuality is one of erudition. The historical range of, say, the two centuries leading up to the great shift at the end of the nineteenth century is rarely included within the ambit of one scholar, and the generic range is equally testing: from scientific texts, primarily but not exclusively medical, to literature, philosophy, and the visual arts. Authoritative work of any breadth therefore requires the collaboration of a group of like-minded and complementary scholars. This project aims to constitute just such a group through international collaboration.
By gathering and ordering historical scholarship over this range, the participants will be able to cast new light on modern debates in gender and queer studies. Modern scholars sometimes attempt to “reclaim” feminine behaviours that have been constituted as pathological: Showalter, Cixous, and Irigaray have done so famously for hysteria; Dworkin has done it to a degree for frigidity; there are celebrations of nymphomania in the work of feminist porn and masturbation advocates such as Bright, Sprinkle, and Dodds; and lesbianism has been for decades now the subject of celebratory histories, some of them finely detailed, such as those of Castle and Jagose.
An important reason to write histories of “sexuality” is precisely to build a genealogy for these expressions which takes full account of their emergence within descriptions of pathology. In order to do this, it will be necessary to bracket out the use of these terms in recent identity politics, where they are often adopted as part of a program of self-liberation or social transformation. A careful genealogy of this sort cannot afford to be caught up in the liberationist logic of modern sexology, which tends to name and categorise desire as a means to acceptance.
The project will result in an edited book containing essays by all the participants. This book will aim to make a significant contribution to the history of sexuality by drawing together work by literature and cultural studies scholars whose work is historically informed and cultural historians whose work encompasses literary and visual media. In this way a deeper claim can be made to understanding sexuality as construct constituted simultaneously through cultural practices and institutional agendas.
The method used in this project will be that of a genealogical intellectual history, which will seek to show that certain “scientific” notions draw authority from historical and rhetorical antecedence. Evidence for that history will be marshalled through the study of a wide range of texts, using methods of close reading typical of modern literary studies. The application of these analytical methods will be framed by an examination of historical contexts of use.
The research will not seek to contribute to debates in identity politics (e.g. by establishing a “lesbian history”). Rather, it will show how the various discourses of feminine “pathology” in question constituted a field of perverse femininity that has influenced cultural perceptions and fantasies about women throughout modernity. An important aspect of this approach will be to de-essentialise the very idea of “feminine sexual pathologies” by examining the contexts in which such diagnoses were applied to male subjects, and the consequences of this.
Current participants in the project are:
- Prof Peter Cryle, Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses;
- Dr Alison Moore, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CHED;
- Dr Elizabeth Stephens, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at CHED;
- Dr Heike Bauer, Lecturer in English, School of Arts, Communication and Culture, Nottingham Trent University.
- Dr Lisa Downing, Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Study of Sexuality and Gender in Europe, University of Exeter, UK
- Dr Caroline Warman, Fellow and Tutor in French at Jesus College, Oxford;
- Dr Michael Finn, Professor of French, Ryerson University
- Dr Rachel Mesch, Lecturer in French, Barnard College, Columbia University
Researchers interested in participating in this project are invited to contact the chief investigator, Professor Peter Cryle: email
A first planning meeting of members of this group took place in Edinburgh just before the annual conference of the Société des Dix-Neuviémistes. A three-day workshop involving presentations of working papers will be held at the Monash University Centre in Prato (Italy) from 29 September to 1 October 2006. Further information about the workshop can be found here.