Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Angus McLaren.
Twentieth Century Sex: A History
Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. $88.95 cloth (0631208135)

I was asked to review this book late in 1999, as millennial-talk was wearing painfully thin and retrospectives on anything and everything were ubiquitous. So I’ll admit to initial hesitance upon seeing the title. What swayed me was that the author was Angus McLaren, whose previous work on such subjects as contraception, eugenics, and masculinity has been exemplary in its blending of solid historical research, theoretical depth and readability. He does not disappoint here.

McLaren’s project is not to construct a ‘history’ of sexuality understood as chronology or progression, but a ‘political history’ which asks not only what changes in sexual behaviour and sexual ideology occurred, but why. Why have moral panics about such things as female sexuality or homosexuality or masculine vigor or prostitution emerged at some historical junctures but not others? What was the context of social power relations (in particular of class, gender and race) that gave shape to the stories told about sexuality and granted authority to some stories over others? Anxieties about sexuality, it seems, are windows onto larger cultural anxieties. His “working hypothesis” is that “cautionary tales were employed by the powerful for the surveillance, disciplining and silencing of the marginal” (3), but that these were never unilaterally repressive. The metaphor of sexual story-telling frames the entire book, and we are introduced to an ever-widening cast of dramatis personae who encapsulate the anxieties of the time. As McLaren repeatedly demonstrates, those expounding panic over sexual immorality “were really talking in coded terms about what they perceived to be a breakdown in social order” (19).

McLaren begins with the sexual panics that emerged in the wake of the First World War. Complexly interwoven with nationalist anxieties about proper masculine and feminine character and fear that racial boundaries were being breached, an extraordinary story of ‘good-time girls’, unfaithful wives, consorts of the enemy, youth gone wild, lesbian spies, illegitimate babies and emasculated men emerges. The next six chapters deal with the simultaneous construction of ‘normal’ and ‘dangerous’ sexualities in the interwar period. Permeated with differential assumptions about class, race and gender differences, a large body of ‘expert’ advice was emerging to educate and regulate. McLaren deftly surveys the anxieties over youth, the rise of the ‘marriage expert’, and the debates over contraception and abortion. If the experts expended a great deal of energy between the wars in codifying ‘normal’ sexuality, it occurred alongside their concern with codifying and policing the ‘abnormal’. Again, McLaren is convincing in his insistence that the concern with ‘perversion’ can only be understood “against the backdrop of a host of social transformations – declining fertility, emerging feminism, the rise of white-collar work – that appeared to blur the sex roles” (109). It is in this context that McLaren demonstrates the conflation of description and prescription in Freud’s work, and in its deployment to “reinvigorate misogyny” (120) in the context of larger social anxieties about the erosion of male power in the 1930s. The last chapter in this section is the darkest, dealing with the sexual panics and biological politics of the Third Reich. McLaren is careful, though, to show us that the assumptions which were used to justify the extremity of their program of sexual regulation were not unique to the Nazis, but “represented in its most chilling form a general movement of ideas” (140). Forgetting this allows those more generalized fears to continually resurface in the post- war years, in the form of criminalized abortion, persecution of sexual minorities, and forced sterilizations.

The final three chapters take us from the 1950s to the present. Kinsey is given his due here for his radical intervention into postwar American understandings of sexuality. Kinsey’s refusal to categorize sexual behaviours as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ – not to mention his startling suggestions on the frequency of homo-erotic and extra- marital activities – was revolutionary. Yet, as McLaren suggests, the overall framing of Kinsey’s project was rather conservative in its intent to apply ‘scientific knowledge’ about sexuality to the maintenance of proper social order. It was, he suggests, a “liberal assimilationist” story that would later be challenged by feminist and gay “identity politics.” Clearly, the 1950s were not a ‘golden era’ of unchallenged norms of sexuality and family. Neither, though were the 1960s and 1970s a simple story of sexual liberation – as McLaren demonstrates, they witnessed “the emergence and clash of a variety of new sexual scripts” (167). Two chapters attempt to cover an extraordinary array of issues which emerged from the 1960s through the 1990s – including the introduction of “the pill,” the growth of youth culture, developments in sex and marital therapy, struggles over abortion, feminism, gay rights, AIDS, anti-pornography campaigns and new reproductive technologies. His intent here is to problematize popular understandings of the swinging 60s and 70s as being followed by the “big chill” of the 80s and 90s, suggesting that we must resist the temptation to “divide time neatly up into either liberal or conservative epochs” (193). Not surprisingly, McLaren concludes the book with the assertion that Western culture is far from finished in constructing stories about sexuality.

I did enjoy this book, even though at times the narrative seemed to move along at the dizzying pace of a History Channel documentary – so much to say, so little time. This is particularly true of the latter chapters. For the undergraduate reader, many of the references and allusions will be unfamiliar, and few of the endnotes provide elaboration beyond straight citation. McLaren seems to assume a general familiarity with different national histories and political contexts which, at least in my students, is rare. Even so, his style is engaging enough that, while they may not grasp all the analytical subtleties, they should grasp the overall ‘story’ he is telling. The more seasoned reader, who is already familiar with some of the key works in the history of sexuality, will appreciate the enormous amount of material that McLaren has synthesized here, and is more likely to grasp the import of his argument. And an important argument it is. As the literature on sexuality continues to grow, we can all benefit from repeated reminders that there is little that is truly novel in the sexual panics du jour, nor is there any unassailable truth about sexuality to be discovered. This richly historical narrative underscores the manner in which sexuality can only be understood in relation to more generalized social processes, with all the complexity that implies.

Barbara L. Marshall
Trent University
March-April 2000
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