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Downing Review of Moore Sexual Myths JHS

Downing Review of Moore Sexual Myths JHS
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  534 B OOK   R  EVIEWS of these other, larger changes in heterosexuality and female mobility. Much of the literature on lesbianism focused on deviance and pseudo-Freudian speculations about neglectful parenting and psychological immaturity, and some lesbians agreed that they had turned to other women because of bad experiences with men. Yet they did not necessarily agree with experts that lesbian sex was immoral or unnatural. Anticipating the lesbian feminists of the 1970s, some argued that it was unmarried “heterosexual sex, not sex between women, that was immoral” (154). “The generation of young women coming of age in the 1950s keenly understood the internal contradictions of postwar sexual culture,” Littauer  writes, “and they felt that hypocrisy deeply and personally” (95). That feel-ing would build into a wave of rage and activism by the late 1960s, when feminism took sexual pleasure, sexual equality, marriage, birth control, sexual health, and the fight against rape as some of its core issues. This, I think, is the central importance of this book to our history of twentieth-century women: it is no accident that a generation of young women raised on frank conversations about the pleasure of heavy petting and oral sex might be newly open to lesbianism by the 1960s; or that women whose desire had opened the door to expanded possibilities for men to experience no-strings-attached intercourse soon understood that the sexual deck was not stacked in their favor. We knew that the sexual revolution of the 1960s did not come from nowhere, but in this lasting contribution to the history of women, sexuality, and girlhood, Littauer maps a “somewhere” where other historians are sure to follow. C LAIRE  P OTTER  The New School Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism and Historical Teleology  . By  A  LISON  M OORE . Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016. Pp. 277. $105.00 (cloth); $99.00 (e-book).In this groundbreaking and eminently readable study, Alison Moore ad-dresses the ways in which certain nonnormative sexual modalities—here the fantasies and practices subsumed under the umbrella term “sadomasoch-ism”—have been used to shore up a dominant mythic narrative of historical progress, precisely by being made to stand in for political degeneration or “barbarism.” In examining the alignment at various historical moments be-tween sadism and political violence (Nazism in particular), Moore expertly demonstrates the workings of an ideological “attempt to bind sexual prac-tices to a vision of historical teleology or social evolution” (1) throughout modernity and its afterlives. The methodological toolkit chosen by Moore to explore the deployment of sexual myths in modernity is explained and ably justified in the introduc-  Book Reviews 535 tion. The study is guided primarily by the pursuit of genealogies of ideas, a method taken from intellectual history. However, this is tempered by a broader cultural history approach of considering a plethora of discursively disparate “texts”—such as pornography, creative literature, cinema, and political writ-ing—as historical sources. And although Moore chooses to focus on “myths” of sexuality rather than “discourses,” and although she claims that the book is “not a particularly Foucauldian history” (16), the influence of both a Fou-cauldian approach to the history of sexuality and a post-Foucauldian analysis of diagnostic power, such as that offered by Ian Hacking, is much in evidence. 1  The book is organized into two halves (not formally divided as such) and comprises eight chapters. The first part (chapters 1–3) considers the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century contexts in which sexological sci-ence and psychoanalysis established “the perversions” as discrete discursive categories and pursued a belief in the idea of degeneration theory, which held that Western civilization was tending toward moral, medical, and sexual decline. Together, chapters 2 and 3 constitute a nuanced and subtle reread-ing of the Freudian and post-Freudian teleology, showing how individual pathology was projected onto culture in late Freud and his followers, set-ting the tone for the emphasis on sexual violence in later examinations of Nazism. The second half of the book (chapters 4–8) examines a range of post–World War II responses to the defeat of Nazism and the continued sexualization of politics. It focuses on intellectual, cultural, and creative sources, including the writers of the Frankfurt School, the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Italian neorealist cinema, and Anglo- American radical feminism. Of all the chapters of the book, the eighth and final one, which serves as the conclusion, is probably the finest. It is crystal clear in articulating a swingeing critique of a whole modernist mode of thinking that has made lazy and prurient leaps between genocidal cruelty and unusual sexual practices, such that it “both renders ethically suspect consensual forms of pleasure [and] predetermines genocide as an aberrant expression of barbarism within modernity” (231). Moore urges, as an ethical as well as a scholarly imperative, increased critical reflection about how we con-tinue casually to use sexual and political language in interchangeable and unnuanced ways. The book on the whole and this chapter in particular manage deftly to combine erudite historical scholarship with a genuine and impassioned commitment to respect for what Gayle Rubin has memorably called “benign sexual variation.” 2  It is this finely handled combination that 1  In fact, this particular hybrid blend of historiographic, post-Foucauldian, and literary stud-ies–inspired methods is distinctive and characteristic of the innovative and important work on the history of sexuality produced by the team at CHED, the Centre for the History of European Discourses, at the University of Queensland, led by Peter Cryle, who is the coauthor with  Alison Moore of Frigidity: An Intellectual History   (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). 2  Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984), in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader  , ed. Henry Abelove and Michele Aina Barale (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3–43.  536 B OOK   R  EVIEWS makes Moore’s study the best work I have read on sadomasochism, a sexual phenomenon that, as the author notes in her introduction, has become a somewhat fashionable topic in the post– Fifty Shades of Grey   world, one deserving of much more careful analysis and understanding than it habitu-ally receives. 3  If the book has a weakness, it would be its sometimes rather haphazard copyediting or proofreading. Referencing is approximate in places, with some names being misspelled (Diana Fuss appears as “Dianna” Fuss on page 5; Andrea Dworkin becomes “Angela” Dworkin in the index). And the titles of several works in the bibliography are inaccurate or incomplete. (I confess I noticed this tendency because my own book on Michel Foucault is listed with an incorrect title.) However, quibbles regarding editing aside, this is an assured and con- vincing work of genuine intellectual depth that significantly contributes to our understanding both of the history of sexuality and of how sexuality is used to make history. It will be of great interest to those working in political theory and the history of ideas, as well as those in the broad interdisciplin-ary field of gender and sexuality studies in general and the subfield of the history of sexuality in particular. It deserves, in sum, to be widely read, much discussed, and recommended to students at all levels. L  ISA   D OWNING   University of Birmingham  3  E. L. James’s best-selling fiction trilogy about a billionaire sadist and his innocent younger female girlfriend-then-wife has been widely criticized for misrepresenting the BDSM lifestyle and representing instead a relationship based on domestic violence.  Amatory Pleasures: Explorations in Eighteenth-Century Sexual Culture  . By J ULIE  P EAKMAN . London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. xvi + 224. $29.95 (paper). A collection of essays previously published in scholarly journals and col-lections, this attractively designed volume gives general readers access to the sweep of Julie Peakman’s research on sexual practices and attitudes in the eighteenth century. Wishing “to avoid self-indulgent over-theorizing or using convoluted language” (xvi), she provides succinct explanations of the analytical frameworks employed by other scholars on whose work she draws and bases most of these studies on eighteenth-century erotica. Re-searchers and teachers of the history of sexuality should also find inspiration for further inquiries in contemplating the patterns that recur in the various forms of sexual writing during this period.


Oct 13, 2019
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