Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing

By James Duncan; Derek Gregory | Go to book overview

4

Writing Travel and Mapping Sexuality

Richard Burton’s Sotadic Zone

Richard Phillips

After much wandering, we are almost tempted to believe the bad doctrine that morality is a matter of geography.

(Burton 1860, 84)

Victorian travel writers charted imaginative terrain on which new sexualities— including homosexuality and heterosexuality—were constructed, and also contested. Few travel writers took a greater interest in sex than did Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90), and none played a greater part in mapping and contesting sexualities. A popular travel writer and translator as well as a famous geographer, who identified himself in print as a Fellow then Gold Medalist of the Royal Geographical Society, Burton was also acknowledged as a pioneer sexologist. His travel, translation, geography and sexology were intimately related. In the geography of his travels and translations, he mapped sexualities. In particular, he mapped a ‘Sotadic Zone’ in which, he claimed, pederasty was common. There, in his most explicitly sexual geography, Burton was able to conceptualize a form of male homosexuality and chart a relationship between this marginalized homosexuality and the dominant, heterosexual sexuality of the material and metaphorical centre—England. I will argue that Burton used travel, and specifically travel geography, as a medium in which to contest contemporary constructions of sexuality, and more specifically to protest against contemporary homophobia.

The geographers who are currently pushing sex and sexuality onto the discipline’s agenda, while exploring constructions of sexuality and resisting homophobia, may find in Burton something of an intellectual ancestor. David Bell’s guest editorial in Society and Space, ‘[screw]ING GEOGRAPHY’ (Bell 1995), 1 is reminiscent of much that Burton wrote. Like Burton, Bell writes as a geographer and addresses geographers (and others). Both write about sex, openly and broadly. Like Burton, Bell assumes a combative style and complains of censorship—making much of the claim that ‘[screw]ING’ should have read ‘FUCKING’ in the Association of American Geographers conference programme. Like Burton, Bell is aware that his outspoken and unorthodox, anti-establishment approach may threaten his career and livelihood. Like Burton, he declares his readiness to eschew and provoke the contemporary establishment, although few could hope

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