Bad Girls and Masked Men: Recent Works on Sexuality in US History (the Girl Problem; Gay New York; Delinquent Daughters)

Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Bad Girls and Masked Men: Recent Works on Sexuality in US History (the Girl Problem; Gay New York; Delinquent Daughters)


Carolyn Strange, "Bad Girls and Masked Men: Recent Works on Sexuality in US History," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 261-75.

Ruth M. Alexander, The Girl Problem: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1995).

George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books 1994).

Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the U.S., 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press 1995).

WHAT ON EARTH WOULD ONE write about if one were to study the history of sexuality? This question used to be posed either perplexedly or cynically. The idea that sex could have a history mystified some historians while others dismissed it as a faddish fixation on the unmentionable. Even the appearance of landmark works, like Judith Walkowitz's Prostitution and Victorian Society or Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Woman's Right, left many unconvinced of the subject's relevance to more than a small circle of feminists with axes to grind. (1) Now, less than twenty years later, the history of sexuality is a force to be reckoned with, not only in North American historiography, but in `world' history (as a steady stream of articles in journals such as Gender and History, Signs, and the Journals of the History of Sexuality confirms). "Everybody's doin' it" could be applied not only to our historical subjects, but to historians who have suddenly come to write about physical and emotional intimacy in all its ambiguity.

Histories of sexuality can no longer afford to rely on raciness to draw readers' attention (or to raise reviewers' eyebrows). The minimum entry standard now goes something like this: mastery of theoretical constructs, particularly Foucault's opus; innovative selection and reading of official and unofficial sources; refusal to equate official pronouncements with `actual' sexual practices; recognition of gender, race, and class as integral to analyses of sexuality; resistance to the temptation to universalize or essentialize sexual practices or identities. In a very short time, the expectations imposed on historians of sexuality (largely by fellow historians of sexuality) have inspired fine, challenging work, examples of which are represented in these three books.

The one which has received the most attention is George Chauncey's Gay New York. The publicity (and sales) it has garnered are unquestionably deserved. This is an extremely ambitious work, especially since it is a first book, written originally as a dissertation under the direction of Nancy Cott. If Chauncey's supervisor put "passionlessness" on the historical map, he has colourfully documented and celebrated the opposite -- namely the sexual passions that drove men to create a "gay world" in late-19th to mid-20th-century New York. Although the stuffy parlour existence of Victorian ladies suffering from the vapours seems oceans away from the Bowery saloons where painted "fairies" and tattooed sailors consorted, Chauncey makes brilliant bridges between ground-breaking feminist historiography and au courant queer theory. For instance, he draws directly on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet while rejecting her central metaphor: pre-Stonewall gay men were not closeted, he contests, but were more like "masked" men who lived "double-lives." (2) For Chauncey, the closet image misses the complex strategies that men devised to be both visible (to each other) and invisible (to hostile outsiders). Like "separate spheres," an outmoded term which inaccurately defined women as creatures cocooned from "the public," the closet is a metaphor which wrongly implies that gay men existed in a kind of cryogenic state prior to coming out en masse in the 1970s. Chauncey's project is to put that image to rest: not only were there sexually-active gay men prior to the modern gay liberation movement, but there were numerous sites in the early metropolis where like-inclined men concocted a vibrant subculture of sex and sociability. …

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