Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History

Sarah Toulalan praises an exploration of how pre-19th-century societies acted on their urges

Historians of sex and sexuality generally agree that modern sexual identities emerged in the 19th century, via the scientific study of sexual behaviours that systematically categorised them not just as specific acts, but also as characteristic of types of people who became defined by their preferred modes of sexual activity, and, in particular, by their preferred sexual objects.

Hence, as the authors argue, in the period this book considers, c.1100-1800, "there was sex but no sexuality". This was, therefore, a very different world of sex and sexual interactions between opposite-sex partners, as well as between those of the same sex.

The striking argument of Sex Before Sexuality - and one that has hitherto generally managed to escape sustained attention and dissection - is that not only did homosexuality as we understand it today not exist in the premodern West, but neither did heterosexuality. As Kim Phillips and Barry Reay write: "One of the great problems with the history of heterosexuality is that we all think we know what it is. Whole generations of historians, art historians and literary critics have just assumed that the desires and actions of those in the past are expressions of the same sexual impulses and frameworks that we have today."

But just as same-sex sexual behaviours had very different meanings and consequences from those that they have today, so too did those between opposite-sex partners. One of the main differences was that sex between men and women was organised around marriage and reproduction, and sexual activity within marriage was not a matter for the married couple alone to negotiate in private. Sexual acts both within and without marriage had wider social ramifications, and were policed and punished accordingly. Today oral sex between married partners would not be regarded as an abnormal feature of sexual relations, but in the premodern world it was viewed in the same light as sodomy. Sexual acts - such as rape - that were reproductive, even if unacceptable in other respects, might be regarded as lesser sins as they might result in pregnancy: "The fact that in Italy a rapist might be forced to marry his unmarried victim is an indication that we are talking about different sexual worlds."

In these very "different sexual worlds", it is gender that seems to have been more important, or to have had more significance, than sex: whether men who had sex with other men undermined masculinity by being passive or confirmed it by being active; whether women who had sex with other women understood themselves as having "manly feelings" or desires; whether marital sex was more about procreation and "subordination to male power" than about opposite-sex desire.

But there were other ways, too, in which these societies thought about sex that were very different from our modern modes of thought: sex was humoral, Phillips and Reay note, rather than psychological. It was driven by the body's particular constitution, and by its heat and abundance of blood that physically produced lust and desire for the act of sex rather than the desire for a particular other. This was a society, the authors observe, "that could seriously consider copulation with demons and reflect upon the nature of the bodies, genitals, fluids and pleasures involved in such sexual transactions". However, the preoccupations of demons were, like the societies that considered their nature, reproductive: "extracting semen and inseminating to breed an evil progeny, or aimed to disrupt marriage and cause infertility and impotence".

In reminding us of these and many other distinct and fascinating earlier ways of thinking about and understanding sex and sexual behaviours, Phillips and Reay rightly insist that heterosexuality is not only not a given but also has a history.

Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History

By Kim M. Phillips and Barry Reay Polity

200pp, £50.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780745625225 and 5232

Published 5 August 2011

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