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A Cultural History of Sexuality, Volume 1: A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Classical World, by Mark Golden & Peter Toohey (eds.)

Reviewed by Marilyn B. Skinner

This is the initial volume of a six-part series surveying “changes in sexual attitudes and behavior throughout history” (vii) from antiquity to the present—though the series, as the separate titles indicate, is Eurocentric and deals almost exclusively with the Western world. Julie Peakman, the series editor, informs us that each volume follows the same basic structure and employs the same key headings: heterosexuality, homosexuality, sexual variations, religion and the law, medicine and disease, popular beliefs and culture, prostitution, and erotica. That uniformity would allow someone interested in a particular topic, say “homosexuality,” to follow its development diachronically through major historical periods.

Immediately a student of ancient sexuality spots a problem. Since Foucault, most agree that sexuality in antiquity was organized differently than it is in the contemporary West. Even someone hostile to the Dover-Foucault “penetration model” has to concede that classification of activities according to the sex of the partner, “heterosexual” versus “homosexual,” makes little sense when speaking of a society that groups boys and women together as legitimate objects of penetration. Comparison with another six-volume series in the same Berg Cultural Studies catalog, A Cultural History of the Human Body (2010), reinforces my point. Although cultures modify particular features like hair or skin ornamentation, the form of the human body remains the same across races and ethnicities. Because authors can take that corporeal substrate for granted, shifts in notional construction of the body over time can be addressed using the same set of rubrics. This is not true of an abstract concept like sexuality, where even the most fundamental postulate, the existence of a biologically determined physical drive, is itself disputed. By imposing one set of headings upon all the volumes in the series, this history of sexuality implicitly posits an essentialist morphology. It begs the very question it should set out to answer.

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