Picturing the History of Sexuality in America


Thomas A. Foster is associate professor of history and chair of the department of history at DePaul University. He is the author of "Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America" and the editor of "Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America" and "New Men: Manliness in Early America."

Close your eyes. What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of the word “sex”? Think about what racial and class connotations are present. Ponder how this image came to be in your head. Perhaps you feel it was influenced by the multi-billion dollar pornography or advertising industries -- or maybe your religious beliefs or personal experience. Consider what emotions you connect to this image: pleasure, pain, anger? Seriously. Try it. Picturing sex can tell us a lot about ourselves and our society.

How might those questions be answered differently if you were trying to picture “sexuality” or the “history of sexuality”? In trying to develop a cover for my new book, Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality, how best to capture the topic was a loaded enterprise.

Thinking about the cover image for my new book was quite an enlightening experience. Picturing the history of sexuality tells us a lot about our current notions. Given that any images contribute to our cultural understanding of sex and become their own message, ultimately the image became about the future of sexuality, as well.

Images have certainly played an important role in the history of sexuality. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality by John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, newly in its third edition and nicely paired with my documents collection, includes wonderful images. Some are of texts themselves: early American legal statutes, advertisements for contraception and abortion, and title pages from sex manuals and ribald fiction. In modern America, there’s no shortage of images to tell the history of sexuality, including photographs but also drawings, pornography, and sculpture, for example. Not all images are about pleasure. Photos of nineteenth-century Chinese women trapped in a life of prostitution or of African American men lynched on trumped up charges of raping white women, remind us that the history of sexuality is also a story of great tragedy and horror.

Selecting a cover image for Documenting Intimate Matters became enormously challenging because the artist needed to capture the breadth of issues covered in the book. (It spans from the seventeenth century to the present.) It also needed to avoid reinforcing racial and gender stereotypes just to sell the book (no top hats or bare-breasted women).

After asking the publisher to avoid anything that would narrowly highlight one race or class, the artist who designed the cover produced... an elegant image of a snake.

The snake and sex share more than just an alliterative bond. Their connection is both ancient and modern. Stretching through time, the snake conjures up Eve, temptation, and forbidden fruit at one end and Freud and the ultimate phallic symbol at the other.

It evokes a Native American traditional image, immediately shifting focus from white, elite imagery. Documents in the book range from seventeenth-century witchcraft trials in New Mexico to Lil’ Kim’s “How Many Licks?”

It also reminds one of an early American woodcutting (Ben Franklin’s “join or die” also comes to mind) and speaks to the US focus and long history covered in the volume. Some documents take that which is familiar from American history and places it in a new light: Puritan New England and Revolutionary Philadelphia appear differently than the traditional narrative when studying the history of sexuality. Other documents include Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with Joshua Speed, the US War Department’s fascinating pamphlets for WWII GIs on avoiding venereal disease, and Kenneth Starr’s graphic report on President Clinton’s involvement with Monica Lewinsky.

Finally, the snake is perfect for a book released in December 2012. In the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2013 is the year of the snake.

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