Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 14, May 10, 2011


Sexuality and the Spheres of Ignorance

Emmett Soldati

Presented at the SSSSWR Conference, San Francisco, CA, April, 2011

Honors B.A., York University, Toronto
MSc Candidate, London School of Economics
11 Gainsford St
London, UK, SE1 2NE


Even when sex is unspoken it takes place and is practiced in a variety of ways. In many forms sex has been the antithesis of speaking, an experience that ‘dare not speak its name’ or in some ways has no name – the “romantic friendships” between women in the 19th century being one such example. This makes doing sexual history all the more difficult. How do we record the stories of sex unrecorded? Sexual history in the Transatlantic is often characterized through the lens of Michel Foucault and the incitement of discourse – via the school system, penal code, and medical complex. But how do we account for the bodies not represented in these discourses?

This paper investigates the boundaries of sexual knowledge and ignorance, and how both were circulated simultaneously, although in different ways and by different agencies, at a time when ‘sex’ became a thing, an object of study, at the turn of the 19th century. In the U.S. and Great Britain, as the science of Sexology began to take shape, various channels distributed the information, data, and advice produced therein. From hygiene guides for women, to early dating and sex columns in newspapers, to medical textbooks, sex was being talked about in a lot of different ways, to a lot of different people. But research into what actually took place in the bedroom suggests that ignorance of such views had just as much power to shape relations as the (mis)information about sex and sexuality being formally incited into discourse.


When the popular hardcore film Deep Throat was on trial for obscenity in the early 70s, both the defense and prosecution found case matter that turned on the topic of sex education. While the defense posited that the film had aesthetic and educational value – depicting an alternative view of female sexual pleasure – oddly enough this was the same issue the prosecution found their strongest argument in. As the attorney announced, “the movie says it’s perfectly normal to have a clitoral orgasm, and that is wrong” ( Inside Deep Throat). While the prosecution went on to win their case (a decision which has since been appealed), it is interesting to note how such an argument is tenable (or wholly relevant) in a court of law only 40 years ago. Indeed, for several of the participants in the trial the litigation provided several lessons about such sexual issues. Ignorance and sexual misunderstanding is thus pervasive through all levels of authority. Take, for instance, a survey at Philadelphia area medical schools in 1959 that found around half of graduating future doctors still believed “that masturbation is a common cause of insanity” (Walters 15). While modern scholarship (both in the physical and social sciences) offers solid refutation to both, in each of these cases one wonders how such ignorance permeated America on the topic of sexuality. It prompts the question: how is knowledge constituted around sexuality, something that has been always existent but never studied or dissected as rigorously as in the last century? While the ignorance in these cases can have considerable consequences (porn actor Harry Reems was sentenced to five years in prison and masturbation is still often construed as problematic), one wonders how other spheres of ignorance are permeating throughout modernity – where access to knowledge and information are seemingly reaching its zenith.

It is very difficult to speak of ignorance, particularly historically, as it most often manifests itself in an absence of representation. Michel Foucault, who became famous for challenging the repressive hypothesis of the ‘Victorian era,’ did so by investigating the discourses that surrounded sexuality, the discourses that were represented historically. This included examining institutions such as the prison system, the changing medical authority, the educational institutions, and several conservative Victorian political bodies. But there was always an absence on the other side. Who wasn’t reading this material? Who wasn’t in the prison or education system? What indifferent population was around to disregard the administrative forces of ‘repression?’ These silences do not get passed through history easily. They constitute, as historian James Kincaid puts it, “a discourse that is not there” (98). This paper attempts to examine these spheres of ignorance and silence that were concomitant with the burgeoning field of sexology in the early twentieth century and the ‘changing’ views on sexuality that were actively constructed and passively ignored in the North Atlantic. While medical sciences and government policy had a monopoly on representation, I would like to examine alternative mediums in which information and mistruths were circulated, particularly the hygienist guides, sex advice columns, and the marriage manuals of the era. Often unintentionally, these locales offer prime evidence of the variety of ‘ignorances’ and silences that persisted while medicine and psychology claimed ‘progress’ in the field.

While this paper focuses primarily on sexual knowledge and circulation in the United States, it is important to highlight the relative ‘transaltanticism’ of the sources I’ve researched. As Lutz Sauerteig and Roger Davidson have pointed out, “sex education literature was rarely confined within national boundaries” (10). This includes the popular scientific studies by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, as well as the numerous hygiene and sexual health guides that were becoming popular. Though there are examples of authors confining themselves to “national chauvinism,” in general the knowledge that was being passed off in the scientific and popular media communities in Europe and the U.S. had a fluid exchange (Walters 9). Moreover, advice and knowledge being circulated within the U.S. did not have any specific regional characteristics, but instead represented, to some degree, “national norms” (Gudelunas 44). This will become important as I investigate sites of ignorance that challenge the homogenous ‘national’ understanding of sex and sexuality. More specifically, it has not been important historically that one person knew one thing about sex and another did not, but rather that the ‘nation’ ostensibly ‘knew’ something, while lots of others, citizens of that nation, did not. Uncovering this tension leads us to the nebulous spheres of silence and ignorance.

The turn of the nineteenth century is a perfect position to investigate such spheres as rapid change was taking place in the production of sexual knowledge. Whereas religion had been the guiding moral force for disseminating/policing knowledge on sexual activity, this domain was being taken over by the nascent science of sexology (Sauertig 7). Beginning somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century with Krafft-Ebing’s magnus opus, Psycopathia Sexualis (actually inspired by an earlier work of the same name by Heinrich Kaan) and gaining intellectual currency with Havelock Ellis’, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, sexology as a science “established the basic moral categories for nearly all subsequent sexual theorizing” (Robinson 3). As a ‘science’ it studied issues concerning conception and female pleasure, masturbation, and homosexuality. While the sexologists are praised for their concern about sexual matters that were hitherto unexamined, today sexology is viewed much more critically. As Carolyn J. Dean points out, it is a science “that legitimated oppressive legislation during this period,” and, “cannot be dissociated from white patriarchal power” (4). We have the lens and knowledge today to critique the way these scientists took up their work and the methods they used. For example, even the ‘value-free’ 1950s sexologist, Alfred Kinsey, only hired researchers that were “male, heterosexual, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, since for Kinsey these characteristics represented the yardstick of normality” (Irvine 337). Furthermore we must also understand how their acquired knowledge was implemented. As Erin Connell and Alan Hunt point out, “the sciences did not simply investigate sex difference, but rather played a major role in constituting the differences between women and men” (26). If this new field was creating new ideas about the sexuality of men and women, it is important to follow how these ideas became circulated. While Ellis’ work and the work of other sexologists spread primarily in academic and medical circles, their ideas would also trickle into other popular mediums.

It is of little wonder then why, as sexuality was becoming a more legitimate study, that sex literature was increasing. Perhaps the most prominent forms would have to be marriage manuals and sexual health guides. Two major publications on marriage were Marie Stopes’ Married Love, published in 1918, and later Judge Ben Lindsey’s Companionate Marriage in 1927. Both of them promoted sex for pleasure within holy matrimony along with birth control and sex education (Simmons, “Companionate Marriage” 55). While considered “puritanical” to today’s readers, Stopes’ seminal book challenged the prevailing ideas surrounding sexuality on the grounds of ignorance. Indeed, it was that male’s lack of knowledge or concern for his spouse that led to a loss of romance in married life (Hall, “Marie” 129). Even while Ellis and others were discussing more deviant forms of sexuality (including homosexuality and masturbation), marriage was the perfect device (and the only legitimate one) through which to disseminate information, even if it lacked somewhat more progressive qualities. The second popular avenue of information dissemination was the sexual health and hygiene literature. The most comprehensive text to come out of the social hygienist movement was Sex Education: A Series of Lectures Concerning Knowledge of Sex in Its Relation to Human Life, written by Maurice A. Bigelow (Simmons, “Making Marriage” 28). The book reads today largely as a scare-tactic more than anything, claiming to cure readers of their “ dense ignorance” that is “largely responsible for the existence of that darkest blot on our boasted civilization--the social-sexual evil” (Bigelow 22). In keeping with the patriarchal sciences and numerous “vice” commissions established across the U.S., Bigelow blamed women for undue social burdens, stating, “illegitimate children are due to ignorance of the women” (23). Here Bigelow both circulates misogynist and inaccurate statements while doing so in the name of extirpating social ignorance. Of course, this sort of manoeuvre was anything but an exception. With the plethora of literature on the subject, even those directly from ‘scientists,’ there were often conflicting messages being put out. As historian Thomas Lacquer points out, “in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed today, at any given point of scientific knowledge a wide variety of contradictory cultural claims about sexual difference are possible” (175). Thus we must be wary about what ‘ignorances’ mean historically, and whether they constitute a lack of information, or simply pseudo fact. Of course, it is quite difficult to know how this literature impacted individuals and we cannot know if they even influenced people – if they even read them. But historiography has a way of not giving up, and Michel Foucault, the “archaeologist of history,” has taken up this practice of uncovering the unknown.

Foucault was one of the first historians to challenge the singular understanding of sexuality in the Victorian era and blow the lid off the ‘repressive hypothesis.’ Instead of seeing sexuality as something unproblematically repressed in the nineteenth century, Foucault charted the discourse that was constructed around sex and sexuality in complex ways. As Jeffery Weeks has pointed out, Foucault saw, “a multiple production of sexualities in a host of social practices” (Weeks 115). Instead of being repressed, sex was “taken charge of, tracked down as it were, by a discourse that aimed to allow it no obscurity, no respite” (Foucault 20). He studied the forms in which sex was taken up – in the school, in the prison – to demonstrate how sexuality was on the minds of the Victorians. Foucault elaborates on this point:

Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex: that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and an increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself. Not only were the boundaries of what one could say about sex enlarged, and men compelled to hear it said; but more important, discourse was connected to sex by a complex organization with varying effects, by a deployment that cannot be adequately explained merely by referring it to a law of prohibition. (Foucault 23)

This position challenges the historical approach of looking at one representation of sex to make generalizations of what was known and what was not, what was practiced and what was not. However, we must be wary of taking this ‘incitement to discourse’ as the facts of Victorian life. Ignorance and silence on sexual issues resist discourse analysis precisely because they have no form – no formal, recognizable representation.

We do know ignorance and silence existed even within each of these discourses and fields of inquiry. Marie Stopes’ life story is a prime example of this. At the age of thirty-seven, married for a second time, and holding a doctorate degree in the life sciences, she was still a virgin (itself a culturally specific notion). Not only that, but she was a virgin precisely because she did not know how to lose one’s virginity. It was not until years into her first marriage, and with the advice from a friend ten years her junior, that Stopes realized something was not ‘right.’ After learning about her husband’s failure to ‘consummate the marriage,’ Stopes filed for divorce and soon got to work educating herself on sexuality – all of which would fuel her revered book, Married Love (Hall, “Marie” 136). It is difficult to make sense of this sort of ignorance, which spanned three decades of her life. From the perspective of discourse analysis, one must chart each institutional site of contact to see how one can ‘fall through the cracks.’ Of course, falling through the cracks in these days was seemingly much easier to do. As Kincaid remarks, “If I define Victorian learning as institutional learning – sex education classes in schools or churches, instruction offered by counsellors trained in matters sexual, or government-sponsored or authored publications – I could say there was no learning at all on the subject” (91). Similarly, the family offered little for sexual insight – with parents feeling too inadequate to properly educate on that matter (Hall, “In Ignorance” 21). Or, as Bigelow tells us in a sex education manual, “I know that there are a few men and many women who will disagree with this because they believe in the absolute ignorance of their boys” (60). Even the medical profession was not always helpful, as many individuals, particularly women, were too embarrassed to speak with their doctor about sexual issues (Hall, “Dear Dr” 8). Thus when Foucault tells us that sex was “driven out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence” (Foucault 33) this overlooks the forms in which sexuality, as it existed in some embodied way for all citizens, cannot be accounted for by the way we review discourse today. What discourse does the woman belong to that writes to Marie Stopes, “I have had 3 children all boys which carry the bleeding decease, two I have buried one it got to the age of 7 my second I lost at 2 months through Circumcition [sic] I have one still living eight months old… I feel I cannot stand keep seeing these children come into the world to suffer as they have…” (Hall, “Dear Dr” 36). How can we understand sex being employed here, particularly when the absence of understanding it is precisely what led many women, like this one, to endure the strain of large families. Indeed it is within the anonymous letters and sexual advice columns that we are able to get a clearer (albeit more complicated) picture of sexual ignorance and silence elsewhere in the discourse. But first let us examine more closely the ways ignorance and knowledge came to be constructed alongside burgeoning sexual literature and sexology.

We can understand sexual ignorance as relying on two streams of knowledge production: focus and distribution. The focus of sexual knowledge, as discussed already, has not been an objective or value-free pursuit of truth. Instead, it has always had its own biases and, more saliently, its own object of study. The primary object for sexology has always been (and in many ways continues to be) deviance. As historian Paula Fass has put it, “questions concerning the experience of most people have dropped from sight, replaced with issues about sexuality on the margin” (Sauertig 1). While Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis may have had the best of intentions for legitimizing these marginal sexualities, their ardent emphasis was problematic for two reasons. First, it was forced to always define these sexualities as deviances, as inversions, against some uncharted norm. ‘Scientific study’ was fuelled by anxiety and “a desire to be able to track such undesirables” (Tuana 211). Second, in the crusade for sexual enlightenment, it left many in the dark (like Stopes) about their own bodies and sexualities, letting the ‘norm’ simply assume itself. In the opening of his book, Bigelow outlines the “eight sexual problems of our time” (Bigelow 16), which include disease, illegitimacy, evil, morality, and vulgarity – each as distinct problems. It is little surprise then that many of the individuals writing to Stopes would not solicit advice until after they become overburdened with children, until after they were considered ‘problems.’ There was simply no focus on them, their sexual health or sexual pleasure, within academic or popular discourses. This leads to the second sphere of the social construction of ignorance – that of distribution.

As noted before, the manuals on marriage and sex hygiene were the primary vehicles of sexology. Of course many were rife with tension and inconsistencies, and only few (notably those, like Stopes’, that stemmed from a feminist tradition) were willing to discuss pleasure and female agency. Otherwise, it is simply the fact of things that sex was taken up as a legitimate object of science in the laboratory before there existed legitimate avenues to disseminate information and educate the public. In fact, there were several mechanisms in place to prevent just that. While Foucault notes that the law is no place to examine sexual mores of the times, it certainly did have a role to play in the construction of ignorance. In Britain in the late 19th century, individuals could be charged with “obscene libel” for publishing, or even distributing, information that dealt with the subject of birth control (Dean 13). In the U.S. the Comstock Laws, named after postal inspector Anthony Comstock, “forbade mailing of obscene art and literature and all material about controlling reproduction” (Dean 14). This is not the case of the law repressing sexuality, but instead this prohibition on distribution fuels ignorance altogether. The letters written to scientists and doctors help us fill in gaps today about the circulation of information.

Sex advice columns in the newspapers also operated against the medical hygienist movement. The advice column grew out of the need to adapt to a changing and expanding readership for most major news syndicates. As women found more positions open to them in journalism, their gender differences were exploited to encourage female readership (Gudelunas 31). Beatrice Fairfax (real name Marie Manning), one of the original advice columnists, started her career just this way, working as a ‘sob sister’ – a female journalist who embellishes editorials with purple prose and overly sympathetic views toward its subjects. However, as she proved herself capable, she gained her own column and began soliciting letters from the general public. Similar to the marriage advice manuals, the columns were rather innocent, and initially never dealt with explicit sexual material, despite the numerous requests (Gudelunas 41). Fairfax’s acclaimed successor, Dorothea Dix, also walked the line between entertaining stories of intimacy and catering to the conservative moral majority. Although letters to these two do expose the heterogeneity of ignorance and understanding around sexuality, at the end of the day the newspaper business was (and still is) one that must avoid alienating its more conservative patrons (Gudelunas 69).

A far more difficult phenomenon to analyze, which often comes with ignorance, is silence. As Ronald Walters puts it, “We cannot recapture whispered words, meaningful glances, or secret acts” (6). Perhaps a more fugitive concept than ignorance, it is difficult not only to know when silence exists, but more importantly what it represents. Foucault writes that, “silence itself…functions alongside the things said” (27). For him, this is relevant to studying child sexuality and how the schools always incorporated a silence around the thing that was very much on their minds: adolescent “precocity.” While it may be true that silence is accompanied by a preoccupation in many respects, we cannot always assume the silence is in tandem with things being said. One particular ‘unaccompanied’ silence was the underrepresentation of women and female sexuality. Since “women were thought to be less sexual than men, there was presumably less sexual information to dispense” (Walters 12). For historians, this has made it difficult to discuss issues surrounding female agency and sexual pleasure, which only reinforces the ignorance and silence (Jean 27). But while this ignorance-as-silence does have demonstrated harm (as in the case with ignorance of birth control), we must not forget that silence can signify and allow for other forms of sexuality. As Meryl Altman notes when discussing the constraints laid out by early 20 th century marriage manuals, “this contrasts with the relative freedom women who loved women were given in the nineteenth century, when there was widespread silence about female sexual desire” (125). Silence here, instead of being an ignorance of sexuality, is instead a shield from the pathological focus taken by the medical and sexological authority. Indeed, the knowledge dissemination crusade led to a “new kind of rigidity in American culture” and “friendship between young women which had seemed innocent in the nineteenth century might arouse disapproval in the twentieth” (Simmons, “Companionate Marriage” 54). Thus, ignorance of sex is itself a political concept, where what constitutes ‘sex’ is what matters for those that are ‘ignorant’ of it.

The intersectionality of sexuality with other social relations such as gender and class further exposes sites of our ignorance about the circulation of sex knowledge at the turn of the century. “Who are these ‘Victorians?” asks James Kincaid, “Of what class, gender, time, and place, of what cultural assumptions and traditions?” (91). He notes that the term ‘Victorian’ has been used as a general and uncomplicated category in historiography. We must continually question who the subjects of study are. For instance, reformers and sexual hygienists were always much more concerned about spreading their information to the working-class, who were often blamed for the ‘social-sexual evils’ in society and thus the proper object for eugenics (Simmons, “Making Marriage” 54). In this way, information and ignorance circulates through the classes in different ways. As discussed above, the differing forms of education reified gender differences for men and women. It was not until later developments in the medical and social sciences, and in political life, that the “female capacity for pleasure” (Connell 29) would have more widespread cache. The politics, boundaries, and circulation of ignorance and knowledge continue to this day, on very similar lines.

Science historian Nancy Tuana charts the epistemology of the orgasm throughout western sciences. The claim made by the Deep Throat trial prosecution about clitoral orgasms should not be so surprising in the 70s because it is still prevalent today. She writes, “A review of anatomical illustrations in standard college human sexuality textbooks reveals a surprising lack of attention to the functions and structures of the clitoris” (209). In her opinion, this stems from the idea that the sciences still have yet to de-link sexuality from reproduction, and thus there is “no good reason to pay attention to the clitoris, given that it plays no role in reproduction” (210). While sexual knowledge in the U.S. is not what it was, and since the AIDS/HIV epidemic the awareness of sexual health is on the rise, it seems as though the next frontier of knowledge and ignorance will surround the politics of pleasure. Even with the wide circulation and access to information, we must still understand the forms that ignorance takes on and the sites where it is and is not expressed.

The politics of history, and the process of historiography, are complex discourses that require extreme scrutiny, debate, and academic integrity. With the recognition of ignorance and silence as fundamental to (de)constructing visions of the past, historians are stuck with the difficulty of capturing these evasive phenomena. These concepts are particularly relevant (and perhaps nowhere more pervasive) to the topic of sex and sexuality. Even without a history, all individuals have a body, and in some sense, whether categorized or not, are sexual beings. Even when sex is unspoken it takes place and is practiced in a variety of ways. In many forms sex has been the antithesis of speaking, an experience that ‘dare not speak its name’ or in some ways has no name – as was the case with “romantic friendships” between women, who required no formal articulation of their relations. This paper has investigated the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance, and how both are circulated simultaneously, although in different ways and by different agencies, at a time when ‘sex’ became a thing, an object of study, at the turn of the 19th century. Present-day historians, and indeed anyone professing to be an authority on sexuality, must be cognizant of the politics of ignorance to better understand how sex knowledge is created and spread.

Works Cited

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