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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 July; 54(3): 416–417.
PMCID: PMC2889473

Book Reviews

Sexuality at the fin de siècle: the making of a “central problem”
Reviewed by Lesley A Hall

Peter Cryle and  Christopher E Forth (eds),  Sexuality at the fin de siècle: the making of a “central problem”,  Newark,  University of Delaware Press,  2008, pp.  201, illus., £42.50, $50.00 (hardback  9788-0-87413-037-9). 

This volume takes as its agenda not the posited fundamental change in understanding sexuality during the later nineteenth century, but an attempt to understand the actual place of sexuality within culture and society at that time. The contributors shift the focus from the usual interest in the developing discourses around homosexuality and female hysteria, and the social anxieties around prostitution, reproduction, obscenity, and sexually transmitted diseases, to reveal a swirling penumbra of other concerns also related to the realm of the sexual which suggest the instability involved in endeavours to establish sexuality as the “central problem” and to define its terms, both at the period in question, and in more recent historiographical analyses.

A case is made for sexuality at the fin de siècle having been more manifest and visible, at least in the cases of certain kinds of bodies undergoing certain kinds of scrutiny, than the prevalent discourse of concealment/ uncovering/definition would indicate. Several of these essays locate sexuality and its anomalies and problems within the arena of performance or spectacle, concurrent with and even overlapping the new medico-scientific view of “freakish” differences. Other essays usefully indicate the extent to which new modes of understanding anomaly and difference were being ventilated in non-elite forms such as the French middle-brow novel, as well as deployed in the popular culture venues of cabarets and sideshows.

In the first part—‘Displaying and examining the sexual body’—Elizabeth Stephens examines nineteenth-century anatomical museums, a phenomenon widespread through Europe and North America exploiting curiosity about forbidden bodily knowledge and anomalous or freakish bodies, arguing for a porosity of influence between these increasingly stigmatized institutions and the investigations of the medical establishment. Stephens cites the photographic record of Charcot’s hysterics, who are also discussed by Jonathan Marshall using Butlerian notions of the performative. Gabrielle Houbre discusses changing perceptions of intersex conditions.

Part II discusses ‘Symptoms and problems’. Peter Cryle considers ‘The aesthetics of the spasm’. Heike Bauer examines the rather slippery usage of female sexuality in non-western societies within discourses of “civilisation” and “degeneration”. Michael Wilson looks at the depiction of same-sex desire in popular (French) novels of the turn of the century, with some examination of the handling by popular medical texts of the same topic.

Part II takes as its theme ‘Decentering sexuality’, with essays by Alison Moore and Christopher E Forth on other bodily functions which influenced emotions about and attitudes towards sexuality: excretion and eating, and Carolyn Dean’s exploration of the formulation of homosexuality as “an open secret” cognate with Jewishness, and the distinction between toleration and acceptance.

The ‘Afterword’ by Vernon Rosario, demonstrates from his clinical practice the extent to which what might be considered long superseded concepts of sexuality and gender identity “persist in deep ways in medicine” as well as in popular and governmental mindsets.

The majority of the essays, though not all, deal fairly specifically with the French context and the extent to which the arguments made might be extended to other areas of Europe or North America and how culturally specific some of them were is thus somewhat problematic. We might also ask how particular to the fin de siècle was the confusion and blurring of categories which this volume examines, or whether something similar might be found at any particular historical epoch, with competing paradigms always in play. Rosario, indeed, draws specific attention to the persistence of attempts to establish a biological basis for “sexual deviancy” and the deployment of whatever is the privileged science of the period to make essentially similar cases for “born that way”. The volume, therefore, raises a number of interesting questions for further exploration.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press