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Valerie Traub, Thinking Sex With the Early Moderns
by Kenneth Borris

Traub, Valerie. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. U of Pennsylvania P, 2016. xiv + 462 pp. ISBN 978-0812247299. $59.95 cloth or ebook.


This important scholarly book worthily follows Traub’s splendid Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England.  Yet Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns greatly differs from its predecessor, as its title implies: this book shuttles back and forth between the past and the present to render the former current and infuse it with queer theory and feminism, as well as the historical consideration of sexual desires, practices, and affinities. The last chapter addresses current pedagogy and its challenges in those diverse fields. There is much that is impressive, including astute ongoing engagement with a vast bibliography of related studies that not only requires forty pages of fine print but also receives evaluation in eighty-two such pages of discursive endnotes, not to speak of the body of Traub’s text. Thinking Sex is essential reading in the scholarly domains that it addresses, partly because it provides such a bracing overview and critique of the possibilities of past, current, and future thought in them. 

Summary of this book, and indeed reviewing it, are bound to be unusually inadequate in part because of its length, almost 500 pages, but mainly because the thought and positions taken are often intricate or paradoxical, and sometimes counterintuitive in a good way. The writing is mostly lucid and lively, though there are infelicities such as defective parallelisms as in three of the quotations below, and occasionally some opaque sentences, of which at least one seems deliberately unintelligible, so as to make a contextual point (291-92). To be fully appreciated and assessed, this book requires investment of considerable time and thought. I summarize the chapters at some length because they will appeal differently to different scholars, depending on their interests, and may be read individually.

In the introductory first chapter, Traub declares that “this book represents my effort to think my way not out but by means of a series of epistemological dead ends” (34). Her fundamental “principle … throughout” is that “sex may be good to think with, not because it permits us access, but because it doesn’t” (4). Arguing “that sexual knowledge is difficult because sex, as a category of human thought, volition, behavior, and representation, is, for a variety of reasons, opaque, often inscrutable, and resistant to understanding,” Traub endeavors to use this very opacity and obstruction “to explore what such barriers to vision, access, and understanding might entail for the production and dissemination of knowledge about sex” (3). By “reframing the history of sexuality as an epistemological problem,” or in other Traubian words by “thinking sex-as-knowledge-relation” (presumably thinking of sex as a knowledge relation), this author aims at nothing less than “to reorient the ways by which historians and literary critics, feminists and queer studies scholars, approach the historicity of sex” (2-3). Not only that: Traub seeks to “use the opacity of sex to draw queer and psychoanalytic theory, history and literature, feminist and queer interests, closer together” (34). These are diverse approaches that currently tend not to play nicely together, as Traub herself observes.

After that introductory chapter, Making Sex has three main parts, each with three chapters:  Making the History of Sexuality; Scenes of Instruction, or Early Modern Sex Acts; and The Stakes of Gender. Traub thus stresses “gender as a crucial modifier of sexuality and the meanings of queer” (17). Part One’s three chapters respectively assess the scholarship of the historian Alan Bray (which I discuss later here), “The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies,” and how to do the history of sexuality in a way both queer and historicist, focusing on the example of lesbian history. 

The second of these three chapters provides an important critique of efforts by some in queer studies “‘to free queer scholarship from the tyranny of history’” and further challenge heteronormativity by queering temporality itself (57). The exponents of this “unhistoricism” that Traub engages are Carla Freccero, Jonathan Goldberg, and Madhavi Menon. “Demeaning the disciplinary methods employed to investigate historical continuity and change,” Traub insists, “does not advance the cause of queerness” (79). Against Menon’s claim that queer theory should be “‘that which challenges all categorization,’” Traub cogently answers that “there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be” (81). Indeed, there remains an enormous amount of research to be done on that process, particularly in early modern Latin texts and their marginalia. Hence much that has been said about same-sexual history, with much confidence, is actually speculative. Traub’s ensuing chapter on lesbian historiography provides a fascinating overview of prior approaches and methods, with many trenchant reflections on how we may now enhance our knowledge of this subject and our procedures. These two chapters alone would amply justify the book.

Whereas Part One addresses sex as it appears in history, Part Two seeks to construe it as “an agent in historical processes of knowledge production,” and emphasizes “the import of what we don’t know as well as what we can’t know” about sexual language, acts, publics, and education (32). The first of Part Two’s three chapters focuses on Richard Brome’s play The Antipodes, performed initially in 1638. Brome’s sexually naïve Martha Joyless seeks advice from her friend Barbara while they lie in bed together, because Martha’s husband has not yet consummated their three-year marriage. Traub analytically leverages this situation to reconfigure the concerns of sexual historiography so that we may thus address “epistemology and pedagogy rather than subjectivity and identity, … knowledge and ignorance rather than norms and transgressions, … erotic dissatisfaction as much as erotic pleasure,” and “how we know as much as what we know” (124). Part Two’s second chapter, “Sex in the Interdisciplines,” examines the conflicts of history, literary criticism, and queer theory as they address questions of sex in the past. Here Traub analyses the “impasse” of their “incompatible designs on history” (128). To do so she considers sex acts and their historiography as means to investigate “how obstacles to knowing have been, are, and will continue to be constitutive of our knowledge,” and to expose “tensions between literary, historical, and queer modes of knowing” as manifestions of the “sexual opacity” addressed by Thinking Sex (131). Traub positions herself at the minuscule overlap of these three modes of inquiry  (127). Part Two’s third and final chapter, “Talking Sex,” is essential reading for everyone interested in early modern English sexual language and bawdy in drama and otherwise. Richly informed, broad in scope, and great fun, this chapter argues that “the opacities, ambiguities, and artful dodges of early modern sex talk” have been much underestimated, and thus index “some of the social, hermeneutic, and epistemological obstacles that make sex such an obdurate object of knowledge” (225-26).

Part Three, “The Stakes of Gender,” seeks first to bring “into explicit theorization the diacritical relationships between gender and sexuality, and both to history,” and second to tie the analyses of all the prior chapters “to the larger stakes—of pedagogy, ethics, and futurity—that motivate the book as a whole” (33). Traub tackles that first proposition in two juxtaposed chapters that respectively address Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the status of lesbianism currently in queer studies. The chapter “Shakespeare’s Sex” focuses on “the contingencies by which we come to ‘know’ Shakespeare’s sexuality in his Sonnets,” and thus “on how contemporary concepts of sexuality affect interpretations” of his life and writings (230). Partly through their reception history, Traub concludes, “the sonnets offer a remarkable entrée into some of the ways that gender, sexuality, and knowledge about both are subject to negotiation, both in Shakespeare’s time, and in ours.  They offer not only a history of sexuality, but an epistemology of sex—a way of considering how sex is thought, and how and why such thinking matters,” as well as how “the relations of sex to gender have been, and will continue to be, contested” (263).

The subsequent chapter, “The Sign of the Lesbian,” critiques the bizarre “general disinterest in lesbianism pervasive in queer studies” so as to propose that “the time has come for a history conceived precisely under … ‘the sign of the lesbian’” (266). In order to substantiate this proposal, Traub assumes that she must destabilize “the meanings of … ‘lesbian’ and ‘history’” to shift them “away from identity knowledges and toward the knowledge relations that subtend the links among ‘lesbian,’ ‘queer,’ ‘history,’ and ‘theory.’” In other Traubian words, the sign of the lesbian must thus be recast so that it becomes “a sign of a historiographic problem” rather than “a de facto sign of identity” (266-67). In keeping with the anti-identitarian assumptions of current queer studies, Traub makes this move so as “to loosen the negative hold that identitarian same-sex desire and practice has had on the queer imaginary and think more in terms of the critical work that ‘the sign of the lesbian’ could perform” (267; compare 274). I am not sure how this enterprise may be reconciled with that of the lesbian historiography so cogently undertaken in Part One’s third chapter. Here, in any case, Traub lists some astonishing depreciations of the lesbian in queer studies—“‘a big drag,’” “‘intractable materiality,’’ and so forth—which she rightly rebukes for their asymmetry in comparison to treatment of “gay” in the same field (288-89). Hence Traub adduces the lesbian “as a sign for the impasses involved in making sexual knowledge,” which for this very reason enables productive inquiry (292).

The final chapter, “Sex Ed; or Teach Me Tonight,” explores political and other issues of sexually related pedagogies in the present and future by addressing “moments of cluelessness” and the various questions they pose (302). “Sexual thought and sexual speech,” Traub argues, “deserve to be credited with and analyzed not only as modes of bodily knowledge but as modes of intellection” (307). Further critiquing some current trends in queer studies, she condemns as “untenable … the idea that any effort to ground analysis in distinctions of time and place or the bodily entailments of gender unduly circumscribes the meanings of queerness,” and insists that “intellectual rigor, precision, deliberation, and seriousness are not inimical to queerness” (316-17). Traub indeed urges the cultivation of scholarly “exactitude: not only of embodiment, but also of time and place” (317). As Donald Trump’s dangerous distortions of historical facts show, we may add, the academy has a vital social responsibility to condemn efforts to falsify history, whatever their rationales.

Since Thinking Sex deals much with questions of theory and method, it includes, as we saw, a reassessment of Alan Bray’s scholarship as Chapter Two. One of the founding books of same-sexual studies in early modernity, his Homosexuality in Renaissance England [1] has had great influence, much of it probably unconscious, on scholars in the field. As one of its founders, Bray deserves praise, and Traub rightly applauds his contributions without foregoing critical evaluation of them (44-48). However, two major flaws in his procedures, which also affect that former book’s successor The Friend,[2] have remained unnoticed in scholarship aside from my Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance,[3] and still do in Thinking Sex. Since Traub’s book addresses issues of method, calls for exactitude, devotes a chapter to assessing Bray’s publications, and does not identify those methodological problems, and since they should be much more widely recognized, I will summarize them here.

First, Bray assumed that his inquiry into English-language sources was an adequate sample of data for his sweeping generalizations about “how same-sexual relations could be conceived in early modern England,” and how the development of such identities should be dated and periodized. It was not. He omitted to consider various relevant discourses such as the early modern sciences, and treated England, in effect, as if it were the pre-Columbian Americas, cut off from Europe and the circulation of continental ideas and texts. But London was quite cosmopolitan, there was a lively international book trade, and educated persons had effective Latin and sometimes other languages too. Bray should have allowed for those gaps in his data when considering what sort of conclusions would be properly warranted. Since he did not, many of his conclusions are dubious or invalid.

Second, when assessing the significance of the extremely low rate of prosecution for male same-sexual acts in England relative to various continental jurisdictions, Bray knew nothing about the uniquely restrictive nature of the early-modern English rules of evidence. Whereas continental law allowed torture in obtaining evidence for many alleged crimes, including theft and sex crimes, the uniquely English tradition of common law did not, except in cases of suspected treason. Thus the felony of anal sex between males was inadvertently beyond the normative reach of English law if it did not involve rape, and hence a raped complainant willing to testify authoritatively to the occurrence of such coitus. Whereas Bray imagined that the rarity of prosecution arose from some peculiar English inability for anyone to recognize male same-sex sexual behaviors as such, including the sex partners involved, it mainly resulted from that crucial disparity between the English and continental legal systems (see Borris, Same-Sex Desire, 79-84).  Bray’s error here was disastrous for his interpretations and periodizations of early modern English male same-sexual behaviors and subjectivities. It has led many astray and continues to do so, including, apparently, some scholars whom Traub quotes quite favorably (15, 234). If the study of early-modern sexual desires, behaviors, and interiorities is ever to approach even distantly the exactitude that she advocates, we must identify prior mistakes in methodology and in matters of historical fact, and regard the claims of those studies skeptically, including their echoes in later work and in our own conscious and unconscious thought, however difficult those may be to identify.

In general, Thinking Sex shows that “an intellectual disposition founded on sexual knowledge relations recognizes in what we don’t know, as well as what we can’t know, not only the partiality of our methods and a spur to future inquiry but an intractability that has been constitutive of the history of sex and which continues to inform our relations to that history and to each other” (318). Traub is much to be congratulated for this outstanding intervention in the study of sex past and present.


Kenneth Borris
McGill University

[1] Columbia UP, 1995.

[2] U of Chicago P, 2003.

[3] Routledge, 2004.


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Cite as:

Kenneth Borris, "Valerie Traub, Thinking Sex With the Early Moderns," Spenser Review 46.2.19 (Fall 2016). Accessed March 20th, 2018.
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