Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Trumbach, Randolph. 2012. "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences" in Signs vol. 37, no. 4 832-848.

Contents summary: 

I’m going to start this summary by noting that the more articles I read from Randolph Trumbach, the grumpier I get. When the highlights on my pdfs are augmented by scribbled red pen notes saying “No! Wrong!”, it’s not a good sign. So I don’t exactly come into this summary with an unbiased mind. My major beef is his tendency to make pronouncements on the history of women’s same-sex relations that appear based primarily on assuming that all his research and conclusions on men’s same-sex relations can just be applied willy-nilly to women, even if women’s history has to be distorted and mangled to make them fit. In this particular article, I rather lost it at the point where he notes “all these prominent historians who focus on women’s history disagree with me, but I’m going to cherry-pick some examples to show how they’re wrong wrong wrong.”

So I will scrupulously keep my commentary on this article within square brackets.

* * *

Trumbach begins with the statement that before 1700, Europeans assumed that all males experienced sexual desire for both women and adolescent boys, but that within a generation after 1700 this was shifting to a belief that most males only desired women and a minority of of “deviant” males desired other males (of non-specific age). This shift, he claims, began in England, France, and the Netherlands by the mid-century, by 1800 had expanded to central Europe, and to southern and eastern Europe by 1900.

The history of relations between women, he notes is less thoroughly documented due to fewer legal sources, but “it is likely” that they followed the exact same pattern as men in being attracted to both men and women before 1700, with same-sex relationships being age-differentiated, while after 1700 women also were differentiated into a heterosexual majority and a lesbian minority, though the lesbians had less impact on social attitudes than male homosexuals did. [Note: as the phrase “it is likely” signals, no documentation is presented for this assumption that women’s experiences exactly mirror men’s.]

Trumbach reviews a significant body of evidence for the prevalence of male same-sex erotics in the 16-17th centuries, although in my opinion he doesn’t sufficiently consider that some of that evidence was politically motivated (as with King Henry VIII’s investigation of monastic sexual activity which had clear political goals in the context of the dissolution of the monasteries).

Men’s same-sex relations had long been predicated on aligning age with sexual role: adolescents (like women) were expected to accept a “passive” sexual role while adult males took an “active” role. [Note: this overlooks the blurring of age/status-differentiation in the overlap with neo-Platonic friendship, but I’m willing to buy it as an overall trend.]

Turning again to women, he begins, “Most sexual relations between women before 1700 (like those between males) were probably structured by difference in age.” He then notes that Brooten (1996), Traub (2002) and others dispute this as a factor in women’s experience and selects individual examples from their data that did involve an age difference between the women to support his claim. [Note: what he doesn’t clearly demonstrate is that age-difference was an essential component of women’s relationships or that it corresponded to particular sexual roles, as opposed to some subset of f/f relations having an age difference.] He reviews several sources involving legal cases, often involving the use of artificial penises for sex, suggesting that they represent the typical case for female same-sex relations. He also conflates cross-gender performance with same-sex erotics, including a context-free reference to Joan of Arc.

Moving on to “after it changed” Trumbach asserts that the new model of men having desire exclusively for women was the cause of the rise of “romance” as a foundation for marriage and of the “tender care of children” that he says became to appear around 1750. [Note: see Hitchcock 2012 for a far more detailed and nuanced discussion of parallel social changes in the 18th century. Also, see the rise of the concept of "companionate marriage" in the 17th century.] The shift to earlier and more frequent marriage by men, he asserts, was “motivated by the need to establish what would later be called heterosexual identities” now that non-heterosexuality had become stigmatized. “It is not clear” he notes that women’s earlier and more common marriage was similarly due to not wanting to be suspected of being lesbians, but “more likely that women sought in their sexual and marital behavior to show that they were mothers and not prostitutes.” [Note: I feel that this high-minded motivation entirely ignores the severe social and economic disadvantages of single motherhood. Further, given the intimate relationship between marriage patterns and economic trends across the ages, I'm reluctant to assume a psychological motivation for a shift to earlier marriage unless an economic motivation has been actively ruled out.]

“Nonetheless, there did emerge by the middle of the eighteenth century a minority of women attracted only to women who signaled their desires by taking on certain masculine traits in their gait, speech, and clothing” in parallel with “effeminate” male homosexuals. This is followed by a survey of pop culture and biographical examples of female couples in which one member (or both) adopted male-coded garments such as riding habits. He gives a brief nod to female couples who both have female-coded presentations, identifying them as “organized by mother-daughter roles” and thus dismissing nearly the entire Romantic Friendship phenomenon.

Why did this supposed shift in sexual roles occur? Why at that time? Why so rapidly? “This, alas, I do not find a terribly interesting or profitable question,” Trumbach says.