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Sex in History by Reay Tannahill
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's review
Jan 21, 12

really liked it
Read in December, 2001

In reviewing Sex in History, I must admit to a certain sentimentality, as one tends to retain a fondness for half-contraband books read furtively in the parental basement. (But what twelve-year-old girl couldn’t benefit from a theoretical knowledge of ancient Greek contraception? Or of second-century castration methods, for that matter?) However, upon re-examining this history of everything from pederasty to Cora Pearl, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Reay Tannahill’s writing retains much of its original charm, even if her scholarship is often a bit thin.

Yet such thinness is unavoidable when one begins with Ramapithecus and concludes with the Equal Rights Amendment, especially given that the book is under 500 pages and is intended for a non-specialist readership. Tannahill presents an impressively panoramic view of human sexuality, and has a particularly keen eye for anecdote. Moreover, she exhibits a gift for crystallizing scholarly debates, often with an appropriate lack of reverence; although she is perhaps excessively unkind to sociobiologists, she rightfully dismisses those who would claim that ancient Greek pederasty was an exclusively intellectual practice. A fine example of her summations of academic infighting can be found on pp. 33-34, where she quotes six opposing (and, one imagines, equally suspect) interpretations of the Venus figurines.

While Sex in History is fascinating as a whole, it is not uniformly so, and some chapters are markedly weaker than others. For example, I found myself wondering why Tannahill bothers to speculate, inanely and at some length, about whether or not Queen Elizabeth I was a feminist, and yet is silent on the subject of early modern transvestitism or the complexities of homosocial relationships. On occasion, her generalizations are exceptionally heavy-handed; she presents an overly monolithic view of marriage ages in early modern Europe—ignoring the regional distinctions that some scholars had already begun to make by 1980—when it surely would have taken little additional space and effort to provide readers with a more accurate view of developments.

Although Tannahill is refreshingly candid on the subject of sex, her book is nonetheless a product of its times. Information about homosexual practices, for instance, varies considerably from chapter to chapter, and I suspect that this may be due to the still-embryonic state of queer studies in the late 1970s. Her language, too, is sometimes antiquated. Despite her evident feminist sympathies, she frequently uses “man” in the universal sense, but this is much more forgivable than her usage of the word “primitive” as a descriptor of indigenous cultures, and—most jarringly—of “perversion” as a synonym for sexual sadism. (Admittedly, she is discussing the violent erotic literature of eighteenth-century England and France, and not the comparatively tame modern sadomasochism, but the value judgment still rings discordant.)

At thirty-two, Sex in History is beginning to show its age, and yet this is not always to its detriment. It remains an engaging and readable introduction to the history of sex, and is surely indispensable to anyone with an interest in the contraceptive possibilities of crocodile dung or in urgent need of a eunuch.
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