A history of sexuality runs the risk of confirming popular fears that academics are capable of ruining even the most simple of pleasures. This book, however, is written in the hope that histories of sexuality (although not necessarily this one) can enlighten and, occasionally, even delight. At their best such histories offer a means of investigating the clash of instinct and culture – how seemingly timeless and natural behaviours shape and are in turn shaped by history. Sexual practices may persist through time but history also illuminates how sex and sexuality are surprisingly mutable. This capacity of history to unsettle and surprise is evident in many of the works discussed here. In less than 40 years the history of sexuality, as a definable area of scholarly enterprise, has grown from a few works describing past attitudes and behaviours into an enormously rich field that sustains its own journal, a number of monograph series and countless seminars, conferences, articles and books. Moreover, this field has moved well beyond accounts of exotic ideas and strange obsessions to embrace sophisticated analyses of such issues as subjectivity, identity, power, desire, gender and embodiment. Through these studies we now have a much more detailed account of past sexual ideas, beliefs, practices, fantasies and struggles.
This picture has been pieced together through numerous invaluable inquiries. Historians are always conversing with the past, asking questions of the surviving evidence, listening for the answers and then reformulating their questions.