Last week, I wrote about gender, patriarchy, and related matters as factors in family history. I was interested in how gender roles, power, and authority shape family life, and hence, the history a family leaves behind. I noted that stories about my father, uncles, and grandfathers dominated our family lore, and I wrote about the value I found in stories about my mother, aunt, and grandmothers (along with the archival materials my maternal grandmother left behind).

Well, I wrote all these things and thought I was done with the subject, at least for the moment.

Then I read Beverly Akerman’s post on Edward Shorter’s piece in The Globe and Mail on the phenomenal popularity of the E.L. James novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Her post and the comments that followed made me realize I had completely overlooked another important factor in family history—sex.

Silly me. How could I write family history without talking about sex?

Shorter’s thesis was that the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and the increasing mainstream acceptance of S&M undermined the feminist argument (as he cast it) that sex was an exercise in power relations. Akerman’s vehement rebuttal accused Shorter of misogyny and of misrepresenting feminism and women’s sexuality.

Reading Akerman’s post and (later) Shorter’s original article, I realized I had overlooked a major issue in family history—sexuality. Well, not so much overlooked as shied away from, due to my own reticence and a lack of information in my source material.

I posted a comment on Akerman’s post indicating my interest in the questions posed by Shorter’s article and Akerman’s riposte and wondering about the treatment of sexuality in family history.

A reader named DJ replied, noting the importance of sex in family life and history. As DJ put it, a family or social historian assembles a puzzle with many missing pieces, and “the missing pieces are the intimate interactions that one just didn’t talk or write about until very recently.”

Well, yes and no. In the Western world, we have perhaps become more candid about sexuality in the last few generations, but one can hardly argue that all the preceding generations were silent on this most intimate of subjects. I’m not a literary historian, so I can’t speak authoritatively on this topic, but I would argue that the existence of, say, The Kama Sutra or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, undermines the notion that we never used to talk about this stuff.

It also seems to me that humanity’s prior reticence on sexual matters cannot solely be attributed to Victorian prudishness. If our ancestors did not talk much about sex, their silence does not necessarily mean they were repressed (although they may have been).  Like us, our ancestors undoubtedly valued their privacy.  And privacy is essential to intimacy. A respect for privacy also indicates a certain maturity and depth of character. Nothing is more grating than an exhibitionist or narcissist.

DJ also insightfully pointed out that “The way men and women respond to social movements like feminism IS undoubtedly influenced by private sexual desires and fantasies.” I believe DJ is correct on this point, but I would add that this is a two-way connection. If sexuality influences an individual’s response to social movements, an individual’s response to social movements may also find expression in private sexual desires and fantasies.

Coming back to Shorter, I would never buy his argument about feminism being “a bill of goods.” I do accept his thesis that sex is in part an exercise in power relations, just as I accept DJ’s argument that sexuality influences our responses to social movements. But I don’t accept Shorter’s assertion that any woman who plays a submissive role in sexual relations undercuts her claims to power in the family and the workplace. Akerman is surely right in calling bullshit on that.

Where does all this leave me when it comes to sexuality and family history?

Sexuality is a factor in family life, and so it is appropriate in principle for an historian to delve into this topic. Biography is character study. I’m interested in the development of personality and in the way my relatives have responded to the social pressures of their times. Sexuality is a legitimate part of this inquiry.

That being said, I can only take matters so far, especially in regard to my living relatives. I work with their cooperation, and I place an absolute value on their privacy. So if your last name is Kubrin or Lipsy, rest assured. I won’t pose awkward questions or try to follow you into your bedroom.

For family historians, I would put forth the following guidelines:

  • It’s OK to write about sexual matters if you have solid information and the explicit consent of living relatives.
  • In the absence of information (but not of consent), it’s OK to speculate about sexual matters provided there are reasonable grounds for speculation.
  • It’s OK to pose rhetorical questions about sexual matters, provided these questions don’t become insinuations.

Where the deceased are concerned, things are slightly different. If an historian has less information to work with, he or she also has fewer restrictions. There is a truism that the dead have no right to privacy. As a legal matter, this notion is apparently problematic.

For the family historian, however, these legalities may be beside the point. Our distant ancestors occupy a void, which is beyond the reach of discourse and even memory. You can shout into that void all you like, but unless you believe in ghosts, you will never receive an answer.

© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.