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The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America

, 304 pages

3 b&w illus.

November 2018



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The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America


If sexology—the science of sex—came into being sometime in the nineteenth century, then how did statesmen, scientists, and everyday people make meaning out of sex before that point? In The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America, Greta LaFleur demonstrates that eighteenth-century natural history—the study of organic life in its environment—actually provided the intellectual foundations for the later development of the scientific study of sex.

Natural historians understood the human body to be a "porous envelope," eminently vulnerable to its environment. Yet historians of sexuality have tended to rely on archival evidence of genital-based or otherwise bodily sex acts for its source material. Through careful readings of both elite natural history texts alongside popular print forms that circulated widely in the British North American colonies during the long eighteenth century—among them Barbary captivity, execution, cross-dressing, and anti-vice narratives—LaFleur traces the development of a broad knowledge of sexuality defined in terms of the dynamic relationship between the human and its natural, social, physical, and climatic milieu.

At the heart of this book is the question of how to produce a history of sexuality for an era in which modern vocabularies for sex and desire were unavailable. LaFleur demonstrates how environmental logic was used to explain sexual behavior on a broad scale, not just among the educated elite who wrote and read natural historical texts. Reading popular print alongside contemporary natural historical writing, LaFleur reunites the history of sexuality with the history of race, demonstrating how they were bound to one another by the emergence of the human sciences in the eighteenth century. Ultimately, The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America not only rewrites all dominant scholarly narratives of early sexual behavior but also poses a major intervention into queer theoretical understandings of the relationship between sex and the subject.

Greta LaFleur is an assistant professor of American studies at Yale University.

"This book teaches us how to read the entwined histories of sexuality and the natural world in the context of the European imperial project in North America, and its deeply researched historical narrative is enlivened by rigorous intersectional thinking. The result is a wonderfully interdisciplinary study that unsettles many habits of the field and points the way forward."

"Greta LaFleur sets out a bold, provocative intellectual and ethical project: how to write the history of sex before sexuality, taking the eighteenth-century British colonial world as her focus. Tracing the logic of sex and race found in natural history through a surprising archive, this promises to be a landmark book in early American studies and the history of sexuality."

"LaFleur offers a wide reappraisal of the conditions of emergence for what was not then, but would become, 'sexuality.' In its attentiveness to an environmental etiology of sexuality, the book does the crucial work of uncoupling sex from the straitjacketed, privatizing frameworks of 'the subject.' An altogether fine accomplishment."

"The fact that sexuality has a ‘natural history’ shouldn’t come as a surprise, but LaFleur’s analysis of the pervasive import of environmental logics to sex in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic is a revelation. With its sophisticated understanding of how racialization proceeds by way of sexual tropes in the annals of natural history, this spirited genealogy is what many of us have been waiting for."

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