Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System
by Christopher Chitty
Duke University Press, 2020, 240 pp.
Where do gay people come from? This has been one of the central questions for the gay rights movement in the United States. Responses to it animate arguments on all sides. Opponents believe that gay people have sexual practices and compulsions that can be redirected through counseling and prayer. Advocates have often said that gay people are born this way, and some suggest that scientists will prove it by finding “gay genes.” Or at least that’s what they have to say in court; the structure of U.S. constitutional law requires groups seeking sanctuary under the equal protection clause to show that they are a “discrete and insular minority” whose members share immutable characteristics and a history of oppression.
These are fundamentally historical claims. So for decades now, advocates have drawn on the history of homosexuality to bolster their arguments. Some historians became advocates in their own right, testifying in open court and drafting friend-of-the-court briefs for skeptical judges. Far more common is an unspoken acknowledgment by scholars that their work might be put to a particular political purpose, which provides an orientation for the field. Their work foregrounds the kinds of questions that illuminate both the origins of homosexual identity and a history of oppression on that basis.
In the past five years, the arguments finally worked. Gay people won workplace antidiscrimination protection and the right to marry. Some declared victory and went home; others have turned their attention to protections for trans people or to campaigns that touch gay lives—prison abolition, immigrant justice, and progressive climate policy, to name a few. The work goes on, but the public fervor over homosexuality has diminished. It is tempting to wonder if, in the United States at least, we have reached the end of gay history.
The answer, of course, is no. And Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System, an ambitious retelling of the history of capitalism through the politics of gay sex, has arrived just in time to help dissuade us of that idea. Sexual Hegemony suggests new substantive and methodological directions for the history of homosexuality—directions that could transform the meaning of queer politics in our moment.
The book is a gripping, and at times frustrating, attempt to return “the history of sexuality to a history of property,” as Chitty described his research. It is also a bittersweet record. In 2015, Chitty killed himself while he was in the final stages of his PhD in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His friend and comrade Max Fox collected drafts of his dissertation, seminar papers, research notes, and transcriptions of his conference presentations to compose the final manuscript. In his grief, Fox couldn’t bear for the world to lose Chitty’s ideas, too. It’s an extraordinary act of generosity and care—for Chitty’s memory, for the countless scholars who will be debating and building from this text, and for sexual politics on the left.
Start just about anywhere in the history of sexuality, and the road will lead back to Michel Foucault. The first volume of The History of Sexuality endowed the field and gave it a research agenda. Two core questions animated the book and the scholarship that followed: First, what explains the emergence of “homosexual” as an identity category? Here, Foucault famously declared 1870 as the birthday of the modern homosexual, a result of scientific discourses that converted diverse sexual acts into a consolidated “species.” He claimed to have found a historical trajectory where criminal sexual acts became understood as a medical pathology, and then a personal identity. Second, Foucault asked, how does sexuality relate to modern governance? His response—that modern states subjugate bodies and control populations through the exercise of “biopower”—illustrated his theory that regulatory power is not top-down (or bottom-up) but diffuse, multidirectional, and discursive.
Foucault’s first question launched a thousand works of academic history. (Biopower got more attention in queer theory.) Although The History of Sexuality gave the field its terms of debate, historians never accepted his acts-to-identity thesis. They also cut deeper at the idea of a stable and coherent homosexual identity in the first place. The first professional historians of American sexuality were steeped in social history, attentive to how class structures sexual relationships. But they were also coming into the academy as cultural methods of interpretation filtered from European history into the study of the United States, leading to work with subtle attention to the cultures of class. One of the most influential entries remains George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City before the Second World War, where he showed that working-class and bourgeois ways of thinking about gay sex overlapped, rendering the distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality quite porous well into the twentieth century. Gay identity was not singular, nor was it produced by medical knowledge. It reached scientific discourse only after extensive popular circulation.
John D’Emilio tried to connect the appearance of gay male cultures to capitalism even more explicitly, applying the framework of class formation to gay enclaves in postwar U.S. cities in his book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. But his greatest synthesis of Marxist historiography and the history of sexuality came in his 1983 essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” He argued that gay identity and gay urban cultures were only made possible by the advent of waged labor and industrialization. In this telling, once unattached men left the farm for jobs in the city, they could achieve economic security without production and reproduction in the family. (Women’s social history also emerged in these same years, an oft-forgotten branch of the history of sexuality and capitalism.)
Chitty deliberately modeled Sexual Hegemony on these twentieth-century social histories of homosexuality in the United States. To expand their insights in time and space, he turned to Fernand Braudel and Giovanni Arrighi. From Braudel he borrowed the longue durée and a belief that global capitalism emerged out of Mediterranean city-states (as opposed to the English countryside). From Arrighi, who was himself heavily indebted to Braudel, Chitty adopted the notion that economic hegemony passes from one center of political power to the next. According to Arrighi, capitalism follows a predictable cycle: investment in the material economy becomes too competitive, sending liquid capital to more distant shores in search of profit. A dying hegemon’s surplus becomes the fuel to ignite its successor. Thus autumn in Holland becomes springtime in Britain, and on and on.
Sexual Hegemony retraces Arrighi’s steps. Its second chapter opens with the story of how, in 1472, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Office of the Night convicted a poor shoemaker named Pacchierotto of sodomy. According to the Florentine chronicler Simone Filipepi, Pacchierotto had been tortured into confessing “unheard of and extraordinary filth.” Unable to pay the fine of ten florins, he was whipped and lashed in the center of town and then paraded to the fur district, the scene of several of his crimes, where he was lashed some more.
This anecdote might seem like another in a long line of excavation projects designed to reveal both gay people and homophobia in each of history’s sedimentary layers. Chitty, however, emphasizes not the pageantry of public punishment, but the fact that it was so rare. It was much more common for the Medici vice squad to impose a fine on the guilty party, and they sometimes overlooked enforcement when the confessor was too poor to pay. In effect, he explains, Florence “monetized sodomy.”
The system followed a “surprisingly modern rationality.” These fifteenth-century sexual relations could not be dismissed as a sign of bourgeois decadence, as some Marxists have done, because the sex so often ran across class lines. Nor did prosecutions by the Office of the Night reflect moral and religious opposition to same-sex desire in Florence; sex between men was an ordinary part of social life, and usually carried a light penalty.
Instead, sexual regulation helped maintain political equilibrium. Popular anger at broader forms of dispossession could be vented through institutions like the Office of the Night to punish the rich, and the ruling classes could also strategically repress cultures of sex between men to regain control over public sentiment (without any threat that gay cultures would actually be eliminated). The sexual norms of the dominant class shaped the sexual conduct and understanding of the other classes, producing sexual hegemony—the novel concept at the heart of Chitty’s book. Sexual normalcy carries material advantages. In Chitty’s view, normalcy is a kind of status property; queerness is simply its absence. And the process by which sexual gestures, acts, and tendencies are consolidated into norms is “a kind of enclosure.”
Renaissance Florence gives way to the Dutch Golden Age, Holland is superseded by British piracy, and after a detour to postrevolutionary France to pick up liberalism, the United States rises. In each period of transition, Chitty observes a breakdown in sexual hegemony. For example, a flexible labor supply of Dutch and English sailors was crucial to the circulation of commodities and military power in times of plenty. The political and economic elite did not much care that homosexual cultures flourished aboard their fleets. But the Dutch and British ruling classes had less need for goods to circulate when they began to channel liquid capital into finance. They could not simply make the sailors vanish, so it became convenient to politicize the sailors’ sexual practices, casting them as excesses of merchant capitalism who carried threats of social and political disruption from foreign ports.
This is not your daddy’s sex panic—a familiar moment when ideological and moral opportunists politicize gay sex, as part of a perpetual battle between homosexuality and homophobia. For the idea of a sex panic to have any explanatory power, Chitty argues, there has to be a universal and transhistorical well of homophobia just waiting to burst forth at the right moment. It presupposes that sexuality is always so incendiary that it makes sense as a permanent political scapegoat. The “sex panic” label dulls and flattens the rough texture of history, making it harder to see that both sexual identities and sexual repression stem from particular circumstances of political economy, not a series of identical battles between heroic and bigoted archetypes.
There are omissions and contradictions in the published manuscript. That’s true of any piece of writing, and readers should be generous given the provenance of Sexual Hegemony. Even with Fox’s excellent editorial work on the volume, sometimes the subject of its analysis is unclear. Much of the book centers on “sex between men,” but occasionally “prostitutes” appear in the same breath as “sodomites.” Most frustrating is Chitty’s slippage between sexuality and homosexuality, sometimes giving the impression that he is theorizing all sexual desire, or at least nonnormative sexuality, and at others that he is focused on male homosexuality.
As Christopher Nealon mentions in his introduction, Chitty did not cite very much feminist scholarship. More engagement with it would have provided further models and analytical clarity to this work (and might have helped him say more about how sex work fits into the picture). Social reproduction theory holds biological reproduction of humanity constant—much the same way Chitty holds sex between men constant—in order to explain both how social categories like “woman” are produced, and to show the changing relationship between reproduction and production over capitalism’s history. Similarly, the idea that sexual normalcy confers a sort of status property resonates with Cheryl Harris’s famous thesis that whiteness transformed from a racial identity into a form of property. We can anticipate future scholarship drawing out these connections and putting sexual hegemony more explicitly into conversation with social reproduction theory and critical race theory.
Chitty’s most innovative contribution may be methodological rather than substantive. The genealogical method Foucault deployed is good at tracing the evolution of concepts. But it has no time for contingency and little interest in causation. Genealogy is good enough if you want to know, say, how bourgeois sexual hegemony operated in a given period, but it can’t explain how bourgeois norms came to dominate in the first place. For that you need something like historical materialism, which delves into the contradictory forces at play during crises and explains what came out the other side.
By reconnecting historical materialism to gay history, Chitty presents the politics of same-sex desire not in a series of waves and backlashes but as a process of uneven development. The peaks and valleys reflect the contingent form of crisis in a given location of capitalist hegemony. Out of the breach emerge queer sexualities, carrying the scars of the contradictions that gave them life.
These insights provide original responses to Foucault’s core questions. In the historical materialist view, political economies call queer and normal sexual identities into being. Out of each crisis of capitalist hegemony emerges a new set of sexual species. This reversal transforms our opening question—where do gay people come from?—by lifting the weight of the present off of the past. If each epoch has its own cast of queer characters, there’s less need to search for ancestors and antecedents to modern gay people. Instead, Chitty asks, how did a particular homosexual subject antagonize the bourgeois society of his time?
This line of thinking jumps the tracks of biological determinism and social construction. If normalcy operates like a form of property, then queer life might be “different from other forms of life in the sense that it could be freely chosen” by refusing hegemonic sexual norms. The queer subject could be anyone who contests or rejects the social benefits of being normal. In other words, the flip side of sexual hegemony is a new kind of sexual liberation, where the very categories of identification are up for grabs.
In tantalizing sections toward the end of the book, Chitty sketches his impression that in the United States, it might be more possible than ever to challenge sexual hegemony. His other examples show hegemonic decline accompanied by sexual repression, but our recent history has witnessed acceptance and inclusion of gay people instead. To explain the anomaly, he argues that the crack-up of the New Deal order did not give rise to a new sexual hegemony; it undermined the authority of sexual norms altogether. He names the common culprits, which include the sexual revolution, countercultural movements, and liberation struggles, but also strays from the conventional account by arguing that a “depoliticization of sex” also made gay rights possible. Among other factors, abundant pornography, youth hook-up culture, the “feminization of culture,” and newfound attention to senior sexuality all suggested to Chitty that sex no longer titillates. He acknowledged that the results are mixed: on one hand, the cultural meanings of marriage and sexuality have changed; on the other, “countercultural opposition has crumbled beneath our feet.”
I’m not as convinced that neoliberalism doesn’t have its own form of sexual hegemony. I see less of a “crisis of the normal within late capitalism,” as Chitty writes, than an expansion of normalcy to include monogamous same-sex couples. This observation is hardly original, and it is also consistent with Chitty’s broader hypothesis, if not his explanation for the success of gay rights. I agree that U.S. hegemony seems to be waning, and that sexual norms were transformed in the transition from industrial production to a service economy. Under neoliberalism, the paradigmatic mode of U.S. participation in the economy is not producing goods but producing debt and consuming. Some parts of the old order responded by doubling down on the heterosexual nuclear family as the engine of consumption and morality—thus family values conservatism. “Woke capital,” on the other hand, recognized that broadening normalcy opened new commercial markets. It has used sexual hegemony to its material advantage, as Chitty theorized it would, but as a carrot, not as a stick. The conditions that produced a vital social movement for recognition and inclusion are also the reason queerness today can feel like just one consumer product among many.
If neoliberalism does indeed have a sexual hegemony, how might the left fight it? Even if normalcy retains power, Chitty may still be right that the contradictions in neoliberalism could give rise to a new set of sexual subjects. One option is to short-circuit the enclosure that converts a wide variety of experiences into tidy packages, like “gay” and “lesbian.” Young people seem to be doing this already by embodying gender and sexual fluidity or rejecting identity markers altogether. Chitty himself may have disagreed that this trend is heartening. In Sexual Hegemony, he wrote that “the intellectual valorization of fluidity has also, crucially, missed the historical ways in which ‘fixed’ sexual binaries provided the gay and lesbian political movement with its terrain of struggle.” But times have changed. The gay and lesbian political movement adopted that strategy in an overwhelmingly conservative political climate, shadowed by Cold War homophobia, and conscious that earlier radicalisms had failed.
Our left is weak but growing, and there are both political and legal possibilities for solidarity on the basis of shared experiences and goals rather than discrete identity categories. In law it might look like replacing demands for equal protection with protections for free expression under the First Amendment, arguments that could better connect people across the many binaries—male and female, cis and trans, binary and nonbinary. In organizing, it would channel queer people and resources toward the coalitions that have marked the left’s ascendancy: for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and racial justice (movements already marked by queer ways of thinking and queer leadership). These approaches would reduce the political potency of sexual categories, but queer cultures that value these identities could continue to flourish.
Or maybe we should be even more ambitious and fight for a new set of sexual subjects. There’s something unpleasantly functionalist about assuming that once a socialist political economy emerges, it will inevitably call forth better ways to be not-normal. It’s much more appealing to work toward a better political economy and new ways to be a person at the same time, building connected alternatives to see which take root and flower. We may not have reached the end of gay history, but Chitty points toward a political horizon where “the homosexual” lives only in the past.
Kate Redburn is completing a JD-PhD in American legal history at Yale.