The Department of Women's and Gender Studies
Natura: The Science and Epistemology Working Group
The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America
a book talk by
Dr. Greta LaFleur
RDJC - 162 Ryders Lane, New Brunswick
Conf. Rm 103
The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America, Johns Hopkins 2018
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.
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.
"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."
— Valerie Traub, University of Michigan, author of Thinking Sex With the Early Moderns