Being Real: A Review of Christopher Chitty's Sexual Hegemony

ECOLOGIES | Books  }

Jules Joanne Gleeson / October 16, 2021
Chitty's book, though unreliable in parts, provides significant empirical support to those who read sexual liberation as one aspect of broader social struggles. 7122 words / 28 min read

Image: Girolamo Macchietti, Baths at Pozzuoli.

To avoid melancholia, let’s begin with a detour.

Italian gay communist Mario Mieli was a figure well known for his intellectually promiscuous writing, public provocation, and flamboyant attire. Mieli’s first published work was Elementi di critica omosessuale, which proposed that both heterosexual life and male identity was only ever stabilised through the violent purging of the ‘transsexual’ reality explored by homosexuals. At the start of the 1970s Mieli had cut his teeth as a migrant in London, involved in the earliest years of Gay Lib, and the book was published in English as Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique, although much better known by the title of its conclusion: Towards A Gay Communism.

Rather than identifying gay life as a ‘minority group’ in need of representation, Mieli argued that gay emancipation was entwined with the struggle against the capitalist state, and bourgeois propriety in all its forms. In Mieli’s visionary essays, the postcapitalism Marx studiously refused to imagine in any detail was filled with ‘polymorphous perversity’ Mieli appropriated from Freud. Liberation from class distinction meant a liberated transsexuality, a claim which retains its provocation today.

But it seems that by the end of the 1970s (and his 20s), Mieli had grown disenchanted with making political headway twinning gay and anti-capitalist liberation. He turned from theoretical polemic to an overblown follow-up titled The Awakening of the Pharaohs (Il risveglio dei Faraoni). The manuscript blended autobiography with a fantastical tale of a resurrected Christ’s travels in Egypt. Despairing of ever seeing this grandiose novel published, Mieli committed suicide in 1983 in his Milan apartment, aged 30.

At the time of his Mieli’s death, revolutionary groups often banned membership to all queer minorities — especially true in the US, a specific legacy of McCarthyism, that had hounded both communists and homosexuals. By the later 20th century multiple membership organisations including the Revolutionary Communist Party explicitly treated homosexuality as a risk of blackmail or deviance into bourgeois individualism, rather than a basis for solidarity. In this context, much of Anglophone gay communist theory became preoccupied with refutations of these exclusionary positions, and practice. (A perfect example of this mode of writing is ‘Toward a Scientific Analysis of the Gay Question’, a rebuttal to movement homophobia written by a collective of ten lesbians calling themselves the Los Angeles Research Group). As such, a concentrated revival of interest in Mieli’s thought waited until the 21st century, peaking with the republication of Homosexuality and Liberation by Pluto Press.

The late Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy and Capital in the Rise of the New World System was published last year, in quite different circumstances for gay communist critique to 1983. Study circles that take the involvement of capitalism in oppression of queers as axiomatic have proliferated freely over the last ten years, birthing dedicated publications including Invert Journal, HOMINTERN and Pinko. Innumerable blogs host fresh translations, infinite social media statuses reflect on interlocking oppressions. Left-wing publishing houses have become so insatiable for this content, a second collection of Chitty’s essays is already under consideration for publication. Yet equally, much of the subsequent canon of Queer Theory and Sexuality Studies developed since the 1980s has downplayed both class distinctions and the prospect of a revolutionary overturning of existing society. As gay life has come to be more widely accepted as ‘natural’, so too have capitalist relations.

Much of the canon of Queer Theory has downplayed class distinctions and the prospect of a revolutionary overturning of existing society. As gay life has come to be more accepted as ‘natural’, so too have capitalist relations.

Prior to his death, Christopher Chitty had already enjoyed an impact on Marxist theory with his original translation and commanding introduction to Michel Foucault’s essay ‘The Mesh of Power’. Chitty’s 2012 introduction works to overcome cheap oppositions between Foucault’s thought and Marxist categories, commonplace in academia where each theorist is taken as a respective advocate of ‘class reduction’ and attention to contingency and particularity.

By contrast, Chitty’s Foucault appears as a close reader of Marx, who sublimated especially insights from the later chapters of Capital, Volume I into his famed view of ‘biopolitics’ — a concept he originally developed to address both domination and self-production of workforces. (Viewpoint also posthumously published a second essay by Chitty, ‘Reassessing Foucault: Modern Sexuality and the Transition to Capitalism, which serves as helpful context to Sexual Hegemony’s methodological underpinnings.)

Sexual Hegemony was still unfinished at the time of Chitty’s suicide, although the various iterations clearly exceeded requirements for its original purpose as a doctoral thesis (awarded honorarily after his death). Max Fox, one of Chitty’s friends and intellectual collaborators, took upon himself the task of compiling the book. Fox’s preface is both instructive on the process of whittling down various versions into a presentable shape (including culling extraneous chapters), and for frankly discussing the limits intrinsic to presenting material from the dead. This review will be mindful of the impossibility for full reply flagged up by Fox, while still addressing the book’s ultimate limitations.

The book’s introduction sees Chitty set out his research agenda, coining the term “Queer Realism” as an encapsulation of his distinctive approach to the history of sodomy. “Queer Realism” is a provocative play on words, referring to the outward front of “realness” that queers had to adopt when confronting heterosexual society (As appears in timeless early disco cuts such as Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and Cheryl Lynn’s ‘Got to be Real’). As Chitty has it: ‘This kind of realness has historically provided queers with rhetorical strategies for questioning dominant ideologies while nonetheless moving within them.’ In deploying this emphasis, Chitty hopes to balance any utopian visionary potential contained within the queer, with a reminder of the detached and cold appropriation of governing norms that have been typically required for survival. Queer Realism entails a view of sodomy and (male) homosexuality’s history that does not only recount disjointed episodes of violence, but also explores the active accommodation and skillful self-occluding the relevant communities attempted between historically visible episodes of state violence.

With 'Queer Realism', Chitty hopes to balance any utopian visionary potential contained within the queer with a reminder of the detached and cold appropriation of governing norms that have been typically required for survival.

In this way, Sexual Hegemony has two aims: firstly to overcome the aporia of queer life, which has either come to be defined by a relentless forward march, or understood through an anti-assimilationist vision of gay counterculture successively destroyed by HIV/AIDS, and political co-option from the early 1980s to the present. (While neither of these views is indefensible, neither satisfies Chitty). Secondly, to move us beyond viewing the development of gay life in terms of trans-historical homophobia (stirred by moral panics, and leaving ‘tolerance’ implicitly defined as the lack of homophobia), or of normativity as an ever-fluid regulative imperative.

Rather than ‘normativity’, Chitty prefers instead to speak of ‘the normal’: ‘a status which…accrues material advantages to those who achieve it or happen to be born into it.’ Implicitly, preserving oneself (or one’s environment) as normal might require demonstrative sacrifices.

To put things another way, whereas much of Queer Theory has guided scholars into preoccupying themselves with the discursive (a pursuit that has often led towards scepticism towards history itself), Sexual Hegemony sets out to move beyond this concern and into consideration of sexual practices as they sustained (and threatened) forms. The aim of Queer Realism is to examine why it is that both homosexuality and sex work were taken to be threats, and indeed whether these judgements were mistaken.

Rather than displaying bouts of hostility towards homosexuals simply to soothe inner anxieties, dominant groups use ideals of sexual conduct more actively, and even strategically, in order to give their lives shape and fixity:

Sexual norms operate at the level of aspirational fantasy and as a form of social status. Habituation to such norms has sometimes secured wealth and prestige for socially dominant groups and a wider sphere of influence for those in subaltern groups […] Normalised sexual arrangements sometimes produced predictable, stable and productive workforces [and] ensured national cohesion […] Sexual norms also functioned in more oblique ways to impose a moral order upon public spaces and domestic arrangements, setting up sanitary geographies in which some bodies mattered, and others didn’t.

These ‘sanitary geographies’ are explored in this book by considerations of historical documents relating everything from gratuitous executions to the history of the public urinal.

Chitty’s first chapter ‘Homosexuality and Capitalism’ takes up the case of 15th to early 16th century Florence, an era during which Florence had gained a reputation around Europe for widespread sexual deviance. German slang had apparently come to twin Florence and the act of sodomy by way of the city’s well-known coin (florenzen), referring to sodomites as Florenzer.

Primarily, Chitty is focused around evidence collected by policing, records from the Office of the Night’s seventy year history indicating up to 3,000 men and boys (primarily workers and lowly artisans) from a population of 50,000 were convicted of sodomy offences. The legal documentation of this persecution left a remarkable body of sources for investigating the place of male-male intimacy in Florence. This approach and material follows the tracks of Michael Rocke’s 1998 study Forbidden Friendships Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence.

Florence’s approach to these offences was ambivalent: clearly repressing sodomy was an urgent concern, given these dedicated ‘Officers of Sodomites’. Yet from the later 15th century, the punishments meted out lacked the harshness found elsewhere in Europe, where convicted sodomites were typically executed (Chitty compares Florence to Venice, where until 1445 convicted sodomites were burnt alive in Piazzetta St. Marco, and subsequently were decapitated prior to immolation). But by contrast, the higher rate of conviction in Florence saw more lenient sentences, with confessions especially leading to sentences being waived entirely. Instead, Chitty contends that: ‘Sodomy confessions provided occasions for the regime to pardon its poorer citizens of apparently serious crimes and disgrace its economic and political rivals to appease the poor.’

Besides proceedings from the Office of Night, Chitty explores Florentine cultural material ranging from a lengthy consideration of Machiavelli’s cryptic writings on the downfall of his patron Piero Soderini (who he vaguely describes as suffering by being accused by citizens of ‘living badly’), to Girolamo Macchietti’s 1570 Baths at Pozzuoli, which depicts the Biblical scene of Sodom’s destruction with exclusive focus on bathing men, loomed over by a distant volcanic eruption, their disrobing bodies foregrounded.

With this expansion into a more diverse range of sources, Chitty builds the argument that those the Germans dubbed Florenzer had fashioned themselves a ‘form of life’ (emphasis in the original). This was not simply a term for lawyers and Officers, but instead a whole ethical framework:

It had a childhood, conforming to certain expected patterns of sexual passivity or receptive roles, and an adulthood conforming to certain expectations of sexual activity or insertive roles, all according to Florentine customs of acceptable masculine behaviour. Like all social rules and expectations, these customs were made to be broken.

Through addressing Florentine sodomites in these terms, Chitty effectively takes a Foucauldian route, deploying a Foucauldian term of art. ‘Forms of Life’ was drawn by Foucault from both Ludwig Wittgenstein’s treatment of language games, and Pierre Hadot’s later reading of philosophers as pursuing distinctive ethics. Foucault’s playful rendition ranges from philosophers to monks to modern-day therapists, whom he saw as developing respective ‘technologies of the self’. More recently, the term was applied to monastic normative texts in considerable detail by Giorgio Agamben. While Chitty does not unpick the comparison between philosophers, monks and Florentine homosexuals, the point seems clear: exactly through the weight of testimony the Office of the Night drew in, we can observe sodomites as a well-acknowledged and awkwardly established feature of Florentine life. Far from living an altogether desperate or wholly clandestine experience, these boys and men were known for their habits by those around them, and lived lives markedly continuous with the obligations and associations of other men.

In 1502, the Office of the Night was dissolved, which Chitty attributes to the ‘embarrassment’ posed by bringing these intimate crimes to wider attention. Chitty is keen to press home that this historical episode is not as discontinuous as some historians have tried to make it. While certainly Florentine sexual relationships characterised as sodomy typically occurred between those of different generations and class positions, these relationships were not confined to a pedagogical role, or to a strictly age-mismatched form. These relationships accordingly can seem hard to place between the ancient customs of pederastry, and homosexuality in the more easily recongisable modern form. Chitty argues that his work so far has only opened the still-unresolved question of why homosexuality appears to have been so widespread in the ‘Mediterranean world’. The next chapter, ‘Sexual Hegemony and the Capitalist World System’, casts the net considerably wider in pursuit of an answer to this question.

Chitty begins the chapter by staging a (perhaps unlikely) reparative reading of 19th century explorer and ethnologist Richard Francis Burton. While typically dismissed as an exemplary orientalising geographer, Chitty introduces Burton’s notion of a ‘Sotadic Zone’ as one perspective on the Mediterranean’s sexual history, from a source clearly personally immersed in it. Based upon his own travels giving him a chance to ‘make enquiry and report upon’ brothels worked by boys and eunuchs, Burton proposed that the unique density of trading routes and continental inter-connections found in the region had resulted in practices and social roles for pederasty, not found equivalently north of the Mediterranean.

After an engagement with perspectives on Mediterranean trade and its relation to sexuality, including Fernand Braudel and Aristotle’s Politics, most of this chapter traces persecution by Dutch authorities between the late 1500s and mid-1700s. By the end of this period, Chitty claims that ‘the commodity form has transformed the essential coordinates of human sexuality’, as demonstrated by the secret execution of two soldiers in Utrecht. As reported by a London newspaper, a mob formed ‘demanding public Execution of the Rich as well as of the Poor’, suppressed by 1000 soldiers and apparently to be appeased with executions of wealthy sodomites. (Dutch authorities issued a denial, and there seems to be no evidence subsequent mollifying executions took place).

While convictions were less numerous in Holland than Florence, executions were often spectacular, including garroting with a rope or scarf (typically a punishment reserved for women), or drowning in a barrel with a hope of washing away the sin of the condemned (a legacy of the Protestant Reformation’s distinctive view of sin). These extravagantly humiliating death sentences seem to have become unremarkable, being routinely carried out on Saturdays. It was only by the end of the period under examination that the relatively low key executions of undistinguished sodomy-accused soldiers would cause a popular outcry.

Chitty explores carefully how the economic structures of Holland ensured the priority of patrimony, as roles including directorships in chartered companies descended generations, tying life fortunes and family background together closely. But this affluence was predicated on a commercial activity in a trading empire, with urban growth tethered to the expansion of trading routes. Both Dutch and English merchant capitalism relied on labour by seamen.

Chitty’s depiction of life as a commercial sailor (or pirate) is far from romantic: rather than free-floating heterotopia, these vessels relied very obviously on heaving bouts of proletarian labour, including juvenile labour. What Chitty approaches in this account is the underside of mingling across class and race that always undergirded the affected propriety found in Holland, and elsewhere.

What Chitty approaches in the account of life as a commercial sailor is the underside of mingling across class and race that always undergirded the affected propriety found in Holland, and elsewhere.

Similar to the efforts of Officers of the Night in Florence, British 19th century naval reports presented cases where crews were so prone to sodomy that prosecution of all offenders would have been impossible. As Chitty does not spell out, associations of navies and homosexuality would become deeply entrenched in the popular imagination, providing grist for a Village People hit single by 1978, and pertain to this day.

Piracy and sodomy as viewed by bourgois onlookers were alike in kind: ‘They threatened to spread through imitation or mimesis and multiply such practices like a new species or disease throughout the population of men necessary for capital accumulation, statecraft, and war…’ What seems unclear is how far exactly this account of seafaring sodomy viewed as ‘social contagions’ (a term now familiar from its deployment by transphobic feminists scaremongering around trans teenagers) is distinguishable from the ‘moral panics’ Chitty originally intended to shift scholarship away from.

Chapter Four, ‘Homosexuality and Bourgeois Hegemony’, is the book’s last dedicated historical chapter, and seeks to undermine Foucault’s claim that scientific approaches to sexuality came to predominate in later modernity. The narrative turns to late 18th century Paris, and the scandalising texts that city’s ascendent bourgeoise wrote addressing its public sex life.

In particular, Chitty focuses on the offence to bourgois sensibilities caused by public sex work and the ‘infamous traffic of the children of Sodom’ in the Jardin des Tuileries, central Paris. The garden had been opened by Catherine de’ Medici as grounds for the Tuileries Palace, before coming into public use (apparently heavily so) after the Revolution. In other words, these scandalous narratives speak to not only longstanding prejudices against sodomites and sex workers (two figures who appear ambiguously tethered in Chitty’s account), but also express unease at the rapid reorganisation of public life achieved by the triumph of Republicanism.

The high-handed prose of the anonymously authored Le nouveau tableau de Paris is quoted and explored at some length, serving as an exemplary case of moralising prose (the author claims to have wept at the fate of the Tuileries Palace, and while hamming up his dismay provides no explanation of why he was previously unaware of the park’s apparently well-established reputation). While closely informed by German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas’ work on the public/private distinction, this chapter engages originally with titillating tracts written by Parisian scandal-mongers. This material at once furthered political agitation, and served as one means for polite readers to form a sense of themselves through distinction to the social malaise showcased as unimaginable vulgarity, an approach to developing class identity later satirised by Karl Marx in Capital.

Chitty briefly compares the ‘scraps of green space’ won by the bourgeoisie to the development of Vienna’s Ringstrasse by political progressives, across what earlier in the Habsburg empire had served as an army glacis. (Chitty does not touch upon the respective sites’ sexual history: when I arrived to live in Vienna some five years ago, the Ring’s Rathauspark was still well known as a cruising site, despite its incongruously central location. I can’t confirm the use for this purpose has survived the current pandemic).

The same urban locations also appeared in various libertine tracts, clearly issued as a rejoinder to Les nouveau tableau… The first of these was simply titled Les enfants de sodome (also published anonymously in 1790) and describes a similar scene in the same location, but satirically presents the sodomites as forming an assembly. The text praises the public orgy participants as bold for receiving anal, and including a seven point program affirming the right of all to publicly ‘give or receive, as he sees fit…without anyone making an obstacle to such pursuits’. One response raises the stakes yet further, depicting a famous actress of the day making the case for solidarity between tribades and male sodomites (who’ve both ‘renounced fucking in its ordinary fashions’), against the censorious sensibilities of heterosexual women.

While these texts are scurrilous and fantastical, the scathing treatment of bourgois privatisation efforts seems quite real. As Chitty puts it: ‘The material reason for this class alliance between noble libertinism and proletarian sexuality are not difficult to imagine […] the Bicetre and other prisons held both libertines and vagabonds, often for the very same crimes against public decency.’ In other words, revolutionary carceral and moralising regimes had thrown together a coalition of interests, formed in the shadow of bourgeois self-fashioning.

Chitty examines available evidence to verify that the bawdy affairs condemned and celebrated in this literature are not purely works of imagination. As he puts it: ‘Police records from the period demonstrate that the spatial centrality of public sex between men and women was not the stylistic flourish of a depressed feilletonist’. Public sex was instead part of Parisian social reality in this period.

The chapter then addresses the historical development of the urinal, which came to be installed in various forms across large cities in northern Europe from the 19th century. These developed from simple undrained slabs to George Jenning’s ‘monkey closet’ (debuted at the 1851 London Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park), which divided men into atomised chambers, their urine drawn into separated channels, rather than mingling in a single trough. Chitty is lucid in detailing the historic progression he sees at play here:

To state the problem facing these mid-nineteenth-century sanitary reformers as clearly as possible: middle-class women considered the sight of men’s penises and urethral functions to be an “outrage against decency”, and demanded that municipal authorities contain or enclose such activities within an architecture that would shield them from view; however, the new architecture of enclosure concentrated the exercise of such bodily functions around a few nodal points along busy thoroughfares and erotically intensified the experience of urination in public by providing a semiprivate, same-sex urban space. These were, to put it figuratively, temples of urethral eroticism.

While working-class women lived in conditions that afforded them precious little time alone, urban middle-class women extended ‘domestic norms of sexual consent’ out of the household and over public spaces. In doing so, they collided with the everyday lives of working-class people, which ‘was, paradoxically, to be had in public’. In this context, urinals were at once solution and problem: installed to defend ‘public decency’, and then immediately hotbeds for homosexual cruising. Attempts to shield the unsightly led immediately through into opportunities for new intimacies.

Urinals were at once solution and problem: installed to defend ‘public decency’, and then immediately hotbeds for homosexual cruising. Attempts to shield the unsightly led immediately to opportunities for new intimacies.

It seems unfortunate that in this account women’s sexuality appears active only in the imposition of ‘public decency’ by Paris’ new ruling class. While the role of bourgeois women in political prurience has surely not yet dissipated, viewing the birth of homosexuality primarily in these terms seems to set aside a considerable proportion of homosexuals. Closing the chapter, Chitty proposes that it was exactly Revolutionary era gender partitioning which resulted in homosexuality becoming an intuitive trend:

Just as the earlier close guarding of women’s chastity and virginity, the relations of socioeconomic dependency in work and life, the seclusion of female bodies from public view, and cultures of male violence drove many men toward intensely affective and sexual relations with boys and other men, so the spectacular entry of bourgeois women into the public sphere began to transform and exert a civilising influence on the violent sexual excesses of a male dominated world, driving this culture outward toward the liminal spaces of immigrant and working class neighbourhoods…’

Chitty’s account of the public/private distinction’s role in class turmoil here is resolved in a lopsided fashion. The satirical accounts and police records do not confine themselves to male actors. Parisian sex workers presumably developed their own form-of-life in the revolutionary period, as did the tribades attested to in anonymous libertine texts (albeit satirically, and perhaps slanderously). Surely the physical proximity of sex workers and homosexuals sharing the same parks was the basis for friendship, or at least regular episodes of contact? As is clearly true today, surely many Parisian sex workers were still more enthusiastic tribades?

Part Two consists of the book’s fifth and sixth chapters — ‘Historicizing the History of Sexuality’ and ‘Homosexual as a Category of Bourgeois Society’ not only move into more recent history, but also from more obviously historical work to a more theoretical register. Of course, to some extent this was inevitable.

Earlier centuries very often record homosexuality’s history primarily in proceedings of carceral regimes tasked with stamping out these practices, or at least driving them from view (and in the case of Parisian polemicists, accounts that strictly style themselves as horrified onlookers). Contrastingly, from the mid 20th century a still ongoing proliferation of historical sources appeared, as previously criminalised and predominantly clandestine forms-of-life rapidly became the basis for political consciousness-raising and social agitation. While Chitty can hardly be blamed for navigating this glut of available material through recourse to the queer theoretical canon (and its rivals within gay life, such as that odious agitator for ‘marriage equality’, Andrew Sullivan), as they’re arranged in this version the two sections provide quite a gear change.

Chapter Five begins with a provocation from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Saint Genet,‘Did a homosexual ever exist?’, which Chitty suggests has come to a new prominence given the 21st century’s focus on questions of gender. In other words, this section of the book hopes to bridge from involved historical investigation to what we might make of this material from the vantage of present day struggles. While sensitive, much of the chapter is spent dispensing with failings that Chitty finds in the mainline of existing scholarship on sexuality (and its history). Queer Theory is taken to task for its obliviousness to class. Whereas Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest plays up both class and institutional distinctions (appearing in the form of military rank), Chitty sees much of Queer Theory as hindered by its preoccupation with literary sources. As a consequence, queer theorists have suffered from ‘a theoretical reduction of ideology and ideological effects to discourses or texts — rather than social struggles — and a spontaneous assumption that homosexuals have more or less existed among all classes during all periods of life.’ But Sexual Hegemony is no more satisfied with ‘social constructivist’ accounts which make no such assumption.

As the chapter continues to work through the canonical historical accounts of homosexuality’s history, Chitty examines various key works of gay social history, finding each lacking. Those addressed include David Halperin (in particular his How to Do the History of Homosexuality), David Greenberg, Marcia Bystryn and John D’Emilio. These historians have advanced somewhat different cases for the emergence of a gay identity (with the latter three identifiably gay liberation perspectives from the socialist left, while Halperin is among the academy’s most successful orthodox Foucauldians). But what they share is an account that Chitty throughout calls ‘nominalist’ (in contrast to his Queer Realism), but which we might also call ‘modernist’. While more traditional in their socialist politics and historical methodology, these efforts share with Foucault an emphasis on stigmatisation (most clearly in Greenberg and Bystryn), seeing the development of gay identity as contingent on the social developments of the last two or so centuries.

What Chitty finds lacking in these accounts is detailed exploration of changes in urban life and the demands industrialisation placed on workforces. He also advances various concerns around historical causation, especially the metaphors deployed by Halperin. For instance, Jonathan Ned Katy’s The Invention of Heterosexuality is undermined as Chitty finds it begs the question: on what basis did the new form fashioned by the 19th century find itself opposed? Further, the ‘nominalist’ position seems to overstate the creative potential of sexual science, and provides no explanation of how homosexuality ever appeared at all with those who had no current conception of it.

While Chitty certainly cannot resolve here a scholarly debate that’s stretched over five or so decades, these arguments seem to substantively shore up the case for the position both outlined in the introduction, and pursued throughout the book. Although this section of the book might be read as the dreaded “lit review” that usually appears towards the start of academic monographs, it’s surely welcome that it appears here after a significant chunk of historical analysis.

The chapter ends with the havoc wreaked by the HIV/AIDS life on gay life, which Chitty considers a turning point for the advancement of the typical post-structuralist emphasis on identities as something we do, rather than are:

A shared grammar of sexual possibility and availability produced by practices of cruising public spaces gave these particular codes their continuity or legibility across time and place. Homosexuality was receconceptualiszed as an active, counterhegemonic appropriation of urban space generating unique forms of sociality and culture centered around stranger intimacy. The very behaviours, structures of feeling, and types of recognition through which a homosexual culture was shared and shaped, and around which its sense of belonging congealed, had become vectors for HIV infection.

This resulted in the birth of a catch-all category deployed by the world of healthcare NGOs: MSM (men who have sex with men). What Chitty does not note here is that ‘MSM’ was more expansive still: into the 2010s, it was still often in use to describe (transgender) women.

The bulk of Chapter Five is spent addressing Foucault, clearly the most important single theorist in Chitty’s thinking (and it’s worth noting that world-systems theorist Giovanni Arrighi receives no such treatment: while his methodology clearly provides the book its structure, his influence is felt largely implicitly, and in footnotes). Perhaps surprisingly, Chitty’s stance is primarily antagonistic.

While Foucault is often taken as achieving a unique breakthrough with his corrosive scepticism towards previously dominant notions, in Chitty’s reading The History of Sexuality shares an approach continuous with all too much of preceding sociology. The emphasis on conceptual framings of deviance and history read largely in terms of monitoring outbursts of moral panic, and the subsequent disciplinary measures taken by powerful institutions and statecraft:

Social crises with obscure causes provoke a politics of scapegoating in the public sphere, mobilizing irrational fear and anger into a morally regulative force and resulting in the elaboration of new techniques of discipline and social repression.

Underpinning this is Foucault ultimately sharing commitments with Durkheim, Levi-Struass, Freud, Lacan — who in Chitty’s reading all rely on centering the distinction between permitted and forbidden. The Kantian bent of German and French sociology ensured that this distinction was also central to accounts of homosexuality’s history (and especially its supression). The cost, as Chitty sees it, is the dependence on a liberal theory of the state, which results in the often noted primacy Foucault (and even more so his followers) placed on intelligentsia and policing — to the exclusion of the struggles and ‘forms-of-life’ the book’s earlier chapters attempt to reconstruct.

The cost, as Chitty sees it, is Foucault's dependence on a liberal theory of the state, which results in the often noted primacy he placed on intelligentsia and policing — to the exclusion of struggles and ‘forms-of-life’.

What Chitty does not raise, but which supports his thesis still further, is the obvious rearticulation of key concepts used by postwar micro-sociologist Irving Goffman in Foucault’s later work on ‘total institutions’. While an American, Goffman was clearly exemplary of the trend towards orienting research around a conventional understanding of the state, as explored extensively by queer theorist Heather Love’s readings of his ‘Stigma Archive’.

In short, we cannot rely on Foucault to achieve any kind of clean conceptual break with the prevailing tenor of sociology. Chitty’s critique shares with Eve Sedgwick a scepticism of Foucault’s scepticism: challenging the stifling ‘repressive hypothesis’ orthodoxies of psychoanalysis was welcome, but the methodological alternatives presented are not altogether satisfying.

Overall, this chapter advances a view of Foucault as taking a well-known form, both influential among gay theorists on the socialist left and easily appropriated by those with no interest or background in revolutionary politics. But Foucault also had a more esoteric face.

Sexual Hegemony endorses (of course) Foucault as a Marxist: the famous breakthrough of ‘biopower’ is characterised as a means of avoiding a stifling Weberian focus on ‘institutional forms’, as opposed to ‘the contradictory logic of capital accumulation’ (certainly some will quibble whether the Frankfurt School were at odds with this, as Chitty suggests).

While this argument is convincing, it seems unclear what can be done concerning the widespread influence which the “liberalised Foucault” has enjoyed. At this point, appeals to ‘biopolitics’, epistemic regimes, normativity and all the rest seems entrenched in scholarly communities not remotely concerned with challenging the foundations of class society. But Chitty does not settle for uncovering an “authentic” Foucault to rival this more conventional reading, outlining frankly the limits of this approach to theory even as he displays his intimate familiarity.

Chapter Six, ‘Homosexuality as a Category of Bourgois Society’, brings a focus to the United States, beginning with the puzzle of how ‘an apparently morally retrograde’ nation became a globally noted hub of queer life, and ending with the ‘cowardly spectacle’ of Chelsea Maning being disinvited by the San Fancisco Pride’s board of directors in 2013. While Manning’s gender transition was laudable, her work exposing the US military machine was beyond the pale. In other words, this chapter aims to tackle two related questions: the both cultural and institutional progressions of the new LGBT+ community, and the increasingly naked collaborations with existing politics orders by gay and lesbian elites.

Reintroducing some fleeting historical work, Chitty considers topics from the controversial homoeroticism of early 20th century Germany’s male youth associations (Männerbund), to the ambivalent role of Christian Temperance movements in sexual history, to the overplayed role of US TV shows as markers of social change.

This chapter also sees Chitty introduce explicitly a thinker previously not addressed but markedly present in the book’s title: Antonio Gramsci. Chitty’s account of Gramsci’s thinking on America suggests that he speculatively sketched an account of the family’s role in US industrialisation, subsequently filled in by local labour historians (how far this is because of their work being directly informed by Gramsci’s toweringly influential prison writings seems unclear to me). For Gramsci and these subsequent scholars, industrialists came to lean on the family as a regulatory source of a relatively easily organised workforce. That is to say what Chitty calls America’s ‘moral backwardness’ around homosexuality was exactly entangled with the productive prowess it had clearly attained by the close of the Second World War. Chitty runs through the now familiar birth of the ‘Ford men’ forged from Detroit migrants, to conclude: ‘human sexuality is not only malleable and historical; indeed at certain points in history, such transformations of human nature were central to the forces of production and to certain objectives of statecraft.’

For Gramsci, industrialists came to lean on the family as a regulatory source of an easily organised workforce. What Chitty calls America’s ‘moral backwardness’ around homosexuality was entangled with its productive prowess.

This chapter is not a hopeful one, indeed its contention is specifically that the clearest victories won by the LGBT+ movement in the 21st century were pyrrhic and bittersweet: ‘Gays and lesbians got a shot at dreams of the good life precisely at the moment of its political-economic liquidation.’ As one meaning of “the normal” decayed, formal equality was won exactly in the context that traditional family life (such as it had ever existed across racial and national divides) was no longer readily assumed.

Chitty continues to draw idiomatic turns of phrase from intellectual luminaries including Perry Anderson (‘dedifferentiation’), Lauren Berlant (‘normative dissolution’) and Michael Warner (‘queer counterpublics’) to approach a question clearly more vexing than his provided evidence can allow us to chew over thoroughly. Do the earlier examples of struggles between sodomy and statecraft, marshalled in the book’s first part, provide us insight into the ‘politicisation and neutralisation’ of LGBT+ life today? Clearly a full account addressing this question would have to consider the formidable role played by consciousness-raising and cultural development (by now over half a century of it), which has come to place “the normal” under a newfound pressure.

With this being said, it’s easy to agree with Chitty that ‘the pendulum has […] swung too far in the direction of downplaying the role of class in the history of sexuality’. Chitty is especially astute at identifying what troubles Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal, which overburdens homophobia as an explanation of phenomena including gentrification and the death of community spaces (clearly a result of wider questions of political economy).

Without any delusions that a book compiled in these circumstances (or any) could be truly comprehensive, by comparison with equivalent accounts Sexual Hegemony seems relatively easily integrated with Marxist accounts that stress the importance of trade, like Jairus Banaji’s Brief Commercial History of Capitalism (also published last year). But this account bears rather less resemblance to perspectives that have drawn understandings of ‘Coloniality’ from Frantz Fanon.

This is especially pressing in the fleeting treatment of the ‘Berdache’, a colonial anthropological categorisation now replaced by North American Indigenous activists with the term ‘Two Spirit’ (a development Chitty leaves aside in his treatment of the United States). Even before community meetings in 1990, ‘Berdache’ was a much resented term, given it bracketed a wide array of unfamiliar gender configurations from the perspective of colonials. It’s for this reason that it seems unclear whether Chitty’s approach might be easily extended to Indigenous life at all: what was suppressed in the name of “the normal” by colonial regimes clearly extended beyond what we could be comfortably or clearly framed as male-male sodomy.

The book also does not make clear sense of the gender division, even though its accounts of manhood show a shifting set of social obligations, and institutional forms, fully enmeshed in both the flourshing and suppression of sodomy or homosexuality. As already noted, the historical work risks focusing overly on femininity as bourgeois censoriousness (although I disagree with Christopher Nealon’s suggestion in the book’s introduction that introducing the work of Silvia Fedirici would improve matters). What engagement there is with female homosexuals seems considerably flatter than the immanent treatment even Andrew Sullivan receives. In the book’s first theoretical chapter, Chitty quotes feminist thinker Adrienne Rich, who here describes lesbianism ‘profoundly female experience’ that cannot be easily grouped with other stigmatised orientations:

Just as the term “parenting” serves to conceal the particular and significant reality of being a parent who is actually a mother, the term “gay” serves the purpose of blurring the very outlines we need to discern, which are of crucial value for feminism and the freedom of women as a group.

Emphasising lesbianism as continuous with the rest of female experience (rather than divergent with heterosexual expectations) was a polemical stance by Rich. Its purpose within ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’ was to hone in on the presumptions that drove women to reorient their lives towards men (whatever their desires). This essay cannot exhaust lesbian history, and might easily mislead. One thinks of the outsized controversy caused by the sadomasochistic Leatherdykes, small circles of lesbians (primarily based in San Francisco and New York), who developed a distinctive subculture and sexual practices while haunting leather bars and fisting parties. These primarily male spaces closely informed both the fucking and the fantasies of the Leatherdykes, in a fashion sublimated into much of ‘transmasculine’ queer culture today. But primarily, groups such as Samois and the Lesbian Sex Mafia are recalled for the internecine warfare their approach caused. The notorious Feminist Sex Wars in the later 1980s saw their educational efforts denounced as introducing ‘male energy’ and a patriarchal mindset to the women’s movement. After years of ferocious in-fighting, the dispute was set aside as much from mutual exhaustion as any resolution. Several prominent participants have since transitioned.

Yet even if we were to stick with Rich, across her broader body of work this strict association of lesbian and female experience does not hold. Her most famous poem ‘Diving Into The Wreck’ is not the only place that she instead explores the figure of the androgyne, or blends use of personal pronouns, as traced in an essay by Joy Ladin. In other words, Rich’s normative agenda in ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’ clearly does not exhaust her views on sapphic sexualities as they relate to gender distinction. This one note treatment of lesbian history contrasts markedly to the extended treatment of Foucault, whose full contradictions and internal consistencies are allowed to play out.

In this respect, the book is markedly less ambitious than the most obviously comparable work, Peter Drucker’s Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism. Drucker’s account explains how illicit institutions such as 18th century London’s molly houses provided not only outlets for sexually deviant behaviour, but destabilised the apparent gender identification of many participants. While Chitty is certainly mindful of the contradictory reaffirmation which the gay civic rights struggle threatened to achieve for the gender distinction, we don’t get a clear view of how earlier (more clandestine) movements did otherwise (although the satirical Parisian tribade speech he features may offer some hint). In a promotional interview, Max Fox is quite frank concerning this lacking aspect of the manuscript he finalised, both in its treatment of the gender distinction and colonial domination:

One limitation of this particular work is the fact that it was drawn from Chitty’s dissertation, which for disciplinary reasons restricted itself to the figure of the male sodomite to make a relatively narrow historical claim (though over an extremely ambitious span of time) […] But he himself writes that any “account of male homosexuality remains not only incomplete but essentially damaged to the extent that it does not grasp how women’s entry into public spaces and institutions has transformed the basic coordinates” of its object of study, and the same holds for the long process of colonial violence that was necessary for race to produce the categories of gender as we live them now, too.

It now remains for future generations of scholars and revolutionaries to continue this work. While Sexual Hegemony cannot be relied upon in every aspect as a point of departure, it provides significant empirical heft to efforts to read sexual liberation as one aspect of broader social struggles. With Sexual Hegemony, both Christopher Chitty and Max Fox have cleared a new route for rigorous historical investigation, neither reducible nor oblivious to the ever-shifting norms provided by gay theoretical discourse. Without question, “Queer Realism” will be a notion that furthers research into the history of sodomites, social forms, and “the normal”.

Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System is published by Duke University Press.

New Socialist £3 and above subscribers can get a 35% discount on Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke’s edited collection Transgender Marxism as well as Mario Mieli’s Towards a Gay Communism and any other books from our comrades at Pluto Press.


Jules Joanne Gleeson (@socialrepro)

Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and historian. She has published essays in outlets including Viewpoint Magazine, Invert Journal and VICE, and performed internationally at a wide range of communist and queer cultural events. She is the editor with Elle O’Rourke of Transgender Marxism.