Author of a number of books relating to the history of sexuality, Julie Peakman’s new work, Licentious Worlds, offers a history of sexual attitudes and behaviour through five hundred years of empire building around the world. Here, she talks to our arts contributor, Miriam Al Jamil, about her book and the research behind it.
Julie Peakman is a historian and broadcaster, an honorary fellow of Birkbeck College and the author of several books including, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century (Atlantic, 2004), Amatory Pleasures: Explorations in Eighteenth-Century Culture (Bloomsbury, 2016), The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Sexual Perversion (Reaktion, 2014) and many others. Her new book, Licentious Worlds: Sex and Exploitation in Global Empires (Reaktion, 2019), offers a history of sexual attitudes and behaviour through five hundred years of empire building around the world, and in its examination of colonisation and imperialism, puts the lives, experiences and stories of women back into the picture. It has been described by Professor Helen Fawcett as the ‘first genuinely global history of licentiousness, an account not only of the fantasies and exploitative sexual adventures of western male colonisers but also of the powerful elite men in the great empires of the modern world from China and Japan to India and the Ottoman world. It is world history on a new, scholarly, un-ideological and theoretically informed level.’ Peakman spoke with our Arts contributor, Miriam Al Jamil, about Licentious Worlds and the research that went into the making of it.
*Please note that the term ‘prostitution’ instead of sex work is used at various points in this interview when contextually relevant for Julie Peakman’s and Philippa Levine’s research.
Could you tell us how you first became interested in researching the subject of sex and its history? How has the focus of your scholarship developed over the past few decades?
I became interested in women’s history generally when I did my first degree in Manchester. I wrote essays on prostitution* and a dissertation on women in the cotton industry. By the time I came to undertake an MA in Gender History I wanted something unusual and different to write about, something few people were tackling. That is when I hit on Henry Ashbee’s 3 volume biography of erotica going back to C18th. He was a Victorian collector and did a great service in correlating all this information and undertaking a great bibliography. I decided to do my MA dissertation on women and flagellation in erotica. From there I had amassed so much material and wanted to do an in-depth study of erotica and pornography. Professor Roy Porter was the obvious choice as my PhD supervisor as he had written about the sexual underworld in C18th.
You quote ‘one male historian’ in your introduction: ‘The problem which arises is that in trying to write in a role for women, there is a risk of exaggerating their importance’ (p.8). You then state that you hope to ‘override such misogynistic thinking by stressing the importance of women in empire’, along with marginalized men. Was there a sense of a personal mission to provide a voice for the silenced, a responsibility as a historian? Was there anything you preferred to steer clear of?
Yes there is definitely a personal mission for me as a feminist historian. I want to find women’s voices in history but also to expose how badly we and marginalised men have been treated. I don’t steer clear of much and like a challenge. I don’t think there is much that should not be broached. Openness is education and education is progress, a way to freedom for women and men. I support political campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, equal pay, sexual harassment, and sexual violence. These issues relate to men as well as women.
You maintain a scrupulously balanced presentation throughout the book. Is it important to state your position as a historian? Is it, in fact, possible to be neutral with the sort of facts you deal with in the book?
Thanks you for saying I have a neutral balanced presentation. That was, of course, my intention. I think by doing so, it is more effective. The material really speaks for itself. All these men speaking out in their diaries about the awful things they have done to women. It amazes me they had the gall. I don’t think I needed to add much apart from give my interpretation at the end.
In the introduction you set out the web of problems associated with terminology, such as ‘identity’, ‘native’ and particularly ‘sexuality’. You state that you decided not to change many of the terms which might now seem offensive because ‘some of history is offensive, in words and actions, and to change them to suit our current sensitivities would be ahistorical and anachronistic’ (p.16). How difficult was it for you to insist on this and what impact do you think this has on a reading of the book?
The editor at the publishers queried it and wanted to change these into words that are less offensive, but I argued against it as losing the words would also lose the impact of the language.
You mention that the comprehensive work by Philippa Levine on prostitution and VD in India means that you omit the topic from your book. Which other current historians have been particularly important for your work and for locating your contributions to the field?
It is hard to say as no historians have looked before at women in empire building in a global sense. I have found books which have examined women in specific areas useful. I mention these in the book. For example, I liked Kathleen Wilson’s book The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century, Robert Aldrich, (ed.), Gay Life and Culture: A World History, and Shraddha Chatterjee, Queer Politics in India: Towards Sexual Subaltern Subjects.
Openness is education and education is progress, a way to freedom for women and men.
Your book covers exploitation and sexual practices covering over 500 years of history across different continents of the world, and while women are the main focus, you also detail attitudes to LGBT people as both accepted members of different societies or as ‘Other’, as well as various forms of child exploitation. Is this inclusive study a significant and timely development and do you see your book as an important contribution to Gender and Queer Studies as much as to Social History and analyses of empire? Is it part of new approaches to the history of empire in general?
I have always been more of an interdisciplinarian in the way I write my history. For me, gender studies and social history work hand in hand. It is up to others to see whether it is a timely development. It is definitely a subject which needed airing.
You give several biographical accounts which have not been told before, and which demonstrate individual ingenuity and courage in spite of political and economic powerlessness. Was it important to you to include these? Do any particular examples stand out for you? Did you have to cut much from your early drafts?
I wanted to show female agency as well as the way women have been exploited. It is important to look at how women worked within the confines of their lives too. They may have had more power within the family or household. Certainly there were women who managed to rule and it is important to me that I highlight those who could empower themselves.
I mention more famous ones such as Pocahontas and Dona Marina, but there were also Indian women who formed relationships with fur trappers and the like. They wielded a certain amount of control over their lives and helped protect their people through negotiation between their tribe and the trappers, both sides benefiting. Other women managed to marry white Europeans and gain some protection through that route, often managing to wangle their way into business under the auspices of their spouses. Some of the individual cases I found were reports by indigenous peoples and these are difficult to come by and therefore provide a different viewpoint to those of white travellers or missionaries. I think global comparisons, however, provide us with a bigger picture and allow us to see patterns which exist in history.
I always cut lots from my drafts – I start off by gathering way too much and go through at least 15 edits of any one book I write. Then there are edits of the proof where I may want to change sentences or even paragraphs – although that does not go down so well with the editors!
Encounters by Western traders and colonisers with native populations often resulted in misjudgements about moral standards based on their nakedness and perceived sexual availability. Western men usually emphasised licentious behaviour as characteristic of native women in their accounts and were also excited by the erotic potential of women who were covered and unavailable to them. Colonisation as an evil which overwhelmingly affected women is not traditionally emphasised in discussions of imperial expansion. Can you give some examples of this? Did these encounters always end badly?
Perhaps the worst accounts are of the Spanish Empire’s mass rape and murders of the indigenous population, both men and women, although of course, they raped all the women first before murdering them.
You stress the role of religion and missionary zeal in overturning traditional ways of life and family networks, often leaving families unprotected and vulnerable in an effort to enforce conformity to Western values. By comparison, traders seem to have accepted and integrated with indigenous social structures, albeit for their own economic advantage. Do you see religion as one of the most destructive forces of imperial expansion?
Yes, Religion had a huge part in completely destroying the indigenous way of life. Even empire builders saw religion as helpful to them in controlling the population they were invading.
Your book is amazingly broad and inclusive. Were any archives particularly difficult to access? How did you manage with the different languages and did you find there were frustrating gaps or missing documents?
I wanted to include Japan and China and the Ottomans and here had to rely on translations or on historian’s studies. Translations of course are problematic in that they add another layer of interpretation between you and your subject. The most frustrating part is not being able to obtain enough examples of what indigenous people thought about their experiences and this gap needs filling. For the most part, their history is oral, but some documents survive which need analyses.
…the only way to better the lives of women and others who are treated unequally is for the law to support them every time.
You state in your conclusion, ‘It is hard to believe that over thousands of years, women meekly succumbed to men’ (p.299). You then suggest a few reasons why this may have happened, what the quid pro quo may have been. You conclude that civilisation centred on controlling women’s bodies, either by violence or regulation. Did you feel angry or resigned about the treatment many of the women in your study suffered?
Of course. I am always angered by any person of any gender or race treating another badly. Injustice must be fought in every step we make ever, every day of our lives. It is a constant battle against prejudice and discrimination at best, and a fight against rapes, murders and violence at worst. This is why I wrote one of my MA theses on Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. He explores a life of pushing against evil every day and the feeling of hopelessness as we begin again each day in the face of seemingly unending odds of the dreadfulness we see.
I look for hope in the women Prime Ministers of NZ, Iceland and Finland where they are banning assault rifles in NZ, removing homelessness in Finland, and conserving and supporting marine ecosystems in Iceland. The fact that these countries are led by women is a bonus.
Is exploitation, particularly of sex workers, as bad as ever? What solutions would be effective or is it an inevitable consequence of how society is structured? Are you optimistic or has your research resulted in acknowledging the nature of power and hegemonic masculinity?
I do not think making sex work illegal is helpful, it simply makes women more vulnerable. Given the choice, many woman would not do it if they had access to money from other sources. Too often it is about poverty and a choice of feeding your kids or not. While attitudes toward women may have changed for the better since the second half of the C20th, this is mainly because women found the Pill and were not tied to never ending rounds of childbearing. They could work and become financially independent. Education is the key to equality. A civilised country puts it at the forefront of its domestic policy. I think the only way to better the lives of women and others who are treated unequally is for the law to support them every time.
Julie Peakman’s Licentious Worlds: Sex and Exploitation in Global Empires is published by Reaktion Books and is available to purchase now online and in all good book shops.