Book Review: Sex and Sexuality in Modern Southern Culture

Review by Matt Kowal34409163

Modern depictions of the American South often consist of a confined set of characteristics – hospitable family values, religious purity, and racial tensions. While this perception of the South certainly stems from the observable reality, it fails to address seldom mentioned yet detectable attributes of the region: gay tourist destinations in Panama City, syphilis outbreaks in Orlando, and the social manifestation of repressed sexual desires.

Trent Brown’s Sex and Sexuality in Modern Southern Culture examines the sexual history of the American South from the early 20th century to the present through a series of essays on topics ranging from the underground sex trade in Alabama to the allure of sexual depravity baked into the Florida Panhandle’s tourism industry.  While the anthology’s contributing historians focus on disparate topics, Brown incorporates their work into a coherent volume that explores the diverse characteristics that define Southern sexuality. In his introduction, Brown notes a dichotomy of sexual expression in Southern culture, describing the region as both “sexually open and sexually closed, as sometimes outwardly chaste and inwardly sultry, and as simply sexually demonstrative and open” (13).

Indeed, Brown observes a fluid perception of Southern sexuality permeating each essay. According to Richard Hourigan (Creating the Perfect Mancation), a stroll through Myrtle Beach almost certainly entails “seeing a strip club or listening to one of their tacky, sexually charged promotions” (113). Meanwhile, Krystal Humphreys (“A Bonfire of Chastity”) details the ideal southern Christian woman as openly chaste and sexually pure; an indelible standard representative of the South. Similarly, Jerry Watkins (“A Queer Destination”) notes that the LGBTQ community in Florida “quietly flourished in the 1950s” despite government pressures and homophobic rhetoric (136). Sex and Sexuality in Modern Southern Culture contrasts public disdain for openly-lewd individuals with a private lust for pleasure; it draws attention to the way a perception of ostensibly-Southern chastity serves to accentuate illicit sexual acts. Yet the anthology goes beyond a simple survey of Southern sexuality. It challenges the existing narrative of a romanticized South that prides itself in chastity and monogamy by calling attention to histories of homosexuality, a sexually charged tourism industry, and the glorification of obscenity. It questions the narrative of Southern purity and public censorship, seeking to historicize how and why Southerners have come to maintain these seemingly contradictory beliefs and practices. Sex and Sexuality also incorporates an analysis of the interplay between sexuality and race, exploring the compounding impact of the South’s history of slavery and segregation.

Southern historians, activists, and those well-versed in the South’s relation to the history of chattel slavery in the United States may find similarities in the white Southern violence and vulgarity intended to demonstrate authority and that used to repress social movements during the Civil Rights era. Francesca Gamber (“We Raised Them Up Never Even to Look at One”) considers the sexual and racial climate of the South in the 1960s asserting that “black women were particularly vulnerable to physical remonstrance…the sexual subtext of many of these attacks was seldom subtle” (73). Gamber notes the use of sexual threats and appalling shows of violence as a way to enforce submission with one extreme instance involving a police officer beating a pregnant woman, thereby causing a miscarriage. Furthermore, Katherine Henniger (“The Mandingo Effect”) recognizes the 1975 film, Mandingo as a candid expression of Southern sexually charged racial tension. Henniger credits Mandingo with acknowledging “white sexual and moral depravity in race relations, but firmly defines and confines it as southern” – perhaps to demonstrate the evolution of these prejudices into the entertainment sphere since their supposed Civil Rights-era suppression (180).

Ultimately, Sex and Sexuality in Modern Southern Culture considers what appears on the surface to be a simple question: how is sexuality manifested in the American South? However, as the anthology’s contributors demonstrate, the heterogeneous and often contradictory nature of Southern sexualities challenges us to ask a multitude of subsequent questions regarding the interaction of public and private spheres, the state of Southern homosexuality, and the role of race. Despite the challenge of containing such multitudes, Trent Brown provides a concise yet comprehensive overview of sexual history in an enigmatic region that leaves the reader satisfied. This anthology supplies an invaluable resource to cultural historians thirsting for knowledge on one of the most beguiling regions of the United States (and perhaps even the world).


Fall 2018 Review Supplement Table of Contents


Brandy Schillace, Editor-in-Chief
Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook, Managing Editor
Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Review Editor

Download PDF of 1:3b [link to come]


Bellies, Bowels and Entrails in the Eighteenth Century
Review by Burcu Alkan

The History of Reason in the Age of Madness: Foucault’s Enlightenment and a Radical Critique of Psychiatry
Review by Burcu Alkan

Sex and Sexuality in Modern Southern Culture
Review by Matt Kowal

Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700
Review by Sarah E. Parker

Book Review: Bellies, Bowels and Entrails in the Eighteenth Century

39973288Review by Burcu Alkan

Although not quite the “grand seat of consciousness” like its counterpart the brain, the stomach, with a massive nervous system of its own, is long deemed a kind of a second brain. This “gut” of the gut-feeling and the neighbouring viscera is the focal point of Bellies, Bowels and Entrails in the Eighteenth Century (Manchester University Press, 2018), edited by Rebecca Anne Barr, Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon, and Sophie Vasset. As this collection of essays show, the eighteenth century intellectual world was very much preoccupied with the bowels, the stomach, and other internal organs within the abdominal cavity in pursuit of a form of self-knowledge expressed in the materiality of the body. The texts discuss grotesque, non-heroic, ailing, and deformed bodies against the celebrated “ideal,” through literary representations, political encounters, critical caricatures, and anatomic drawings in order to underscore “the darker side of the Enlightenment” (5).

The book comprises of four parts, each of which have thematically linked essays. There are fifteen chapters in total that explore the relationship between the organs and functions of the digestive system and their cultural connotations in the long eighteenth century, a period that roughly begins in the last decade of the seventeenth century and ends in the first decade of the nineteenth.

The first part, “Urban congestion and human digestion” revolves around both literal bodily functions and symbolic representations of the stomach. For instance, in their respective chapters, Gilles Thomas and Sabine Barles & André Guillerme examine the functions and the transformation of the residential, commercial, and underground structures of Paris and liken the deleterious world of dirt, dead, saltpetre and excrement that sustains the city’s socio-economy to the bowels of an organism. Ian Miller moves up the digestive tract and details out what the changing understanding of the stomach means for both medicine and the perception of the self. Miller notes that it was in the eighteenth century that the stomach was dethroned from its position as the “seat of the soul” (63). Instead, it began to be portrayed as a potent organ that dissolves, ferments, and putrefies. It is a beastly organism but one that has a complicated system of its own, ensuring the dissolution of only food matter and not itself, and thus, maintaining the survival of the whole body.

The essays in the second part, amusingly titled, “Excremental operations,” focus on the attention paid to faeces in the eighteenth century. The artists and intellectuals of the era seem to have had rather interesting engagements with the matter. Amélie Junqua explores the relationship between the state of the paper industry and the literary worth of poetry, united in the common denominator of bowel movements and their outcomes. Her examples from Jonathan Swift, John Dryden, and others are both informative and entertaining at the expense of bad poets. Jennifer Ruimi’s work on French comedy is an equally informative and entertaining look at the use of faecal matter as a form of parodic social critique and burlesque erotica. In their own gleeful ways, both the English and the French of the century facilitated the mundane world of bowel movements as a revolt against decorum. Essentially, that the world has evolved towards a definitive privacy in that department renders the practices of and concerns regarding excremental affairs quite alien but fascinating to the modern reader.

The third part, “Burlesque Bellies” is particularly interesting as the preoccupation with the innards of the human body and its processes, which is itself a result of the Enlightenment, turns against the Enlightenment. Guilhem Armand looks at the parodies of “pompous knowledge” and the pedantic scientific productions of the era. Once again, the French satire proves highly comic in terms of the relationship between “farting” and certain types of scholarship. Sometimes literature does prove timeless and discourses of flatulence could probably speak to today just as well. Similarly, Clémence Aznavour examines Pierre de Marivaux’s works along the lines of the deflation of representative values in epic narratives. The contrast “between the image of the hero and his physiology” (219) is highlighted through the uncontrollable functions of the body and its ailments, such as constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence, and the like. While the parodic nature of the texts is amusing in their own right, they also underscore the prevalent push towards the recognition of the materiality of the body.  

The final part focuses on the visual representations of the viscera. Barbara Stenz begins with the interconnection between the ideal, healthy body and the deformed, ailing body. She notes, “During the Enlightenment authors of all persuasions – doctors, men of letters, philosophers, theoreticians of art – based many of their observations and assumptions on a model of the body whose balance and fine proportions served as a foil to a growing obsession with degeneracy” (274). Irrespective of political inclinations, the adversary was caricaturised as big bellied, underlining -often wrongfully acquired- excess. Moreover, another key element of the Enlightenment attitude towards science, reason, and knowledge became manifest in the emergence of anatomic drawings. The artists were introduced to a new way of seeing and understanding the self through the matter of the body. Dorothy Johnson explores how the Enlightenment instigated “a reconceptualisation of the body itself” through “a literal and metaphorical carving out, a disembowelment and dismemberment that was no longer proscribed or confined to medical practice but instead was on public view” (295). However, as befits the Enlightenment spirit, these liberations in science and arts regarding the “knowledge of the body” were paralleled by contrasting religious discourses. Jacques Gélis discusses how this type of knowledge of the body was appropriated accordingly to the spiritual needs of the rural people in the form of representative saints.

There are many other essays in Bellies, Bowels and Entrails that are equally interesting and fascinating, such as laymen’s epistolary correspondences with expert physicians and the connections between appetite, health, and desire in the notorious pornographic texts of John Cleland, marked by an understanding that the  body is “an eloquent object” (229). In fact some of the chapters are so interesting that their shortness does not do them justice. For instance, Micheline Louis-Courvoisier, in her chapter “The Soul in the Entrails” examines the tradition of epistolary-diagnosis in relation to how the people of the eighteenth century related to their ailing bodies. However, their relation to the concept of the soul as such is not explored adequately. Likewise, the handling of anatomic paintings in Johnson’s piece is highly engaging but it is not treated quite enough.

The editors state that the book was born out of a conference held in Université Paris-Diderot in 2014. That some of the essays feel brief for the expectations they raise might be an outcome of such conversion. Another consequence as such is probably the limited focus of the essays to German, French, and English examples. Accordingly, the collection, like many similar others, is firmly situated within the boundaries of nuclear western academia. Still, as the editors note in the introduction, Bellies, Bowels and Entrails might not be “for delicate stomachs” (17) but it is a rather interesting read nonetheless, revealing another Enlightenment.