Review by Matt Kowal
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).