How does gender affect sexuality

(Post) colonialism and global history

Robert Kramm

Dr. Robert Kramm is a visiting fellow at the Research Institute of Comparative History and Culture at Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea.

Gender and sexuality were particularly powerful in their colonial association with "race" and class. The different forms of sexual morality show that gender and sexuality are never ahistorical, biologically determined constants, but are negotiable.

Fig. 1: Jan van der Straet, “America” (c. 1575), text by Theodor Galle (1571-1633), Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France. (& copy Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France)

Gender and sexuality are existential facets of human experience. Perspectives from the history of gender and sexuality take a look at the multiple interpersonal, intimate relationships and social structures of imperial and (post-) colonial societies. It is not just about reconstructing options for action by women or getting to the bottom of the emancipation efforts of homosexual, transgender and transgender people. Rather, they also deal with marriage relationships, domestic order, body images, moral concepts and health policies. In doing so, they try to explain how these were an integral part of imperial and (post-) colonial practices of rule. In the following, key findings from recent research on gender and sexuality in the fields of (post) colonialism and global history are summarized and discussed using several examples, including visual ones. One focus is on the interconnection of gender and sexuality with “race” and social origin, and how these intersections found expression in various imperial and post-colonial constellations.

Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Expansion

From the 15th to the 17th centuries, Europe's imperial expansion in the modern world was a predominantly male project. Adventurers, seafarers, traders and missionaries "discovered" the world and established trading bases in America, Africa and Asia. At the time, women and “respectable femininity” were considered unsuitable for living in settlements on the borders of western civilization. In some places, such as Canton (Guangzhou, China) or Dejima (artificial island in Nagasaki, Japan), the local government also banned the presence of Western women. This led to the formation of almost exclusively male communities in early European overseas trading posts. At the same time, controversially discussed studies argue, the absence of strict sexual norms and the cliché of sexual permissiveness and self-indulgence in the tropics was a motor of imperial male expansion, since the unexplored areas for Europeans represented sexual possibilities. [1] This argument is only partially valid, however, since imperial administrations - mostly under the banner of trade organizations such as the East India Companies - made efforts very early to regulate the sexual practices of Europeans in the colonies. However, such ideas played a role in the imagination of Western “explorers” that should not be underestimated. For example, a variety of gender and sexuality-based terms and images have been used in sea and map maps to describe unknown regions and people of the world, including the mermaid or the naming of the Virgin Islands, which can be traced back to Christopher Columbus.

Male-dominated, sexualized ideas of discovery and expansion had enormous impact and tell us a lot about the mechanisms and worldviews of western empires. The drawing "America" ​​(c. 1575) by Jan van der Straet, which depicts Amerigo Vespucci's (c. 1451-1512) arrival in America and which became a symbol of western discovery [Fig. 1]. [2] The drawing shows Vespucci, who has just left his ship in full armor and equipped with a sword, cross and star altimeter as symbols of rule, faith and science and is received on the coast of America by a naked woman in a hammock. At first glance, the picture describes the classic division into a masculine world of progress and civilization and a feminine world of backwardness, immaturity and barbarism, characterized by nudity and the enchanted setting with wild animals and plants. This attribution of the barbaric has the function of stylizing the Western man as superior, future-oriented and with a claim to domination, but it is also an expression of male longing to experience sexual fantasies on distant beaches in exotic paradises. In the middle of the picture, however, placed between Vespucci and the naked woman, van der Straet stages a disturbing spectacle: three likewise naked women toast a human leg over a campfire. On the one hand, this cannibalistic scene underlines the barbaric nature of the discovered world. On the other hand, the picture also conveys a threat scenario for the superiority and moral steadfastness of the white man, which results from the encounter with the stranger with a feminine connotation and shows male fears of the loss of claims to power and control. [3]

Gender and Sexuality: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Age of Imperialism

In the history of colonialism and imperialism, this apparently contradicting simultaneity of hierarchization between West and non-West through gender and sexuality can be found again and again. The persistence and guarantee of predominantly male sexual fantasies and the potential undermining of male control through excessive sex are also recurring themes. As the example of Vespucci's discovery of America has already shown, questions about gender and sexuality have always been linked to imperial principles of order. Sexuality is a factor through which imperial power relations can be constructed and confirmed, but also undermined.

From the 18th century and increasingly in the 19th century, colonial societies developed in Africa, America and Asia, which differed from the earlier settlement colonies in terms of extent, form and organization. This also marks a changed composition of the population, because more and more colonial administrators, plantation owners, private traders, soldiers and workers with different social origins settled in the colonies; in addition, the presence of European women grew. This new social structure was closely connected with the development of the industrialized capitalist market, the acceleration of global networking and mobility, and the emergence of new working relationships, new elites, new worlds and new forms of rule. Important impulses of this global development came from the emergence of a bourgeois culture, which also brought about a new understanding of gender and sexuality. This culture was not only associated with a certain social origin, economic capital, education or religion, but also a certain sexuality: in it were based the body images, gender roles and family ideals through which the European bourgeoisie identified itself. A disciplined, healthy and self-optimized body was considered the basis of education and reason, economic productivity, political maturity, citizenship and, most importantly, regulated and conscious reproduction. [4]

Fig. 2: "Love and Beauty - Sartjee the Hottentot Venus" (1822), British Museum, London, UK. (& copy British Museum, London, UK.)
This understanding of sexuality was closely connected with new ideas of “race” - the manifestations of which are discussed in recent research as “scientific racism” in the early 20th century - and did not develop in isolation in Europe, but required contact and exchange with colonial ones Experiences and very specifically with the “colonial other”. A very striking example are the people shows with Saartjie Baartman, a Khoi from today's South Africa, which also became known under the defamatory name "Hottentottenvenus". Because of her strong primary and secondary sexual characteristics, Baartman was exhibited in South Africa, London and Paris and portrayed in graphics and caricatures. Baartman was supposed to represent a supposedly primitive sexuality and exoticism, with which the supposedly civilized sexuality of white women could be contrasted [Fig. 2]. [5]

Another widespread staging of non-Western sexuality are the photographs of bare-breasted women from the colonies. In the majority of the circulating images, non-Western sexuality was clearly racially coded with features such as skin color. However, the interconnection of gender and sexuality with “race” but also with social origin in the British Empire was often much more complex than a clear division into white / European and non-white / non-European. The handling of cohabitation and prostitution in the British Empire illustrates, for example, how imperial administrations reacted to the alleged threat to sexual relations between white colonists and non-white colonists. They feared that so-called “mixed race”, uncontrolled sex and sexually transmitted diseases could undermine the reputation of the Empire and the legitimation of colonial rule and promote “racial degeneration”. Although most colonial administrations mistrusted these intimate relationships and often forbade legal weddings, the British colonial authorities tolerated cohabitation and prostitution, among other things as an embodiment of the supremacy of white men over non-white women who did domestic and sexual work. In doing so, they intended to minimize the influx of women from Europe into the colonies and to control the discipline, health and morals of soldiers, workers and employees.

They also wanted to oppose same-sex encounters between men in the predominantly male communities, as increasingly homosexuality - a term from the 19th century - and not just the sexual act of "sodomy" was being negotiated as a punishable offense. However, due to prostitution and cohabitation, salaries of middle-class employees of the Empire could also be reduced without them having to do without servants. This was not just an economic cost calculation, but followed the political calculation that an impoverished white population without a corresponding standard of living could weaken the reputation and legitimacy of the Empire. According to this logic, prostitutes were subject to regular health checks. The colonial administration intended to regulate sexual encounters between white men and non-white women free from venereal diseases and without further family obligations; sexually ill colonialists were also seen as a sign of a lack of colonial control. At the same time, the existence of prostitution served as presumptive evidence of the "primitive sexuality" and underdevelopment of the colonized women and thus colonized societies in general, which justified interventions by the colonial administrations. [6]

A major dilemma, however, was the descendants of intimate relationships between colonialists and colonized, which the various colonial administrations dealt with differently. Nevertheless, comparative studies on “racial mix” (métissage / miscegenation / mestizaje) in French Indochina and Dutch East Indies show that there were cross-empire and colonial debates about inclusion and exclusion. These make it clear that skin color and origin alone did not always determine whether children of white / non-white partnerships were officially recognized or not. Often times, courts decided whether these children received French or Dutch citizenship, whether they were allowed to enter the civil service and thus claim benefits from the respective government, or whether children were deprived of their parents in order to protect the privileges of the white population. The degree of “civilization” (civilité) through parental home, education or manners could have as much influence on the judicial decision as current budget debates in the parliaments of the imperial metropolises. First, this points to the cross-border entanglements of colonial peripheries and imperial centers in efforts to separate the colonialists and the colonized; Secondly, it becomes clear that being white and not being white were not self-evident units in colonial societies, but were closely interwoven with other criteria such as gender and sexuality, but also class, education, religion, morality and the specific political climate. [7]

Similarities and ambiguities: “sex trafficking” and migration

Intimate encounters across the colonial divide, however, did not occur solely between white men and non-white women. Some women of the white upper class had extramarital, heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Women of the white lower classes also had sexual contact with non-white men, although those of sex workers have probably been best researched to date. By the end of the 19th century, a global network of pimps, smugglers and brothel owners had already formed, bringing European women to South America, South Asia and East Asia. Opponents of civil society - mostly moral reformers and feminists - scandalized this trade in white women as "white slavery" and published horrific stories about the fate of white women who would have been abused as passive victims of smugglers in the brothels and opium dens in India and China. Even if some women decided to settle in the colonies as sex workers or entertainers, the scandals surrounding “White Slavery” spread long-standing prejudices: namely, the paranoia of white men about the violation of the integrity of white women, caused by the hypersexuality of strangers, non-white men are threatened. According to the opinion of the time, “White Slavery” was seen as a sign of the loss of control of imperial order, since sex between white women and non-white men - in the colonies as well as in the metropolises - was perceived as a threat to the male-dominated system of rule and the privileges and supremacy of the white "race". [8]

However, the modern trade of women for sex work, entertainment and domestic work was not only one-sided from Europe to Africa, the Arab world, South Asia or South America. Since the middle of the 19th century, smugglers' organizations, also known as karayukisan (literally translated: “Those who go to China”) from mostly impoverished areas of Japan for sex work in various countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia, British India, Russia and as far as the west coast of the USA. This "yellow slave trafficking" was part of an established system of state-licensed prostitution in Japan - similar to that in European metropolises such as Paris and Berlin - in which women of the social lower classes were supposed to satisfy male sexual desires and were subject to police control with regular health checks. The licensing system, which was also introduced in Japan's colonies of Taiwan and Korea, was embedded in a patriarchal sexual and family policy that was supposed to enable men to have sex outside of marriage without sexually transmitted diseases without endangering reproductive sex. [9]

Thus, across empires, global similarities of patriarchal, heteronormative relationships of domination can be ascertained, in which mostly non-white women served to channel male pleasure. These also provided the framework for ascribing chastity and virtue to certain women, and to regard their bodies as symbols for purity, exclusivity and the reproduction of national societies and their privileges. Such a double standard in the distribution of gender roles can be traced in the British Empire as well as in the Japanese Empire, as can the similar fears of male colonial administrators of losing their imperial reputation through uncontrolled sex that can transmit venereal diseases. On closer inspection, however, the racially and patriarchally coded gender and sexuality relationships were not always clear. Prostitution in the colonies of the Japanese Empire, for example, breaks with the classic division into white colonialists and non-white colonized, since the karayukisan served a large number of customers from Europe, East Asia and Southeast Asia and their control was not subject to an ideology of white supremacy with which the Japanese colonial administration could have legitimized itself.Rather, Japan even had to assert itself against the western imperial powers, which was also expressed in a rigorous control of Japanese prostitutes to maintain the appearance of the "clean" Japanese Empire. It is also important to look at the links between gender and sexuality and class. Gender, or in this case women, cannot rashly be viewed as a collective singular subject to identical androcentric forms of rule worldwide. Sex workers were mostly women of the lower classes who, from the point of view of European and Japanese administrative actors, protected the healthy and reproductive sexuality of women of the upper classes, but at the same time represented a potential threat to loss of reputation and control.

The notions of such a threat scenario resulting from immoral and sick sexuality also influenced national migration policies around the world. In the USA, for example, economic or racist reasons such as fear of wage dumping and xenophobia were not the only decisive factors behind the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to massively restrict the immigration of Chinese workers. The established prejudice of Chinese prostitutes with syphilis, who would threaten the health and morals of American society, was also instrumental in the decision to exclude Chinese migration to America. Among the forms of unwanted sexuality that were said to threaten America's social and ethnic order, immigration authorities included not only prostitution but also homosexuality. Since the 1950s, they have tried to exclude homosexuals from immigration to the United States entirely or to allow them only under strict surveillance, on the grounds that gays and lesbians have a "psychopathic personality" and thus pose a threat to the nation. [10] The repertoire of control strategies of the immigration authorities included ethnic and criminal psychological profiling and interrogation methods tailored to this at entry. Such an encounter with immigration officers is reproduced very clearly in the film Scarface (1983), in which a Cuban petty criminal - Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino - is asked on his entry whether he likes men and likes to dress like women. Much like in the case of the “White Slavery” scandal, the thought and categorization patterns of US immigration authorities were actively involved in not only maintaining certain ethnic and social hierarchies, but also helping to shape precisely the stereotypes of undesirable sexuality that they wanted to regulate . [11]

The interplay of gender, sexuality, "race" and class

Gender and sexuality were and are of course not blueprints, but always part of historically specific power relations. Precisely for this reason, studies of gender and sexuality history offer many opportunities to take a closer look and to examine global historical similarities, interdependencies and differences in rulership practices, principles of order and their experiences in imperial and (post-) colonial everyday life. Although the statements discussed here only address a few facets of modern imperialisms and (post-) colonial constellations, they should nevertheless make it clear that gender and sexuality are proving to be highly significant and promising topics and perspectives. In all of the examples cited here, it is clear how the aspects of gender and sexuality were usually particularly powerful in their interconnection with "race" and class. Studies of gender and sexuality make a particularly important contribution to current and future ways of life. Because they prove that categories such as gender and sexuality are never ahistorical, biologically determined constants, but always have a history and were accordingly changeable and negotiable - and will remain so.