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Sex and Sexuality

Sex and Sexuality

The various economic, social, and political underpinnings of European colonialism created a powerful psychosexual residue that asserted itself as a driving ambiguous impulse in the imperial project. Sex was the core of vulnerability at the center of colonialism. It undermined the presumed gender, race, and class or rank categories upon which colonizers constructed individuals' identity, rights, obligations, and behavior.

Colonizers and the colonized read sexuality from their own cultural scripts, and because they usually had very different ways of defining the meanings of sexuality, sex became a source of confusion, contention, manipulation, and transformation. Colonizers attempted to use sex with colonized people for pleasure, economic or political profit, and as a means of signifying their superior status; colonized people, caught in the economic, political, and often physical constraints imposed on them by colonizers, sometimes used their sexuality to gain favor or advantage with colonizers. In that process, both colonizers and the colonized labeled unfamiliar sexual characteristics and behaviors abnormal, used them as evidence of inferiority, and redefined themselves by claiming to be untainted by those characteristics or behaviors.

Through the coercive nature of colonial domination, colonizers sought to create a sexualized native bereft of will, desire, or gaze. This native was to be a tabula rasa for European sexual imaginings. But desire and the sexual gaze moved in two directions. Because the colonizer and colonized desired one another—even when laws or authorities prohibited such desire—the very characteristics and behaviors that were supposedly markers of inferiority became signifiers of exotic allure and therefore, perversely, emblems of superior sexual appeal and limited empowerment.

In Europe, during the entire colonial period, Europeans understood sexuality very differently from most of the people they colonized. Europeans' understandings were based on patriarchal hierarchies of gender, class, and race that placed men superior to women; aristocrats superior to common, indentured, and enslaved men; and white men superior to Moor, oriental, black, or savage men. In general, aristocratic white men encoded those differences of status in religious and civil laws that regulated rights, obligations, and behavior. Clothing and public behavior (also frequently regulated by law) exemplified status and signaled how men and women of different classes and races were to interact; it also indicated who was sexually available or exploitable. In practice if not in law, white aristocratic men had complete sexual liberty—even to the extent of sex with other men if they so chose—with very little repercussion.

Women and lesser-status men in Europe were vulnerable to the sexual demands of aristocratic men because they were politically and economically dependent on aristocratic men. Aristocratic white women were expected to remain virgins until they married, were usually only sexually available for marriage through explicit negotiations with their families, and were only sexually exploitable by members of the aristocracy. Common, indentured, and enslaved women could be exploited by both members of their own classes and the aristocracy, and were, in legal terms, available to anyone who wanted them or who they wanted. Lesser-status men could also be sexually exploited and, like their women, sometimes used that vulnerability to gain opportunity; they could sell sex or trade it for advantage. Courtesans, prostitutes, and an underground of establishments that catered to male same-sex eroticism and sex provided aristocratic men with a richly diverse sexual preserve.

Religious law dictated celibacy as the ideal state for Christians, and recognized only procreation as the valid justification for sexual relations within marriage. Men and women rarely conformed to those expectations. Although church officials refined confession to be a mechanism for revealing and discouraging unsanctioned sexual activity, confession became, too, a way for people to relieve themselves of the guilt and shame of perceived illicit sexuality. The common denominator of sexuality for all classes was that respectability and the full rights of adulthood could only be achieved through heterosexual marriage, but both men and women assumed some degree of secrecy and license was necessary in the various permutations of their sexual world.

Most of the people Europeans colonized held different attitudes toward sex because they were patrilineal or matrilineal, not patriarchal, and their identities, rights, obligations, and behaviors—including sexual interaction—were based on kinship and lineage rather than strict male control of political and economic power and individual behavior. While lineage, age, and gender defined identity and regulated behavior, sometimes hierarchically, in general both men and women had greater choice about what they did, how they dressed, and even what gender they were than Europeans did. In many matrilineal and patrilineal societies boys and girls could choose to take on the roles of men or women regardless of their biological sex, and in some societies they were granted sacred or third sex status if they did so. That initial freedom of choice was often reinforced by sexual liberty prior to marriage, polygamy, and socially sanctioned participation in same-sex physical relationships even, with discretion, after marriage. Like people in patriarchal European societies, men and women in matrilinies and patrilinies could only achieve the full rights of adulthood through heterosexual marriage, but privacy rather than secrecy generally shaped their sexual world.

In the early colonial period (1450 to roughly 1800), when Europeans, Africans, Pacific Island peoples, Americans, South Asians, and Australians encountered one another in the lopsided relations of colonization, they read each other's personal appearance and behavior through their understandings of sexuality. Europeans' unequal layering of sexual rights and privileges permeated their interaction with the people they colonized. They exported their sexual practices, beliefs, and hierarchy to colonized societies. Europeans understood elaborate dress as a sign of high status that implied sexual exclusivity; they read nakedness as primitivity, sexual invitation, and promiscuity. The fact that African, Pacific Island, and American women had more sexual freedom than European women seemed to confirm European beliefs of native sexual promiscuity, and when high status men offered them women for sexual use those beliefs were reinforced, despite the fact that European men also trafficked in sexual favors.

European men were drawn to their own erotic projection of native sexuality because it reverberated with the stereotypes of Middle-Eastern harems and dancing girls, and the silent and accommodating boys and girls of the Far East, both known to European men through their own travels or, more prevalently, the tales that such men told about their adventures. They raved about the sexual appetites of colonized women and the pleasures to be found with them, and they also remarked on the beauty, virility, and manliness of colonized men. The explicit and implicit sexual praise they lavished on the bodies and behaviors of the people they colonized filtered back to Europe in contradictory ways. Colonized people were considered savage and primitive—and therefore uncivilized—but also they seemed to represent a pure and even noble connection with physical pleasure and freedom.

Colonized people read little more into clothing than the fact that Europeans rarely bathed and seemed dirty, but they welcomed Europeans as sexual equals, frequently forming emotional as well as physical bonds with them and sometimes marrying. In Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas, European men insinuated themselves into indigenous cultures by forming loving and often long-lasting relationships with colonized women and men. Those relationships eventually gave birth to an aristocracy of children of mixed racial descent who became minor bureaucrats, diplomats, interpreters, and merchants, often educated in European schools. Such offspring frequently became part of a cosmopolitan elite that locked indigenous and European colonial cultures together.

In the 1740s in the British North American colony of Georgia, for example, Mary Musgrove (1700–1763), the daughter of a white man and a Creek woman, was a major landowner, trader, and negotiator on the Creek-Carolina border. Alexander McGillivray (1759–1793), the son of a Creek mother and a Scotch father, became a leader of the Creek Indians. He preferred to speak with his people through interpreters, claiming that he could not speak the Creek language, and he chose as his tustenegee, the highest Creek military office, a Frenchman, Leclerc Milfort, who was married to McGillivray's sister. During the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) and its aftermath in Louisiana, the role of the French-descended, mixed-race community became a point of contention as efforts to limit the social, political, and economic mobility of newly freed people was disrupted, and these propertied, educated, and articulate elites represented the interests of the larger African-American community.

As colonial settlements stabilized and Europeans tried to establish more political and economic control of their colonies, European elites became alarmed at the number of European men who had adopted indigenous dress and behaviors, abandoning any pretense of being civilized and threatening the racial, cultural, economic, and political security of the colonies. Most colonial governments instituted strict anti-miscegenation laws to prohibit racial unity mixing and keep white men within colonial boundaries except for purposes of trade and military operations.

Though they rarely prosecuted elite white men for the rape or sexual abuse of colonized women, they fined and whipped white women and lesser-status white men for breaking those sexual laws, and sometimes castrated or killed colonized men. Rape or sexual coercion of colonized women became a way of demonstrating to colonized men that they were powerless. European elites intended such laws to reestablish the hierarchies of domination and power that were the essence of manhood and womanhood in Europe, but forbidden sex with exotic, primitive, and especially dark-skinned colonized people also became an exercise of rebellion against that domination.

By the nineteenth century the lure of sex with "Others" (those of different race, or economic and social status) was firmly embedded in European, Euro-American, and colonized psyches. European and Euro-American men—and women, though it was more dangerous—sought out sexual experiences with the colonized Others, which made rape and sexual coercion commonplace, and fed a growing sex industry among colonized populations. Colonized people saw sexual activity with colonizers as an opportunity for social, racial, and economic mobility. Colonized men and women recognized prostitution as a viable, often lucrative, and sometimes emancipatory career, and sought European men and women as sexual partners to improve their status and reassure themselves that they were equals to European men and women.

Sex with Others had not only the value of immediate experiential gratification, but also a patina of enhanced prowess for both men and women. They seldom recognized the ambivalent results of their desires, or the ways enacting them transformed both the worlds they came from and the worlds they were trying to inhabit. European and Euro-American men's taste for Other women masqueraded as rescue, conquering-hero, and freedom-from-restraint fantasies, but the women with whom they had sex often rejected any connection that was not purely financial, and used that income to buy themselves lives that were more European. Colonized people also flocked to imperial homelands to demonstrate their ability to be equals, in part by sexual liaison or marriage with white Europeans or Americans.

Sex subverted the imperial project. Colonizers attempted to transform colonies into replications of European and American political, economic, and social hierarchies, where whites dominated indigenous elites, and both white elites and indigenous elites dominated the urban and rural hinterlands of potential laborers and sex-workers. But Europeans adopted (often subconsciously) primitive styles, art, and fabrics as marks of their sophistication, and lost confidence in their repressive sexuality and sexual mores if not their sense of racial and cultural superiority. Europe's transformation is most memorably demonstrated with Sara Bartman (1790–1816). She was a twenty-year-old Khoikhoi captured by Englishmen in South Africa in 1810 and exhibited like an animal in European capitals as an example of African women's bodily makeup, her abnormally voluptuous buttocks receiving particular attention. She attracted and titillated crowds of European men and women whose horrified fascination was paralleled by the appearance of the bustle in the 1870s, which exaggerated women's posteriors as the height of feminine allure. White men in England and the United States began to worry publicly about their loss of manhood and praise primitive savagism as a mark of real manhood when recurring slave insurrections, the Indian Mutiny (1857), the post-U.S. Civil War emancipation of slaves, and the South African Boer War (1899–1902), among many other revolts, threatened notions of white male supremacy across the colonial world.

The irony of colonization is that it made primitive and exotic the hallmarks of a pure, undisturbed idea of humanity for Euro-American and North Atlantic cultures. Native American men became symbols of environmental unity, Asian men the embodiment of spiritual balance, and African men the personification of masculine virility; women of those colonies became the epitome of all that was proud, feminine, and sexually satisfying. Sex and sexuality in the colonial arena fundamentally remained yet another avenue of European control, determination, and domination of colonized people, but the appropriation and valorization of native bodies and cultures and the incremental subversion of imperial European ideas of racial, sexual, economic, political, and cultural superiority transformed sexual belief and practice in ways that remain etched on the lives of the former colonizers and formerly colonized to this day.

see also Imperialism, Gender and.

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