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Writing American sexual histories
Author: Barry Reay

The archive has assumed a new significance in the history of sex, and this book visits a series of such archives, including the Kinsey Institute’s erotic art; gay masturbatory journals in the New York Public Library; the private archive of an amateur pornographer; and one man’s lifetime photographic dossier on Baltimore hustlers. The subject topics covered are wide-ranging: the art history of homoeroticism; casual sex before hooking-up; transgender; New York queer sex; masturbation; pornography; sex in the city. The duality indicated by the book’s title reflects its themes. It is an experiment in writing an American sexual history that refuses the confines of identity sexuality studies, spanning the spectrum of queer, trans, and the allegedly ‘normal’. What unites this project is a fascination with sex at the margins, refusing the classificatory frameworks of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and demonstrating gender and sexual indecision and flexibility. And the book is also an exploration of the role of the archive in such histories. The sex discussed is located both in the margins of the archives, what has been termed the counterarchive, but also, importantly, in the pockets of recorded desire located in the most traditional and respectable repositories. The sexual histories in this book are those where pornography and sexual research are indistinguishable; where personal obsession becomes tomorrow’s archive. The market is potentially extensive: those interested in American studies, sexuality studies, contemporary history, the history of sex, psychology, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, queer studies, trans studies, pornography studies, visual studies, museum studies, and media studies.

Rethinking the history of American casual sex
Barry Reay

Casual sex has become a cultural commonplace since it was named in the 1960s and later became associated with the US college sex phenomenon of ‘hooking up’. However, contemporary accounts of this sexual practice are curiously lacking in historical perspective. This chapter explores this modern history, both before and after uncommitted, non-romantic sexual encounters – sex for sex’s sake – were named as casual sex. It argues that studies that contrast the increased ‘sexual possibilities’ of hook-up sex to the assumed restrictive practices of an earlier era distort both the restrictions of the previous period and the freedoms of the latter. The practice of uncommitted sex was not an invention of modernity, but what was the thing before it was identified as casual sex or hooking up? The aim of this chapter, with a focus on the early twentieth-century sexual history of Chicago and New York, is to rethink modern casual sex. It is not intended as the total history of a concept, but rather a reflection on particular historical moments as a way of reconsidering a concept’s claimed novelty.

in Sex in the archives
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David Louis Bowie’s New York diaries, 1978–93
Barry Reay

This chapter deals with some very queer diaries in the New York Public Library, the David Louis Bowie Diaries, 1978–93. These descriptions of New York sex in the periods before and after AIDS consist of text, drawings, and photographs, including information on drug taking, numerous clubs (The Mineshaft was one of Bowie’s haunts), a great amount of casual sex, and material dealing with the New York fisting scene. They are not philosophical or romantic reminiscences but sex diaries. The chapter deals both with a described sexual world and the source that represents it. The diaries are a chronicle. But they are also sexual objects, Bowie’s own sexual archive. He was aroused both by the memories they stored and his textual and visual renderings. He refers to masturbating to his drawings – even while executing them. The archive is imbricated in its recorded sexual encounters in intriguing ways. The archive and sex are indistinguishable here.

in Sex in the archives
A quick history of masturbation
Barry Reay

In modern times, autoeroticism has been accepted as part of a normal, healthy sex life, promoted as a form of gay safe sex in an age of AIDS. It has represented female sexual liberation, and tended to be viewed with amusement rather than horror. Indeed sexual historians have written about the ‘mainstreaming of masturbation’. But its recent history is actually far more complex than this brief characterisation. Belief in the evils of the practice has resurfaced in the figure of the sex addict and a current obsession with the impact of online pornography (masturbation’s metonym), trends that are particularly marked in the US. Autoeroticism may have been mainstreamed but is still not totally accepted. People remain disturbed by the solitariness of solitary sex. This chapter explores this fascinating history.

in Sex in the archives
Barry Reay

This chapter deals with the role and appeal of the archive. Ironically, after the so-called archival turn has long since turned, the meaning of the word archive has become overstretched, and we have reached the point when it is conceivable to have an archive of archive studies. The role of digitisation and the Internet means that archival material can be accessed from a computer almost anywhere, and the Internet itself can become an archive, or rather innumerable archives. The chapter then moves on to discuss the way that the archive has assumed a new significance in the history of sex.

in Sex in the archives
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Barry Reay

The Introduction begins with a discussion of archive stories, conveying a sense of different archives, the writer’s personal archival experiences, and the structure of the book. The subject topics covered in this book are wide ranging: rethinking the art history of homoeroticism; casual sex before casual sex; early trans history; New York queer sex; masturbation; pornography; Baltimore’s sexual cultures. The duality indicated by the book’s title reflects its two principal themes: it deals with archival form and archival content, the archives of the histories of sex and the sexual histories contained in those archives.

in Sex in the archives
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Alfred Kinsey’s informants
Barry Reay

The work of Alfred Kinsey is indelibly associated with quantification – counting orgasms was how he charted America’s sexual past. His recognised affirmation of same-sex desire and activity was based on such findings. However, his research agenda included amassing a vast archive of qualitative material, dependent on the participant research of favoured collaborators. And this highly colourful sexual archive informed his project, both before and after Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). This chapter focuses on two of these collaborators, Thomas Painter, who pioneered the famous Kinsey Scale through his recorded decades-long sexual interactions with hustlers, and Samuel Steward, who provided practical and archival evidence of America’s BDSM culture as well as vivid visual and textual accounts of heterosexual/homosexual sex. This chapter examines their place and role in the Kinsey project and the importance of the Kinsey Institute in the history of sex.

in Sex in the archives
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The diaries of Louis Graydon Sullivan
Barry Reay

The San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library contains the Louis Graydon Sullivan Papers, an extensive archive, including Sullivan’s own recorded transition from a heterosexual woman to a gay man. (Sullivan was designated female at birth, Sheila, but when he died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of 39, he was a spokesperson for gay trans men.) There are biographical accounts of Sullivan but they all tell the story of the making of a trans activist rather than giving any sense of the ambiguities and conflicts he experienced. There is an inevitability about these biographies – the making of a transgender role model. The story told in this chapter is more interesting, if untidier. Though not wishing to denigrate those who seek comfort in certainties, there was nothing inevitable about Sullivan’s trans story; it could have taken a different trajectory at almost any point. The story of Sullivan is compelling because it threatens the very categorisation that his biographical sketch posthumously forced him into. The notable thing about Sullivan, as revealed in the diaries, is that he moved in a milieu of gender and sexual indecision and flexibility.

in Sex in the archives
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Edward Melcarth and homoeroticism in modern American art
Barry Reay and Erin Griffey

Although one will not find Edward Melcarth (1914–73) in recent histories of male homosexuality and American art, he was not always so spectral. Named in Life magazine in 1950 as one of the best young American artists, he exhibited as a painter, draughtsman, and sculptor and also practised as an illustrator, photographer, and designer. His work survives in the Forbes Collection, the Smithsonian, and in the art archives at the Kinsey Institute. In fact the famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey consulted Melcarth for his uncompleted project on the role of sex in art. It is rarely that artists – homosexual or heterosexual – explain what it is that they consider erotic or sexual about their art. However, Melcarth collaborated with Kinsey on precisely this project. This chapter, written with the art historian Erin Griffey, draws on these discovered archival traces of the Kinsey–Melcarth association, arguing that Melcarth’s vision of the erotic (and Kinsey’s too) was far broader than the traditional categories of sexuality perpetuated in art histories of homoeroticism in modern America – and that such a revisioning enables a reinterpretation of some of the better known images of homosexual art.

in Sex in the archives
A 1990s moment in the history of pornography
Barry Reay and Nina Attwood

In the 1990s a diverse group of female and male former college students from the City University of New York started to write pornography for gay men. The organising force behind the venture was a young Hispanic man from the Lower East Side, soon to be known either as ANONYMOUS or Julian Anthony Guerra. He revised Victorian, Edwardian, and interwar classics, adding extensions, but did so without any period research. In the space of only five years (1992–96), ANONYMOUS and his amateur collaborators produced some dozen books. Their work, for Masquerade and Badboy Books, included both ANONYMOUS’s reworking of the classics as well as Guerra’s edited anthologies of gay pornography, written with his friends. Although chapters in these collections appeared under male names, most were by women and the majority of the writers were straight. This chapter, co-written with Nina Attwood, focuses on these CUNY amateur pornographers. It is an interesting moment in the history of pornography. ANONYMOUS gave us access to his private archive of his files of extensions and rewriting, so it is possible to discuss in some depth the recasting of erotic fiction from one era to fit the perceived tastes of another.

in Sex in the archives