It’s a familiar feeling. I stare at the email or online form that requests my biographical information for the university website/conference booklet/journal publication. This is the place where I am meant to ‘tag’ myself, to tell people what I work on. It should be simple enough. But it sends me into a personal historiographical crisis. What kind of historian am I?
I begin to write. ‘Julia Laite is a historian of modern Britain; of women, gender, sexuality, crime, migration and mobility, also often not just Britain, sometimes France and lately New Zealand and Argentina. Oh, and also London. She is interested in the history of high intensity resource extraction, sometimes the Canadian north, exploitation (in a number of senses), and labour (in a number of contexts). She wrote about prostitution: but is prostitution sexuality? Is she a historian of sexuality at all? What is she doing writing this blog? Dammit, how long is my bio allowed to be?’
On Tuesday past a group of historians who study aspects of sex and sexuality in the past launched a long overdue History of Sexuality Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London with the opening roundtable dedicated to tackling the question ‘What is the history of sexuality?’. It’s not a new question, by any means, but it seems (judging from the lively discussion and high attendance) that the history of sexuality is ideally placed to frequently discuss its own identity and remain happy in the absence of any clear answer.
For the most part the rest of history is getting used to this as well. I am not the only one who struggles over how to define myself in tidy tagged words like ‘cultural’ ‘social’ ‘British’. And while I do agonize about getting my identity right as a historian, I also enjoy the malleability. I undertook my historical training in an academic outpost under the tutelage of a generation of lefty historians who bemoaned ‘the fragmentation of the field’, even as they also, through their engaged teaching, always encouraged me to challenge the divisions between the fields and camps of history. And it was between the cracks of these older histories that I found the kind of things that really excited and interested me. While they were diverse and disconnected, I could also begin to see some common themes. I didn’t come to history with an interest in sex and sexuality, but rather I came to discover that sex–the practice of it, the ideologies surrounding it, and the ways that it is controlled–has been one of the key forces that shape the kinds of human experiences I study. Maybe I am a historian of sexuality after all. (Phewf).
I enjoy working in fields that defy categorization or unifying conversations. History’s ability to encompass all aspects of human experience without ever needing the ‘right’ answer about them or precise description of them is its most beautiful feature. Historical fields should continuously question and destabilize their identities, a project to which the history of sex and sexuality seems eminently suited.
Julia Laite, a lecturer in modern British history and gender history at Birkbeck, University of London, is a historian of women, gender, sexuality, crime, migration, prostitution, and occasionally lorries. Her first book, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960 was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.
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