Review

The Regulation of Desire

Appx 1,450 words



Cover: The Regulation of Desire

Regulating Desire
The Regulation of Desire:
Homo and Hetero Sexualities

by Gary Kinsman
Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1996 (2nd edition)
James Fraser Library call number: 2.71 KIN

Review by Karen Dubinsky
Centre/Fold (Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies)
# 10, Spring 1996


This is the second edition of, as the reviewer says, "the only comprehensive survey of the history of sexuality in Canada." (In fact, "Sexuality in Canada" was the subtitle of its first edition, pictured here, published in 1987.) Gary Kinsman, active in gay and leftist movements since the mid-1970s, is now on the faculty of Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. Karen Dubinsky teaches history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. She is currently working on The Second Biggest Disappointment: Honeymooners, Travellers and the Tourist Industry at Niagara Falls, 1880 - 1967.

Karen's review appears below as in did in Centre/Fold, but for the addition of some subheads and a few explanatory notes, in brackets, for non-Canadian (or non-historian) readers.

Rick Bébout, April 1997


"Fucking in Canada"

In 1986, I and my then-classmate at Queen's University, Steven Maynard, invited Gary Kinsman to speak to our department about the history of sexuality in Canada. I felt, as I recall, an almost teenage sense of rebellion about this act. The history of sex? At Queen's! I was relieved when a number of people actually showed up for the talk, and surprised to see a few of the senior professors in attendance.

Gary started talking with a joke, something about how he'd wanted to call The Regulation of Desire, his soon-to-be- published book, "Fucking in Canada: An Oral History." The audience giggled, and my sense of having helped facilitate a minor rebellion was stirred again; surely this was the first time anyone had said "fuck" in an academic talk since the place opened its doors in the 1840s.

During the question period, however, it became clear that not everyone was enjoying themselves. One of the older gentlemen asked what I've come to realize is one of the nastiest questions a historian can ask: "Your theoretical musing is all very interesting, Mr Kinsman, but where's your evidence?"

I don't remember how Mr Kinsman handled the question (I only remember wincing at it), but whatever he said, ten years later he would have a much better answer. A lot has happened in the ten years between the publication of the first and second editions of The Regulation of Desire.

We talk about sex in seminar rooms all the time these days. Academic bookstores and libraries can hardly keep up with the new sexuality- related titles. Graduate students of the 1990s would barely notice the occasional "fuck" in a public lecture; indeed, at Queen's we even teach it to undergraduates now.

Richer detail for some eras...

The publication of the second, revised, edition of Kinsman's book provides an opportunity to assess the developments in this field in Canada. This is a well- researched study, and in the changes between this second edition and the first, we can see where Canadian research on sexuality has been (and, by extension, where it lags).

This book retains the same basic structure as the first edition, but two sections, in particular, are greatly improved. Reflecting, I think, the concentration of research in recent years, the sexual politics of the late nineteenth / early twentieth centuries, as well as the post - World War Two era, are explored in much richer detail.

Kinsman has added to his historical survey of the nineteenth century new research on the social purity movement, gender relations, motherhood and sexual crime (homo and heterosexual). We can now say with empirical certainty that in Canada, the Victorians had sex (at least in Central Canada).

Even better is the section on the post- World War Two era, in which Kinsman has not only integrated new studies of lesbian and gay communities (which provides the voices of historical actors -- something underplayed in his first book) but also expands on his own fascinating research on the "gay scare" in Cold War Canada.

... Short shrift for others

The strengthening of these two eras in Canadian history cannot help, however, to bring the scarcity of research in other areas into stark relief. Pre-Confederation Canadian history [before 1867] receives short shrift here -- again George Markland and Richard Yeo [whose court cases from the early 19th century have been well- researched] have to don the mantle of the only "sex deviates" in Upper Canada [1791 - 1841; now Ontario] -- and again the sexual politics of colonization and immigration are rendered only faintly.

These gaps are much more glaring this time, however, given the publication of some inventive American studies on these topics. The problem here, obviously, is that most historians of Canadian sexuality, like Canadian social historians of all persuasions, have spent their time in the post- Confederation period.

But given that Kinsman's project this time -- influenced by the pioneering work of Jonathan Ned Katz [author of the 1976 Gay American History and numerous works since] -- is to take a more self- conscious look at the construction of heterosexuality, one could certainly re-read the work that has been done on pre- Confederation family and women's history to offer some observations on changing meanings of heterosexuality in this era.

The problem of the uneven development of Canadian historiography isn't just, however, that historians seem uncomfortable leaving the realm of "modern" (industrial capitalist) Canada, for their are curious gaps in the twentieth century as well.

With a couple of exceptions, the Depression era has been barely touched by those interested in gender and sexuality (though my sense from the graduate students of my acquaintance is that this will be a new "growth area" of the next few years, a trend we can attribute, perhaps, to Mike Harris [current right-wing premier of Ontario] -- the R B Bennett [right-wing prime minister of Canada, 1930 - 1935] of the 1990s.)

Similarly, despite the expansion in this edition of interview material from ex-servicemen, there is still nothing in Canada which examines the World War Two era in anything like the scope of Alan Bérubé's magnificent Coming Out Under Fire in the US.

Sexuality, history, and power

Adding sexuality to the historical record in Canada is clearly an on-going project. But equally challenging is the task of sexuality and gender politics with what passes for "the political" in Canadian history.

Here Kinsman's work is also important, for he has a well- developed sense of the relationship between sexuality, history, and power. This is not, in other words, "just" a book about sexual experiences and identities, but one which probes the relationship between these issues and immigration law, psychiatry, crime, the economic system -- to name a few.

Regardless of whether one embraces Kinsman's formulation of these relationships, this is a book which insists that the history of sexuality matters not only because it's interesting and understudied, but also because it forms a crucial component of how power was exercised in the Canadian past.

Kinsman's book remains the only comprehensive survey of sexuality in Canada, and on that score this edition remains a must- read -- an encyclopedia, of sorts, in which the parts are as important as the whole. The addition of an index will make this edition that much more useful as a research tool.

His political framework remains similar to that in the first edition. He is committed to a politics of "radical pluralist socialist feminist anti- racism" -- making this reader wish for (a) an editor, and (b) a brand name for this perspective as pithy as "Marxism" was in the old days.

Wrestling with thorny questions

The last three chapters offer Kinsman's perspectives on contemporary sexual politics and debates writ large: a mix of new and old material in which readers will find much to wrestle with.

He has (bravely, in my view) taken on a number of thorny questions here, such as the "ethnic group" model of gay identity, the politics of outing, the class dynamics of the gay community, and the limitations of purely "libertarian" as well as assimilationist approached to liberation.

His alternative is best and most simply expressed as a world which "expands the possibilities of choice and consent in people's erotic lives and ensure(s) that these words have a real social meaning" (p. 397).

We haven't been there in the past, and we aren't there now. Perhaps, if there is to be a third edition ten years hence, we will be that much closer.


[List of online documents] [What we demanded; What we got]

[TBP / PTP Inventory: Published sources]


[Books] [Related documents]