Cleves. Living Beyond Sexual Morality.


Rachel Hope Cleves
María Lee

Rachel Hope Cleves is a Professor at the University of Victoria. Her work focuses on American history, particularly through a gender and sexuality lens. Her book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America was also a finalist for the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize. Her latest work Unspeakable: A Life beyond Sexual Morality won the 2021 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize and is the subject of a roundatable in JCHA/RSHC 32 no. 2.

How did you come to this project about Norman Douglas?

This project originated in the archives, like most of my books and articles have. In 2014, I went on a family vacation to Capri and during the trip I decided to read one of the most famous novels set on the island, Norman Douglas’s 1917 South Wind. The novel satirizes the sexually transgressive cosmopolitan elite who lived in Capri at the turn of the twentieth century. Reading South Wind made me curious about the historical figures who inspired the novel, so I tracked down Douglas’s 1933 memoir Looking Back. The memoir is a minor modernist masterpiece, but it is also shockingly forthright about Douglas’s sexual relationships with youth, both female and male. Looking Back made me question how attitudes towards intergenerational sex in the early twentieth century differed from present attitudes; a famous author could publish a memoir in the 1930s about having sexual encounters with children and was still widely admired, something of course unimaginable today. I followed that question to the New York Public Library, where many of Douglas’s manuscripts are archived. There I discovered his travel diaries, which included explicit descriptions of his encounters with youths. Although I hadn’t been planning on writing a book about Douglas (my plans were to integrate him briefly into a different book project), as a historian of sexuality I felt an immediate responsibility to bring Douglas’s diaries to light. They offered a rare window onto the widespread practice of sex between men and children or youth in the first half of the twentieth century. A lot of work on the history of pederasty has drawn from legal records or from cultural texts like poetry, art, and pornography. Douglas’s travel diaries offered a highly unusual social historical dimension to the conversation. I knew a book seeking to understand this world would alienate a lot of readers, but to not shine a light on what I had discovered would, I thought, make me complicit in covering up the history of intergenerational sex. As a tenured professor, I was willing to take the risk of writing on a topic that I was fairly certain would generate significant backlash.

You worked with a number of sources such as diaries, letters and police records for this project, including some produced by the children Douglas encountered. What were the biggest challenges you encountered in studying children’s and youth’s perspectives on such a fraught and difficult subject?

The key challenge I faced was how to interpret the letters and diaries by Douglas’s boys that expressed love and affection for him. The book would have been far more palatable if I didn’t have those sources. If I had been left only with silences, I would have been able to fill the silences with assumptions based on our present trauma model of child abuse. But the evidence didn’t support the claim that the children saw their relations with Douglas as traumatic. That raised a new question: were the children suffering from false consciousness? Should I interpret their affection for Douglas, which often extended throughout their adult lives, as akin to Stockholm Syndrome? To make that argument would put me in conflict with one of the major tenets of the history of childhood: that we ought to take seriously the words and actions of children. I didn’t want to erase the agency of these historical children by overwriting their own words with my modern adult assumptions. On the other hand, judging from the evidence it was clear to me that Douglas’s sexual encounters with children were exploitative and harmful. I didn’t want to let him off the hook as a moral actor by uncritically accepting the children’s declarations of affection. I had to analyze the sources in light of their material context. Douglas represented a source of material opportunity for poor children and youth, and they often had instrumental reasons for expressing affection for him. Material interests, however, could not explain away all of the evident affection the children held for Douglas. I had to acknowledge that many experienced their relationships with him as beneficial, even if I didn’t see it that way. To handle these complexities, I introduced multiple lines of analysis in the reflection sections at the end of each of the book’s four parts. I raised the possibility that childhood experiences of intergenerational sex might differ over time and place depending on historical contexts including material circumstances and dominant ideologies, while also giving evidence of the very real damage that Douglas caused to the people around him.

How did you approach the need to historicize the subject of your scholarship against contemporary understandings of child abuse?

As a historian of sexuality, I remain committed to the axiom that the meaning of sex and sexual practices change over time and place. I am skeptical of any claims to a transhistorical sexual morality. Our contemporary understandings of child abuse, however, treat sexual encounters between adults and children as a universal wrong. Our taboo conflicts with a historicist understanding of intergenerational sex as having shifting historical meanings. For this book, I had to ask the question of whether it was possible that before the rise of the contemporary taboo on pedophilia in the 1950s, sexual encounters with adults held different meanings for children and youth. Just by asking this question I know that I alienate many historians of childhood who tend to feel protective of their subjects. On the other hand, at talks I’ve given about Douglas I have been approached many times by adults who were sexually abused as children who have told me that the contemporary trauma model feels reductive or restrictive to them. They express appreciation for my attention to children’s agency in Unspeakable.

Where is your research headed now?

I am finally back at work on the project I had started before Norman Douglas dragooned me: a history of the connections between good food and illicit sex in the Anglo imagination between the late eighteenth century and the present day. Initially, I thought Douglas might take up a page or two of this project, since he was a well-known epicure who often linked food and sex in his writings. His final, posthumous, book was a tongue-in-cheek collection of aphrodisiac recipes titled Venus in the Kitchen (1952). As I mentioned above, my discoveries in the archives made me feel ethically compelled to write a book about Douglas, even though I knew it would be unwelcome. Now that Douglas is behind me, I’ve returned to the far more appetizing task of tracing how the connections between food and sex have changed over time. Look for a new book from me, to be published by Polity, a few years down the line.

Have you read anything good recently?

I’m always reading good things! I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar in U.S. history this semester, organized around the theme of recent books that have won multiple awards. What a joy! We’ve read Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (2018); Douglas Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (2019); Sophie White, Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor and Longing in French Louisiana (2019); Jonathan Gienapp, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (2018); Joanne Freeman, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018); Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (2018); Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (2018); Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (2022); Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (2018); and Gary Gerstle The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era (2022). Is that too many books to recommend?