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Book Review: Desire by Anna Clark

Desire by Anna Clark

Desire by Anna Clark, reviewed by Emily Brand.

If you were granted four wishes, what would you choose? One medieval comic tale tells of a frustrated peasant woman who immediately elects that her husband be endowed with extra genitals, all over his body. He retaliates by.....

.... wishing the same upon his wife, perhaps hoping to finally satiate their excessive lust. However, unable to negotiate the surfeit of body parts, they use their final wishes to return to normalcy. At the same time that this story amused the masses, the Church venerated the martyrdom of the 13 year-old Agnes, who in the years of fledgling Christianity chose to be beheaded rather than suffer the death of her chastity.

Throughout history, the European imagination has been simultaneously captivated and troubled by sexual desire. In times of moral stringency, the cautionary literature and regulatory institutions themselves gave the public titillating glimpses of forbidden pleasures. Tapping into this undying curiosity about sexuality, the latest book from North American historian Anna Clark takes these ambiguous attitudes towards sexual desire as its starting point. No stranger to the naughtier side of history, her previous works - including surveys of medieval sexual politics and eighteenth-century lesbianism – reflect the recent wider historical interest in sexual matters. Desire: A History of European Sexuality takes an ambitious step and offers a sweeping review of over two and a half thousand years of sexual beliefs, practices and passions – and at little more than 200 pages (plus a remarkable mass of footnotes), it is a wonder she achieves her feat so effectively.

In twelve short chapters, Clark illustrates the competing concepts of desire as a creative or a corrupting force, and explores shifting responses to one all-important question – does indulging desire represent a road to ruin or revelation? Organising her material in a loosely chronological order, the journey takes the reader from the ancient Greek marital bed to same-sex desire in medieval Italy, the sexual regulations of Nazism and beyond.

Giving a colorful impression of the changing values of society, Clark skillfully charts how the influence of religion, advancing medical knowledge and the explosion of print culture impacted upon the world of sex. Yet, it also becomes clear that certain ‘twilight moments’ and ‘moral panics’ persist and resurface under different guises according to prevailing social values. Thus, worries about the effeminacy of young men are reflected in Ancient Rome and Georgian England, and the persecution of prostitution oftentimes correlates with stronger romantic notions about love and marriage.
The understanding of sex (in moderation, of course) as a means of preserving female health not only rendered it essential for the medieval widow but also for the ‘hysterics’ of the 1950s housewife.

Drawing from a rich fund of primary sources - as well as an impressive array of secondary material - Desire is a highly engaging read and manages to entertain without forgoing more theoretical scholarly evaluation. Clark’s arguments are brought to life with personal experiences including that of a Victorian homosexual with an unfortunate proclivity for propositioning policemen, and a disenchanted newly-wed doctor who meets her husband’s sexual efforts with the put-down “Peter, I find this a bore.”

Encompassing such an ambitious breadth of cultural traditions and belief systems, it is inevitable that the text tends to only flirt with topics that deserve more in-depth exploration, and in places feels more like a collection of essays than a book. However, these limitations are allayed by the fact that Clark offers comprehensive ‘suggested reading’ lists at the end of each chapter, and persistently refocuses her ideas around the oftentimes contradictory ideals of sexual behavior.

The subject matter of Desire is likely to inspire wide interest, and indeed it is written in an accessible style that will appeal to both students and anyone with an enthusiasm for history and exploring cultural difference. While giving a useful account of how ideas about reproduction and pleasure were disentangled, Clark succeeds in her promise of offering glimpses of sexuality without treating its history as one of progression and liberation. Desire presents a valuable introduction to the topic, calling attention to the importance of conceiving of sexual beliefs on their own cultural terms as well as offering a critique of methods of researching a past that has oftentimes been veiled in secrecy.

Emily Brand is a writer and social historian, with a special interest in the history of women and sexuality in the long eighteenth century. She also blogs about satire and caricatures of the Georgian era at

Related Products

  1. Desire

    A History of European Sexuality

    By Anna Clark

    ‘… the rich range of historical information that Clark weaves into her chapters... makes this ambitious overview of sex in Europe a highly accessible and successful endeavour.’ – Times Higher Education Supplement 'Provides a valuable overview of the history of sexuality in Europe since classical...

    Published June 30th 2008 by Routledge