The BOOKPRESS February, 1996

The Traffic In Men


Jody Greene

Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the Conquest of the Americas
by Richard Trexler
Cornell University Press, 292 pages, $29.95

In his introduction to The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault presented what we might call the Two Commandments of the study of sexuality: 1. Thou shalt distinguish between sexual acts and sexual identities, and 2. Thou shalt not attempt to uncouple sex and power.

Through the first of these injunctions, Foucault meant to make us aware that twentieth-century Europeans and Americans think of sexual acts as markers not only of what we do, but also, in the most fundamental sense, of who we are. To take only the most obvious example, consider the relation in contemporary U.S. culture between same-sex sexual acts and the designation of homosexual (or occasionally bisexual) "identity," "orientation," or, most tellingly, "preference."

The vocabulary itself says much about how we organize sexuality: in a language steeped in voluntarism and individualism, we understand ourselves to have something called a sexual identity, we believe that that identity is or ought to be stable across the span of a lifetime, and we "choose" that identity (often, admittedly, by default) on the basis of the "preferred" gender of our sexual partners. One of the primary goals of Foucault's History is to remind us that sexuality has not always been arranged this way (and indeed may not always be so now). In earlier ages and in other cultures, same-sex sexual acts might tell us less about the gender-orientation of the participants than about their status, age, or relative rank--that is, about the relations of power between them.

We have a tendency, Foucault points out, to think of sexuality in transcendent terms, as a place of mutuality and equality (think, for instance, of the telling phrase, "sexual partner"). Many of us believethat sex at its best represents an escape from repression, oppression, inequality, alienation, convention--in short, from power. Foucault refuses this rosy vision of liberation-through-fornication, the promise of which he calls the "repressive hypothesis," by reminding us that sex is in fact "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power." Both between (or among) the practitioners of a given sex act, and from seemingly external sources, power exerts itself in manifold ways: inequalities of age, gender, status, physical beauty, physical strength, and experience (to name only a few) may determine relative balances or imbalances of power between practitioners, while medical, legal, educational, and religious institutions (again, the list could go on) exert power from "outside." We imagine at our peril, Foucault chillingly concludes, that "by saying yes to sex, we say no to power."

What would it mean for a scholar of sexuality faithfully to follow Foucault's twin commandments--to try to write a history which trained its eye relentlessly on acts and sought to bear witness to the relations of power impelling and pervading those acts? It would mean, for anyone writing about same-sex sexuality, refusing to romanticize the liberatory possibilities of "homosexual" relations, as well as forgoing the undeniable pleasures of searching for lesbian and gay ancestors "hidden from history." It would mean, ultimately, writing the kind of book Richard Trexler has written in Sex and Conquest --a stark, sometimes gruesome, always fascinating account of the history of male-male sexual violence since antiquity, which attempts, according to the author, to take seriously Foucault's "fundamental understanding of [the] relationship between sexuality and violence."

While ostensibly dealing with the "gendered essence of conquest" (150), especially the Iberian conquest of America, Trexler's book actually presents a much more extensive and comprehensive history of political ends attained through often violent sexual means. Trexler offers us a thorough introduction to the "relation between force and sex" (7), the use of penetration by men of a variety of cultures and eras for the purposes of humiliation, domination, and the cultivation of dependent cadres of male supporters. In Sex and Conquest , Trexler explicitly acknowledges his own attempt to take up Foucault's challenge, claiming that he wants to present a "study of eros and power" which is not, like so much recent work in the history of sexuality, "uncomfortable with questions of power" (5).

Early on, Trexler describes the three primary aims of his book: first, using primarily sixteenth-century Iberian (and some Mestizo) sources, he intends to offer, a history and analysis of indigenous South and Central American "homosexual practices and the male transvestism often associated with them" (2) in the period of the first European-American contact; second, he wants to explore the "relations between conquest and eros" (3) as they were played out in the Americas; and finally, he will offer some account of the Iberian assessment of indigenous sodomy and its relation to cultural development. While Trexler ultimately achieves all three of his aims, and does so with remarkable erudition, it is the second of these--the relation between conquest and eros, desire and power, which produces the book's most interesting and problematic insights.

In order to introduce readers to the links between sexual violence and state building, Trexler begins his account with an overview of ancient Mediterranean and European cultures. From the Greek city-states to Moorish Iberia, Trexler offers examples of the ways in which men (and women, although Trexler, as we shall see, is virtually silent on this subject) were punished and subdued, in war and peace, through violent sexual means. From here, Trexler turns to a summary of Native American sexual practices as the Iberians encountered them at the start of the conquest. Trexler discusses Aztec and Inca sexual practices and customs, and the uses of sexual violence and domination in these indigenous cultures first on the battlefield, then in the temples, and finally in the great Meso-American cities themselves. Tackling head-on enduring myths about the prevalence of sodomy in the New World, Trexler tries to make sense of the Iberian sources which provide our only knowledge of pre-conquest sexual practices and gender organization. It is a testament to his abilities as a researcher that he gives us almost as much documentary material as he does text. He demonstrates a healthy skepticism about the material contained within those documents, yet still mines them for a wealth of material.

Trexler devotes much of his book to the institution of the "berdache," which he believes can be found in some form in virtually all indigenous American cultures. Usually from an early age, the berdache dressed and lived as a woman, and publicly took the sexual passive role of serving one men in her town or village. Trexler examines the social, cultural, sexual, and religious functions of the berdache, and attempts to reconstruct indigenous attitudes and Iberian assessments of this fascinating figure. Deftly sidestepping issues of innate or voluntary "homosexual identity," Trexler uses the institution of the berdache to investigate same-sex sexuality as a question of power rather than of desire or pleasure. Put another way, Trexler forces us to see the berdache as a figure on whom the desire for power, rather than the desire for pleasure, was exercised. On the body of the berdache, the building of states was effected.

Trexler proceeds from the premise that what happens on the battlefield ultimately manifests itself in the rest of the social world, that "warfare [is] the incubator of civil institutions" (141). Thus, in cultures and eras as various as Ancient Sparta, North Africa in the period of the Crusades, Renaissance Spain, and preconquest Mexico and Peru, Trexler looks at the treatment of military captives and vanquished enemies as a way of discovering how sexual violence was used to subdue and even administer enemy states. According to Trexler, sexual violence moved from a form of battlefield humiliation to a broader mode of social control--perhaps the originary form of social control. Thus, Greek warriors raped both female and male Persian prisoners of war before castrating and/or killing them, in order to mark the victory and warn future adversaries of what was in store for them should they take on the Greeks unsuccessfully. In a structurally similar--if less obviously violent--move, powerful Greek citizens bequeathed younger male companions to service their sons sexually, thereby establishing that these sons were destined to lead and, if necessary, dominate other men. Regardless of the gender of the individual being penetrated, and regardless of his status as warrior or citizen, the masculinity of the insertive or "active" partner was not in question, as it might be, in certain contexts, today. To penetrate was by definition to be a man, no matter who was being penetrated. In the contexts Trexler describes, there were no homosexuals, "only tops and bottoms" (176).

As its subtitle suggests, Sex and Conquest tests "gendered violence" as inseparable from sexual violence. By gendered violence, however, Trexler emphatically does not refer to violence against women. He deals, instead, with the manifold ways in which the domination of men by other men, enacted through sexual means, genders the subordinate men as female. By being forcibly penetrated men are rendered not only "passive" but also, and more importantly, "effeminate." Trexler argues--and his thesis is bound to be a controversial one--that the humiliation done to male victims of sexual violence is more than the mere fact of being penetrated, "abused," by another man: the true violence, Trexler claims, in a "world of penetrative penality" (7), is to be made ipso facto into a woman through being penetrated by a man. Citing Pizarro's account of the Peruvian berdache, Trexler notes that the conquistador ''come[s] close to identifying less sodomy than the assumption of the woman's sexual and work roles as the 'abominable sin'" (170). Whether they considered their male enemies already to be women or they proceeded, through violent sexual means, to make them so, it was, in part, on the basis of such "abominations," that the Spaniards justified their conquest. Trexler concludes that Europeans from antiquity to the conquest of the so-called New World "imagined conquest in gender terms" (175).

Trexler's sweeping analysis often blurs the distinctions among very different cultures, conquests, and eras. From the Iberian material, the author leaps to such contemporary sites of sexual violence as the Balkans and the American barrio , where he sees male power continuing to be exerted and displayed through ostentatious acts of (frequently same-sex) penetration. From prison violence to the attacks on illegal immigrants perpetrated by U.S. border guards, men continue the patterns Trexler has traced from the ancient world, whereby they ''ma[k]e politics," as they have always made war, "by sexual force" (178). While he is careful to provide a wealth of documentary material about each of the cultural sites under review, Trexler consistently reduces an extraordinary variety of materials about male-male sexual relations to a single paradigm which might be summed up by the question, "who's on top?" This paradigm is also a gendered one, since whoever is on top is the one who acquires all of the privileges of cultural masculinity. While this structure occasionally leads Trexler to perform somewhat vertiginous leaps among cultures and time periods, stretching the definition of comparative historiography and anthropology to its limits, such acrobatics do allow the author to offer the sort of overview many historians of sexuality instinctively shy away from. The result is a remarkable, if vexing, book, which I found alternately impossible to put down and extremely hard to read. The book's boldest claim comes in two brief discussions of existing work on sexual violence against women and its relation to state-building. Scholars such as Gerda Lerner and Gayle Rubin (the latter of whom, oddly, Trexler does not cite) have argued that the foundation of both patriarchy and the state can be located in the "historical subordination of women," in the historical workings of "property" (6). Men accrue power through the accumulation and/or exchange of women in general, and female slaves in particular. Women represent property both in themselves and, in later stages, carry property with them as they are passed among men. While Trexler does not deny the foundational relation between property and state-building, he locates the originary moment of the state elsewhere, in male-male sexual relations. Immediately following a discussion of the Cretan practice of allowing boys both to serve as and then to take (literally, abduct and rape) male "wives" before they had reached the appropriate age for heterosexual marriage, Trexler writes:

It has long been a truism that the family is the foundation of the state, but, in fact . . . those relations between males that begin in gangs and continue in these first homosexual marriages already provide a foundation of the state--that is, that set of relations between males that peaks in the power of the male sovereign. Only once power relations between men are established in these first homosexual marriages is property addressed in a later heterosexual marriage. (30)

The Cretan abductions, then, are far from an isolated aberration: they are, in fact, "emblematic of state-building" (30). In passages such as these, Trexler threatens to undo our most basic notions of the relations between gender, power, and political life, supplanting the concept of a ''traffic in women" (to use Rubin's term) which cements social bonds among the powerful, only to replace it with a similar, but even more primary, traffic in men.

As persuasive as I found Trexler's novel analysis of the relation between male violence and state building, the ease with which he attempts to displace (or, perhaps, preempt) existing feminist work on "the family," patriarchy, and the state left me uneasy. If I understand Trexler correctly, he is arguing from a somewhat problematic analogy between the life of the individual and the life of the state: just as "homosexual marriages" preceded heterosexual ones in selected ancient cultures, the power relations between men cemented by these homosexual relations "already provide a foundation of the state" which precedes the relations secured through the exchange of female property. Not content merely to supplement in crucial ways existing work on state-building, Trexler seems to want to "top" the "truism[s]" of his feminist colleagues by claiming that his theory gives a more "originary" account of the genesis of the state form.

Considering the revolutionary aims of this argument, it is surprising to find how very little space in Sex and Conquest Trexler devotes to the issue of sexual violence against women. Having begun the book expecting to see sexual violence against men-gendered-women compared to the broader category of the subordination of women, I found myself frustrated by the failure of this book on "gendered violence" to treat on more than just a few isolated occasions the issue of violence against actual women. If conquest is indeed "in part about the gender of the competitors" (150), surely this account of the European conquest of the Americas requires a more comprehensive notion of "gender" than merely that of "effeminacy." Without such a treatment, the book lacks the ability to fully address the relation between violence, gender, and "political order" promised in the title. In particular, the omission of a more sustained analysis of the treatment of women seriously weakens Trexler's attempt to rewrite the history of state-building as a traffic in men.

Another omission is no less surprising: notwithstanding the placement of the book in the era of the "European conquest of America," Trexler fails even to address the question of either sexual violence or "gendered violence" committed by Europeans on Native Americans. Once again, a topic which one might assume would take up a substantial portion of the book was almost entirely missing. Aside from a few references to the picota , the phallic emblem of European presence erected outside conquered indigenous villages, Trexler fails to provide much information about how the Europeans went about re-gendering the newly subject populations. Considering the book's otherwise graphic depictions of the rape and sexual assault which had characterized both Iberian and indigenous American warfare before the conquest, it is hard to believe that such acts were absent from the conquest itself, and yet they appear nowhere in the book.

As I began reading this book, I wondered whether a history of forced sexual acts--and particularly of anal rape--could truly be defined as an integral part of the history of sexuality. I came away thinking that it not only can be a part of that history, but that it must. But although I learnt much from Trexler's work, I came away with the distinct sensation that I had read only part of the story, that the book, impressive though its scholarship may be, lacks conceptual components crucial to the formulation of its own argument. Until we study the traffic in men alongside the traffic in women and children, we have not really begun to explore the "relationship between sexuality and violence," or to understand how that relationship fits into a broader history of sexuality, state formation, and social control--a history through which we are still living.

Jody Greene is a Graduate student in English at Cornell University.



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