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Sexual explorer

Angus McLaren spent a career discovering what 
people thought about sex through the ages

BY ANNE MULLENS | FEB 09 2009

As one of the world’s foremost experts in the history of sexuality, Angus McLaren knows his field of study seems salacious and titillating. In fact, for years at the University of Victoria, his popular upper-level seminar always drew some students who were simply seeking out the racy and sensational.

“We’d be talking about courtship, marriage, reproduction, birth control – all these sorts of things – and they’d be wondering ‘When do we get to the good stuff?’” laughs Dr. McLaren. “I am sure I disappointed them.”

That’s because, says Dr. McLaren, in some ways he’s had a “prudish” notion of sexuality. “I think what most people think about when they think about sex and sexuality, it is history of passion and desire. But I am more attracted to the way in which the practicalities of our lives impinge upon these desires,” he says.

In his 30 years of academia, Dr. McLaren – at 65, a newly retired professor of history at the University of Victoria – has nevertheless produced some pretty good stuff, particularly in his 10 well-received books. They cover the history of eugenics in Canada, contraception through the centuries, a history of sexual blackmail in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even a portrait of a Victorian serial killer. His most recent book is Impotence: A Cultural History (University of Chicago, 2007), on the ever-present anxiety throughout history about the causes and cures of flagging male sexual performance.

It is no surprise that some of his books have been translated into seven languages and acclaimed for their ability to bridge academia and general interest. Of course – it’s all about sex.

Yet the witty, self-deprecating Dr. McLaren appears reluctant to exploit the tantalizing hooks that naturally arise from immersing himself in historical texts and obscure references about anything and everything to do with the urge to merge.

But every so often, he confesses, after a day of research he will tell his wife or colleagues “you will never believe this” and relay some fascinating or bizarre detail about a past sexual practice, ritual or belief he’s discovered. Like the time, while researching his book on impotence, he learned that one of the folk cures in early modern Europe was for a man to urinate through the wife’s wedding ring or, in a more public variation, through a church keyhole.

“I am always fascinated with the question, why? Why should that custom arise? What function did that form of sympathetic magic serve in society? Why was it believed?” And many times, the questions cannot be answered or understood by us in the modern day without the context of the societal relationships and power structures of the earlier time. “I am always saying the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

For those who know Dr. McLaren’s huge body of work, the question why he was awarded this last spring the prestigious $50,000 Canada Council Molson Prize was easy to answer. The prize is given to two distinguished Canadians each year for their lifetime contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada. The award made him the first historian from Western Canada to be so recognized.

“Angus McLaren is an imaginative and prolific historian who has increased significantly our understanding of sexuality, gender and reproduction, and other related topics,” the Molson Jury said in awarding the prize.

Not bad for someone who more than 40 years ago “backed into history” simply because those were the courses where he got the highest marks. Growing up in a blue-collar family in Vancouver – his father had sold shoes and worked in a laundry – Dr. McLaren was the first from either side of the family to attend university, entering the University of British Columbia in 1961. When he decided to continue on with postgraduate work in history, winning a scholarship to Harvard for both his master’s and PhD, his parents were mystified. “For them, it meant I hadn’t done well enough and I was being forced to take more training,” he says with a laugh, as he sits in his Vancouver West Point Grey home, not far from UBC.

At Harvard, Dr. McLaren says he made the mistake of picking something “doable” for his PhD topic, rather than something that truly interested him – he examined the French political press in the 1830s. “It hadn’t been done and probably shouldn’t have been done, at least not by me.”

The time was the late 1960s, and Dr. McLaren found himself much more interested in social movements, culture and the mentalities underlying a culture. A pivotal moment came in his final year at Harvard when he worked as an assistant for professor Theodore Zeldin, visiting from Oxford, who was giving various lectures on the notions of ambition, greed, love and family in 19th-century France. He remembers his excitement, thinking, “You can do this? This is history? You can talk about reproduction and women’s rights? I would love to do this sort of thing.”

After being hired in 1975 as a French social historian at the University of Victoria, his path into history of sexuality developed through his interest in the social history of medicine. He was researching a seminar paper on phrenology, the 19th-century quack science of how to discern character and personality from the bumps on the head. Hugely popular even among people like Karl Marx, Queen Victoria and George Eliot, phrenology was proved to be fraudulent. But Dr. McLaren noticed that a number of people interested in phrenology were also interested in birth control, in part because both were part of a burgeoning self-help movement and articles and advertisements for both appeared in the same publications of the popular penny press. That discovery expanded into a huge new area of research that led to his first book, in 1978, Birth Control in 19thCentury England.

Most of the ideas for his books over the years have grown out of interesting offshoots he stumbles on while researching a previous topic, which he would file away for a later day. Hence studying birth control led to examining reproductive rituals; that led to eugenics; eugenics led to abortion; and the abortionists of the 19thcentury led to a focus on the serial killer Dr. Neill Cream, an abortionist who killed prostitutes and also blackmailed people. The Cream book led to a wider exploration of sexual blackmail in the 19th and 20thcenturies.

His book Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Harvard, 2002) was hailed by the U.K’s Independent as a “fascinating, humane, thought-provoking, history of social attitudes, human intimacy and sexual taboos… full of good stories and racy characters – rent boys, vamps, conmen, gold-diggers, soppy vicars, senescent lechers, pyjama parties, tabloid bullies and bossy prigs.”

Dr. McLaren used Victorian court transcripts and newspaper accounts in the U.K. and U.S. to tell stories of criminals trying to extort money from homosexual men or adulterous women. In it, Dr. McLaren notes that when morality is made the law’s business, it often becomes the criminal’s business as well. As such, with our current general societal tolerance and personal choice for homosexuality, abortion and extramarital affairs, sexual blackmail has largely disappeared.

“Criminals are interesting characters because they are innovators and entrepreneurs of a sort – they are looking around and seeing how they can take advantage of their current economic, cultural or societal situation,” he says. “So they are guides to the societal and sexual mores of a time. They will spot a weakness or an opportunity and exploit it.”

Over the years, while researching fertility, birth control and reproduction, he was always stumbling upon references to impotence, which led to his latest book, a wide-ranging survey of 25 centuries of beliefs and practices about the crisis in “manhood.” One U.K. reviewer noted that Impotence: A Cultural History is yet another fascinating read from Dr. McLaren, but “not the sort of book you give your father for his birthday.”

In studying what these days is called erectile dysfunction, or ED, Dr. McLaren draws on a huge diversity of sources, from Ovid and Catallus, medieval church records, ribald drinking songs to Freud, Kinsey and Masters and Johnson and more. The book shows how throughout history impotence has either been depicted as the greatest tragedy or the biggest joke. Concepts of virility, masculinity and sexual performance varied from antiquity to the modern day in the West. Every age had its own ideas about what it meant to be a man, and what caused and what cured male sexual dysfunction. It is all tied up with concepts of masculinity – and for that reason it is no surprise, says Dr. McLaren, that even today the Viagra pill is blue.

As Dr. McLaren writes in his 350-page opus, impotence has been believed to be caused by everything from a witch’s curse or an over-enthusiastic partner to excessive masturbation and Oedipal complexes. In the Victorian era it was increasingly blamed on the over-demanding, sexually excessive or unattractive women. Cures ranged over the centuries from the wearing of amulets or drinking concoctions of herbs and monkey gland extracts to, in Victorian times, “medical treatments” of cauterization, electric shock and injections into the penis or sticking various probes up the urethra.

“In the 19th century, cures for impotence often had a moralizing, very painful or punitive element – no wonder the man rarely came back for a second treatment,” said Dr. McLaren.

Over the 30 years of his academic life, Dr. McLaren commuted every week between his home in Vancouver and his position in Victoria. In the early 1980s, when his wife, Arlene McLaren, a sociologist, finished her PhD and was offered a position at Simon Fraser University, the couple had a young son. Since she was the child’s primary care-giver, it made sense that he be the one to commute three hours each way. During the academic year, he took the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria every Wednesday morning, coming home every Friday night.

And, in a remarkable academic friendship, he spent every Wednesday and Thursday night for more than 25 years in the basement guest room of his history department colleague Brian Dippie, a UVic professor of American history. No rent ever exchanged hands, just cases of good wine. The two lunched together every Thursday at the faculty club for 25 years, discussing their work. As such, Dr. Dippie has read in manuscript form every one of Dr. McLaren’s 10 books, but he is reluctant to choose a favourite – “I learned something from all of them and they are full of great stories,” said Dr. Dippie, who misses their lunches and camaraderie terribly now that Dr. McLaren has retired.

These days Dr. McLaren continues to research and follow interesting tangents he stumbles upon. He is now investigating how science-fiction writers like Aldous Huxley and others of the 1920s and ’30s imagined sexuality in the future. While Huxley’s visions of a future of test-tube babies are well-known, some writers of that era had truly bizarre notions. One popular writer of the 1930s, Olaff Stapleton, describes babies being thrown out of planes clinging to parachutes in a eugenic-like test of survival of the strongest newborn grip, Dr. McLaren recounts.

“Writers of science fiction tell us more about the anxieties of their time than they ever do about their visions of the future. It really is about the notions of men and women and their roles, and in the 1920s and ’30s the extreme changes they were going through at the time between the wars.”

Whether the research will result in another book, an article, or a series of linked articles, Dr. McLaren is not yet certain – he’s just beginning his process of exploration. Most books take at least two to three years for him to bring to fruition. But since he has no plans in his retirement to pick up golf or gardening but simply wants to continue to do what he loves – researching and writing topics in sexual history that strike his fancy – he is happy to see where this takes him. This type of sexual exploration he knows is sure to take him into some interesting territory, racy or not.

PUBLISHED BY
Anne Mullens
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