Some notes on reading

Sabine Frühstuck, Colonizing Sex


Philip Jenkins


I included this book partly because I wanted to include something about the history of Japan, but chiefly because it uses Japan to present themes that are true much more widely, including in Europe and North America.  Most significant, Frühstuck suggests how sexuality, sexual identity and sexual practices, are socially and culturally conditioned, and change (often radically) under the impact of modernity. No matter how “natural” and universal sexuality appears, it often is not: nor are gender roles. The book also brings out themes such as the power of academic “experts” in shaping, rather than merely observing, views of sexuality and sexual expression. Also, these changing views are often conditioned by the needs of government and established social and political interests.


So, some questions to think about as you read:


The history of sexuality has been a major innovation of the past forty years or so. Why has I proved such a major topic? What are the advantages of studying this area? What can we learn that we cannot find out elsewhere, and how does it illuminate our views of other subjects?


What are the special problems in researching the history of sexuality? How, if at all, can they be overcome? How can we make the leap from what experts wrote about sex to what people were actually doing or thinking? What kinds of sources and resources are available for studying the history of sexuality?


What is Frühstuck’s basic argument? Does she present it cogently?


BTW, you can read about her and her career at


How far does she supply the political and social background you need to follow her arguments?


What was it about this book that made it appeal to an excellent academic press like California? Does she deal with hot topics? Or is the book an unusual or distinctive work of scholarship?


A question I have asked before: give me a couple of examples of individuals, events or stories that really struck you, that really reinforced the point she was trying to make. Which of the documents quoted had a particular impact on you?  Give me also a couple of examples that do NOT work for her story, where you think she might be working too hard to make her point?


Tell me how the various experts change and redefine language in order to reshape policy: language speaks us.


How far is she building on ideas or literature formed to analyze Europe or North America? How far do these ideas work in the context of Japan?


In what sense is sexuality invented?


She is basically writing about the “drawing of lines” by modern societies – in intellectual terms, exactly the same process we have witnessed when people define borders on maps, creating entities that were not there before.


I repeat a point I made previously when discussing the BIOGRAPHY OF NO PLACE, and it applies doubly here: Several themes emerge forcefully as the markers or tools of modernity, things that would have startled members of older communities. Drawing lines is one. Others include the power of documents to declare and create realities (to name is to create). Note the power of bureaucratic documents, of charts, tables and classifications, in imposing a reality that might have next to nothing to do with conditions as they exist on the ground. Progress must be measured and quantified – very strange ideas for the pre-modern world. The book also helps us understand what modern governments like and dislike. They hate mess and ambiguity, nuance and complexity; they like straight lines and controllable space. They like simple names you can put on a form and count. Is one aspect of modernity the ability to lie with statistics? Note the problems through governments have with mixed or multiple identities, so that people are reluctant to commit themselves to any one identity. As time goes by, it seems incredible that any community can fail to have drawn these lines


The title is COLONIZING SEX – but what does this mean? Is she arguing that to the cultural transformations she is describing are spreading to a non-Euro-American society? Was the West colonizing Japan? Or what? Actually, this is one point about the book that even favorable reviewers took her to task for. Reviewer Gary P. Leupp raises the interesting point,

At this point, one wants to ask who was doing the colonizing? What Frühstück has so far described is a complex interaction of discourses involving doctors, politicians, sexologists, journalists, military men. They express widely varying views on all topics discussed and hold differing views about foreign colonization; it is not clear to me that the masses' views and behavior pertaining to sex were effectively controlled by official pronouncements or predominant academic opinion.

What do you think of this critique?


How far do the changes described by Frühstuck originate in military or imperialist interests? Do you believe we would find a similar pattern if we looked at sexology in Europe or North America?


How is virility associated with images of warfare? Again, what analogies occur in Western culture?


How are statistics and (pseudo-)sociology used to observe and define normal sexual behavior?


How important was it for this story that for most of the pre-1945 period, Japan was an aggressive imperial power ruling many “lesser” subject races? Why did imperialism matter?


I find it surprising that Frühstuck does not say a great deal more about the exploitation of colonial peoples, eg Koreans and Chinese: witness the “comfort women” scandals, not to mention the rapes and forced prostitution of Euro-American women in World War II. Why is she so relatively silent on these issues? (Don’t get me wrong, she does mention it, eg p.38, but others would put a lot more stress on these things). How do these gaps affect her book?


Japanese doctors and scientists under the militarist regime were notorious for their willingness to treat human subjects with appalling cruelty, performing vivisections, brutal experiments, etc, always on “lesser races”. What does this suggest about the nature of the profession or its attitudes? Would a discussion of these events illuminate Frühstuck’s accounts?


How and why do concepts of woman’s role change in twentieth century Japan? What impact does the changing social power of women have on the definition of “normal” and acceptable sexuality?


How and why do concepts of man’s role change in twentieth century Japan? How do concepts of masculinity change? In whose interests?


What do we learn from the book about changing attitudes towards childhood?


How and why does masturbation play such a role in this story?


How and why do sexual activities come to be labeled as harmful and/or dangerous?


How is abortion debated? How different would the situation be in a Western society at this same period?


As we have seen in the course, one of the most important developments in modern society is the sharp decline in birth rates in the global North, and Japan is Exhibit A for the prospect of catastrophic decline. What impact do the debates in this book have on this process? How do pro- and anti-natalists make their case, and what impact did that have on ordinary people’s conduct? What does this tell us about the real impact of “experts” and technocrats?


Discussions of “normal” behavior, especially in sexual or psychological terms, always implies the definition of the abnormal or deviant. How are deviants identified and labeled during the processes described by Frühstuck? How do you think these processes worked similarly in North America or Europe? Who are the “sexual demons” of successive generations of Western thought?


What do we learn from the book about cultural attitudes towards pornography? Personally I think this is a significant absence in the book, sicne Japan has such an amazing attitude to pornographic literature of the most outrageous kind., We’ll talk more about this in class. Also about celebrated “perverts” (!) like Yukio Mishima ( ). How could she possibly omit him?


Frühstuck stresses the analogy between the organic body of the state and the invididual body, and the need for both to be healthy. How far was this a Japanese and “Asiatic” idea? Do we find the same idea in Western societies? How is it expressed?


Reviewer Karen Kelsky summarizes Frühstuck’s approach thus:

She starts with the basic anthropological notion that such things as sexual identity, sexual desire, sexual orientation, and sexual practices are not natural and universal biological functions shared by all people, but rather are created and controlled through discourse, or modes of understanding and knowledge that are always under construction by various interested parties, and are thus historically contingent and culturally distinct. She further relies on the work of Michel Foucault that has shown us that sexual discourses (like all discourses) are always imbued by power

What do you think of these assumptions?


How would you criticize the book? Do you think she places too much emphasis on ideas of cultural construction rather than “natural” tendencies?


She describes how Western ideas were imported into Japan; but surely experts did not have a blank slate on which to write? How far were they constrained by older cultural attitudes?


Should terms like “prostitution” be discussed and analyzed more carefully? What are the variations in this term? Does she use it too loosely? How do official definitions vary from popular usages? Dumb question: what is a prostitute anyway? (Karl Marx had interesting opinions on that…)


What impact did Japan’s relationship with the US after 1945 have on the ideas presented here?


What about religious attitudes to sexuality? How did these mesh with the new “scientific” insights? What difference did it make in the West that religious organizations usually provided stauncher opposition to many of the developments in “sexual hygiene” of the kind outlined here?


Frühstuck speaks of “heteronormality” as something assumed, implying that it is artificial. This would obviously be used as an argument for much wider broader attitudes to sexual normality and difference. Is her argument convincing?


What role does sexual disease play in shaping social and cultural attitudes? How far can we trace a similar pattern in Western societies? Tell me about the loaded meanings of terms like “health”, hygiene”, “cleanliness”? Tell me about the implications of their opposites, of sickness, disease and dirt. What are the political implications of these terms? How are medical analogies used in political debate? Remember what we learned when looking at BIOGRAPHY OF NO PLACE, etc, about the definition of primitive societies.


Eugenics played a critical role in most advanced societies during the first half of the twentieth century, though it has subsequently been all but driven underground in many countries. Why were eugenic theories so important and what impact did they have? How far can we trace a similar story in the United States, or other Western countries? How far were the patterns described by Frühstuck the product of a militaristic and authoritarian society, and how similar were patterns in the democratic West? How do ideas like “degeneration” feature in this story?


How does reading Frühstuck make you think differently about the development of sexuality in the West? What would you expect in comparable Western histories?


How have “experts” affected and shaped the sexual attitudes of modern Western societies, including in the past decade or two? Have sexual attitudes shifted during very recent years? How? What examples might you think of?


In the West, child abuse has since the 1970s been seen as one of the most pressing social dangers, with the abuser or molester as a dreaded nightmare figure. Based on what we read about the history of sexology, specifically as applied to children, how can we go about studying this (new) burning concern?


I have an unusual assignment for you in this book: read the footnotes in detail. They are very detailed and include many valuable examples. Why did she decide to arrange her material this way? What does she lose by this approach? How different would the book be if she had incorporated the stuff into the text. Give me some examples – several examples! – where the material is in the footnotes is actually better and more illustrative than what is in the text. As an author, why did she do this? What should we learn from this example about how (not) to use footnotes?


What other criticism would you have of Frühstuck’s work? What other questions might you ask of her material? What other interpretations might you offer?