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About NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality



Gillian Frank, a managing editor of NOTCHES, is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion and a lecturer in the Program in American Studies at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Brown University in 2009. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990, and a coeditor, with Bethany Moreton and Heather White, of a forthcoming anthology tentatively entitled Devotions and Desires: Histories of Religion and Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century United States. He tweets from @1gillianfrank1

Describe your blog, its inspiration, editorial goals and intentions, and audiences. 

NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is a collaborative, international, and peer-reviewed blog established to encourage thinking expansively, accessibly, and publicly about the history of sexuality in the present and the past. Justin Bengry, Julia Laite, and Amy Murphy founded the blog in January 2014. Our goal is to act as a central hub for historians of sexuality and to open up capacious and engaged conversations that go beyond the boundaries of particular countries, time periods, and themes. Since launching, we have published over 200 pieces and received more than 350,000 views. We usually publish twice a week and have featured the work of senior and early-career scholars, postgrad students, activists. and independent scholars.

I manage NOTCHES with Justin Bengry, an absolutely brilliant historian of British sexuality. Our editorial board consists of ten editors and five assistant editors who are spread out over five countries. Adding to our transnational ethos is the fact that a number of our editors are immigrants working and living abroad. Our lived experiences of forging familial, cultural, economic, and linguistic ties across national borders inform our scholarship and overall outlook. Our editors include graduate students, assistant professors, and one full professor. Many hold visiting positions or part- time positions. It is a testament to the dire state of the academic job market and academic labor that folks who produce cutting-edge scholarship and help shape their subfields through NOTCHES have such a precarious status within the academy.

NOTCHES is affiliated with the Raphael Samuel History Centre and furthers its mission of making history accessible to the broadest public. Our authors frequently use debates over present-day sexual politics as an entry point to explain how current events have been shaped by struggles over sexuality in the past. We encourage our authors to write about their own research, to spotlight exciting primary sources, to share updates from conferences, to explore pedagogical issues, and to assess the state of the field. Our posts, which are fundamentally historical, aim to be accessible and imaginative in their approach to the history of sexuality.

To reach the widest possible audience, our editorial process is necessarily rigorous. We insist upon posts that are clearly written, jargon free, well researched, well argued, and contextualized. Each submission is internally reviewed by two of our editors, proofread and formatted by our assistant editors, and reread by one of our managing editors.

NOTCHES has an international audience comprising academics and broader publics. Most of our readers are based in the United States and the U.K., followed by Canada, Australia, Germany, India, and the Netherlands. Mainstream sites such as Slate and the Huffington Post have republished our work. The enthusiastic responses on these popular sites have confirmed a widespread enthusiasm for accessible scholarship on histories of sexuality.

Has the blog changed/developed since its launch in 2014? 

NOTCHES has developed substantially since its founding. At first, NOTCHES had a small cadre of writers and editors. We had to scramble from week to week to ensure we had content to publish. As our reputation and popularity increased, our influx of submissions grew from a trickle to a stream. There was a point in 2014 when Justin Bengry and I celebrated the fact that we had enough submissions in our docket to plan our publishing schedule more than two weeks in advance. We are currently scheduling pieces for the summer of 2016.

To keep up with the influx of content and to expand our geographic focus, we brought on editors with expertise in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. At the same time, we deepened our strengths in North American and European history by inviting editors specializing in these regions. In early 2015, we initiated an assistant editor program, which recognizes and mentors promising graduate students who have an interest in editing, digital humanities, and public history and who are conducting research on the history of sexuality. Our assistant editors do a lot of the valuable but invisible background labor including formatting and proofreading. The high quality of our posts is due to their diligence. Our first two assistant editors, Agnes Arnold-Forster and Devin McGeehan Muchmore, are now full editors and have been doing brilliant work developing the blog. Our current roster of assistant editors is also working on promising new initiatives that will push the blog in exciting new directions.

Our content has also evolved significantly. In the beginning we focused on producing short and topical posts. Over time we introduced themed series in order to foster conversations between historians working in different geographical and time periods. In 2015 we published a Food and Sexuality series edited by Rachel Hope Cleves, which extends in time and place from pre-Hispanic Mexico to colonial Massachusetts through turn-of-the-century Finland to mid-twentieth century Wisconsin. A second series edited by Agnes Arnold-Forster on Digital Humanities and Pedagogy considers the digital processes and interactions that shape pedagogical approaches to the history of sexuality. Her contributors suggested a different digital humanities method to teach difficult topics effectively. In the coming year we will publish themed series on religion and sexuality, sex education, venereal disease, and magic and sexuality.

We also introduced two other features to help our readers learn about new scholarship and ongoing conversations in the field: Author Interviews and Dispatches. At first we accepted book reviews to help our readers learn about recent publications. However we quickly discontinued this practice as we found that very few people read book reviews and that submissions tended to be formulaic. In its place we introduced Author Interviews, which are conversations with authors of recent books on the history of sexuality. These interviews probe the implications of research and invite authors to reflect upon the process of researching and writing history.

Based on our commitment to fostering global conversations about the history of sexuality, we invited our readers to write Dispatches, which are submissions that offer critical accounts of conferences, symposia, exhibitions, and workshops in the history of sexuality. These reports explain to nonspecialist and general audiences why these activities and events matter. We have found that these reports are a valuable service to the profession as many of us are able to attend only a limited number of events, if any, per year. Dispatches also widen the circle of who can learn from and participate in these conversations.

Together these features, in conjunction with standard blog posts, have paved the way for invigorating exchanges, have engendered participation from scholars who don’t typically write about sexuality, and have enabled a diverse and vibrant discussion about sexuality to unfold.

Have audience responses surprised you in any way?

We’ve been most surprised by the overwhelming response to our posts on medieval sexuality. Articles about “Bedsharing in Medieval Europe,” “Cunnilingus in the Middle Ages,” and “Sex and the Single Man in Late Medieval England,” have been read and shared tens of thousands of time within and outside of the academy. Katherine Harvey, our resident medievalist, has done a brilliant job soliciting, editing, and writing marvelous pieces on this period. These posts, I believe, tap into a broader cultural fascination with the medieval period. Popular culture uses this era as a tableau to stage fantasies about power relationships, sexual and gender arrangements, war craft, and religion. I would venture that because there is already so much interest in the medieval, readers are primed to be interested in these pieces. What they find on NOTCHES, however, surprises them and challenges their preconceived notions about sexuality and gender in the past.

What have been the blog’s most read and talked-about posts? Did you anticipate that these would be particularly interesting to your audience or were their successes surprising? 

After the overwhelmingly and deservedly popular medieval posts mentioned above, the following four pieces were our most read: Justin Bengry’s “The Erotics of Shaving in Victorian Britain,” Scott Larson’s, “From Cod to Codpieces: Benjamin Franklin’s Guide to Food and Sex,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s, “In My Bed: Sexual Violence Over Fifty Years on One College Campus” (republished on the Huffington Post), and my own piece, “Stalling Civil Rights: Conservative Sexual Thought Has Been in the Toilet Since the 1940s” (republished on Slate).

Justin’s piece had understandably widespread appeal.  It explores the ways in which shaving was and continues to be sexualized for men. Natalia’s piece and mine historicized contemporary social and political issues. We had anticipated that, because of their relevance to current events, these posts would resonate widely. We were delighted when both pieces got picked up by mainstream sites and found even greater circulation. However, I did not anticipate such tremendous reader enthusiasm for Scott Larson’s piece on Ben Franklin’s ideas about food and sexuality. It was only when I reread a submission by another NOTCHES contributor, Thomas Foster, that I understood the success of Larson’s piece. Foster argues, “Americans are deeply invested in getting what they feel is an unvarnished history of the sex lives of the Founders, political leaders of the American Revolution and U.S. founding.” Larson likely tapped into this fascination.

The blog features work about the history of sexuality all over the world. How did that transnational scope come about? Has it impacted the operation and/or reception of the blog?

The transnational scope of NOTCHES is one of our foundational goals and emerges from our insistence that ongoing and interactive conversations among historians of sexuality transcend regional or chronological specialization. We found that there were no other places to have this kind of conversation in the field so we created it. We believe that by staging these kinds of dialogues, we can think about sexuality in truly capacious, dynamic, and contingent terms.

We also believe that our own scholarship and the field itself are richer when we can think about histories of sexuality comparatively. An exclusive focus on a national history reproduces the model of the nation state and can be myopic. It also obscures the ways in which sexual ideas, communities, politics, and practices have ranged widely outside of national and regional boundaries. This past year we published a number of pieces on the intersections of religion and gay rights that covered Northern Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Uganda and the United States. And this is only one of the conversations taking place on NOTCHES. Hosting a global conversation about the histories of sexualities highlights regional differences and change over time while also drawing attention to commonalities across eras and cultures.

Our collaboration and publication process is organized around the fact that we work in different time zones, countries, and institutions. NOTCHES is a product of the digital age and our collective labor is enabled by online tools like Dropbox and Skype. Because of the attenuated nature of our workflow, we use an online platform called Trello which can best be described as a digital bulletin board. Trello has integrated features such as Dropbox, calendars, and checklists, and it links to our email accounts. This program allows us to break off into working groups on specific projects while allowing us to keep track of our overall process.

We publish at 7 a.m. GMT and our European editors begin the process of publicizing our post through our Twitter and Facebook pages. Our North American editors take over social media during our workdays. In other words, we recognize that different audiences and readers will wake up to our content at different times and plan to spend at least 1or 2 days promoting each piece.

The blog’s Archives of Desire section introduces and interprets primary source materials. What was the inspiration for creating this thread and what has it contributed to the blog as a whole?

Our Archives of Desire series illuminates the history of sexuality and the historian’s craft by showcasing how we can interpret primary source documents and objects. Writers select a single source to show how anything from a memo to a stained glass window can be analyzed to strengthen our knowledge of sexuality in the past.

Archives of Desire emerged from my conversations with Neil J. Young about ways to showcase the craft of history. Neil describes the series in the following way, “For our readers, especially the nonacademics, I hope it demonstrates the work of history—how historians analyze evidence and how that evidence establishes arguments and often complicates our understanding of the past.” We have found that Archives of Desire has been a welcoming space for historians—and especially graduate students—to think about what a close reading of just one document or source can reveal about larger historical themes.

Archives of Desire also emerged from my desire to create a space on NOTCHES to curate and critically interpret a range of primary source materials. And it comes from the utter pleasure I experience after discovering an amazing source and discussing it with colleagues. I wanted to replicate this feeling and expand these kinds of conversations on NOTCHES. Part of the joy of working with an online platform is that we can curate just about any kind of source. Additionally, I have accumulated a number of archival finds over the years that will never make it in to my larger projects—I suspect many historians have similar troves. Archives of Desire is a way to exhibit these finds and interpret them.

Your post late last year, “A Christmas Abortion,” tells a devastating and important story. How did that piece come about? What has the response to it been?

“A Christmas Abortion” tells the story of Jacqueline Smith whose horrific death on Christmas Eve 1955 from a botched illegal abortion made national headlines. Drawing from contemporary newspaper coverage, court transcripts, and the District Attorney’s files, I reconstruct the events surrounding her death and try to explain the social forces that limited her reproductive options and gave meaning to her sexual choices.

“A Christmas Abortion” was by far the most difficult article I have ever written because of the sensitive nature of the topic and because the media and court documents evacuate Smith’s own voice. I wanted readers to confront two questions: What made Smith “choose” to have an illegal abortion on Christmas Eve 1955? What kind of violence did women seeking abortions experience in a society that criminalized this procedure?

I discovered Smith’s tragic story while doing research for my next book on reproductive rights activism before Roe v. Wade. I had just finished teaching a course on reproductive politics in the United States since 1945 so these histories were on my mind. Current events made the history of reproductive access urgent: Congress was attempting to defund Planned Parenthood and a widely publicized study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project reported that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women aged 18-49 had attempted to end their pregnancies in Texas without medical assistance. I was reflecting upon Smith’s story and what it meant to live in a society that punished (unwed) women who found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and severely limited their options for planning their parenthood. My post invites readers to compare Smith’s past and our present and to think about the implications of conservative efforts to reduce women’s ability to control their reproduction.

I was a little worried that this piece would engender the kind of hate mail that some of my colleagues received when they published histories of abortion rights activism. As it turns out, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Slate republished my piece and there was a vigorous debate in the comments section about the relationship between past and present-day reproductive politics. Readers shared the piece widely and the comments were respectful and thoughtful.

I only received one serious critique; I am grateful that it allowed me to reflect upon the stakes of doing public histories of sexuality and to think through the feminist underpinnings of my research method. My critic believed that dwelling on the details of “the medical procedures that led to [Smith’s] death” was “tasteless” and gratuitous and likened my depictions to the sensational press of the 1950s that I described in my article. I understand why some readers might want to avoid depictions of violence. It is worth noting that my piece actually differs from 1950s press accounts, which described what happened to Smith’s corpse post-abortion but evaded discussing the abortion itself. Still, there is a fundamental question about whether historians should elide or include violent details that took place in the past. Do descriptions of violence compound or expose past atrocities? There are no simple or easy answers to these questions.

Working within the feminist tradition of making power relationships and violence visible, I chose to describe in detail the medial violence Jacqueline Smith experienced while alive because I believed it was essential to understanding the history of reproductive access and abortion in the 1950s. Put differently, it is impossible to grasp the meaning and consequences of a society that criminalized abortion by speaking euphemistically or generally about the medical violence that women experienced as a result of these policies. In 1955, the media’s sanitization of Smith’s story allowed readers to avoid confronting the implications of making abortion illegal, of failing to offer comprehensive sex education, of promoting abstinence until marriage, and of shaming unwed mothers. Leaving the details of what happened to Smith during her abortion unspoken, as the media did at the time, replicates the silences that surrounded women’s reproductive lives in the past.