A panel on the history of sexuality is ideally suited for a conference on the theme of “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience.” Historians of sexuality are generally concerned with three “levels of experience” or perspectives of the individuals and communities they study: The first, the “ideal,” uses legal and other prescriptive and proscriptive sources to look at the creation of categories of licit — and hence illicit — sexualities and sexual behavior, and to understand the meanings of these categories and the underlying mores, values, and principles that uphold them. The second level, “practice,” destabilizes the first. By using archival sources, historians work to chart the behavior of sexual actors and determine how such behavior fits (or does not) into institutional contexts such as marriage, all the while parsing out the meaning of such practices on a social, cultural, economic, political, gendered, and racial level. The third level of experience, “reputation,” combines the first two, and looks at the ways in which the meaning of private sexual behavior is reflected through community ideals, and elite and popular category constructions.
When we locate this inquiry in the context of the French empire, we look at the first dialectic through the prism of a second. The frame of “empire” allows for a second set of examinations of “levels of experience,” seeing how colonial rule and race inform ideals, practices, and reputations in both the metropole and colony, and how they, in turn, inform each other.
We propose a panel on the relationships of ideal, practice, and reputation in the history of sexuality in the context of the French empire. Papers will examine a variety of themes including libertinism, adultery, and prostitution in Paris, Quebec, Louisiana, and Martinique from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.