Departing from the bold and compelling claim that we cannot fully understand the histories of decolonization and the so-called “sexual revolution” apart from one another, Todd Shepard
’s Sex, France, and Arab Men, 1962-1979
(University of Chicago Press, 2017) is a complex analysis of the lasting impact of the Algerian Revolution through the cultural politics of sex, gender, and power in France. Shepard tracks the figure of the “Arab” man from Algerian independence to the Iranian Revolution. Just as the “Arab” man’s pathologized sexuality played a key role in discussions of French defeat in Algeria as a “failure” of French masculinity on the political “Right,” so too did he become a “heroic” figure for the post-decolonization “Left.” From gay liberation to feminism, debates about sexual norms, prostitution, and rape, the “Arab” man appeared again and again in forms that replayed and riffed off of the sexual orientalism of the colonial period.
Drawing attention to the ways the “erotics of Algerian difference” shaped the terrain of what could and couldn’t be thought in terms of sex post-1962, the book highlights the ideas and work of a number of authors from North Africa and elsewhere, voices that have been written out of histories that understand the sexual revolution as a strictly trans-Atlantic phenomenon. The “vanilla” narratives that have resulted have left out sites such as North Africa, failing to see the role of anti-colonialism in the history of the sexual revolution. At the same time, conventional histories have also regularly refused to deal with sex itself
, eliding the significance of discussions of sex acts (like sodomy) as sites of politics and power. As Shepard shows, the Arab man and the legacies of the Algerian Revolution were all over the field of “sex talk” in France through the 1960s and 70s. During this period, then, the war did not vanish from view as other histories have suggested. And the end of this era that was linked to the Iranian Revolution brought a shoring up of Western notions of liberation in response to the oppression -of women and homosexuals in particular- deemed inherent to Arab/Muslim societies. A book that brings together an impressive research corpus with killer historical and political analysis, Sex, France, and Arab Men
will captivate readers interested in the (global) history of sex, as well as anyone seeking to better understand the cultural and political landscape of post-decolonization France.
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. She is the author of
Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (2009). Her current research focuses on the history of French nuclear weapons and testing since 1945. Her most recent article, '"No Hiroshima in Africa": The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara' appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of
History of the Present. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).