‘Nearly Normal’: Queer Climacterics in the Scientific Works of G Stanley Hall and Marie Stopes

Our PhD student Kazuki Yamada presented at Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health Midlife Conversations conference, September 2018.

Kazuki presented on “‘Nearly Normal’: Queer Climacterics in the Scientific Works of G Stanley Hall and Marie Stopes”.

Abstract: At around the turn of the 20th century, the mid-life climacteric was frequently imagined by the medico-scientific community in England and the United States as the beginning of sexual extinction, and understood as the primary signal for the onset of senescence. In the same moment, the rise of fields such as sexology and psychoanalysis strengthened the centrality of sexuality within normative understandings of personhood and identity. Combining these developments, historiographies of ageing often draw on appearances of the climacteric as key moments where a scientific discourse of ageing as decline can be historically detected in sources. In this paper, I argue that the so-called ‘dangerous age’ was only dangerous insofar as they were crises of normative theories of sexuality. Whilst climacterics may indicate decline in one mode of thinking about sex, the queer ‘blurriness’ introduced by ageing may also take scientific thinking beyond decline and into alternate, ’nearly normal’ ways of thinking.

Taking as case studies the gerontological works of American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall and the sexological manuals of British sex reformer Marie Stopes published in the early twentieth century, I demonstrate how their study of the climacteric and post-climacteric sexuality can be read not as a description of the disappearance of normal sexuality, but rather a proposal for its transformation. On one hand, Hall’s Freud-influenced views on the importance of the sexual drive combined with eugenic views on recapitulation to push him to consider the climacteric, the ‘youth of old age’, as a critical juncture aimed at a total form of sexual sublimation driving humanity’s evolution. On the other hand, Stopes’ position on the centrality of sexual love to heterosexual marriages leads her to postulate a post-climacteric sexuality and marital dynamic that did not quite conform to the penetrative, embodied models she so avidly espoused in her earlier works. In presenting these two case studies, this paper ultimately aims to establish a historiographic space where past discussions of the ‘declines’ of climacterics and ageing can instead be re-visited to read how the queer, ‘nearly normal’ ageing body challenged normative models of sexuality to flex and transform in unexpected ways.

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