Dissertations in Progress

History of Sexuality Dissertations in Progress

Lena Eckert-Erdheim, History

Constructing Violence: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the US, 1918-1950

My dissertation examines how violence was theorized and represented in the social sciences and popular culture during the first half of the twentieth century in the United States. While the first and second world wars made understanding international conflict and militarism an urgent political and intellectual project, Americans in this time period also confronted problems of sexual and racial violence closer to home. At the same time, the ascendance of psychology shaped theories of violence as an innate, and even necessary, element of social life and human behavior. I treat war, aggression, and sadism as three “problems” that defined violence on increasingly psychological and intimateterms. By treating violence as an historical and analytic category, I also seek to broaden our understanding of how gender, race, and sexuality have shaped and been shaped by attempts to construct violence alternately as a moral quandary, a facet of modernity, or a social problem.

Marie-Amelie George, History

Deviant Justice: Gay Rights and Mental Health in America since 1973

My dissertation examines the central role that mental health theories and professionals played in the evolution of gay rights legislation and litigation after the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. Through case studies of discrimination against gay educators, efforts to repeal and prohibit sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws, custody cases, and adoption and foster care rights, my dissertation reveals how ideas about mental health contoured the gay rights movement and the conservative backlash to it. By analyzing the development of legislation and litigation at the local and state levels, and across public and private legal spheres, my dissertation highlights the trajectory of gay civil liberties beyond the constitutional arguments that are at the center of many studies on gay rights. It also raises broader questions about the intersection of science and law, examining how changes in scientific thought have impacted legal rights and analyzing the normative implications of this relationship.

Devin McGeehan Muchmore, American Studies

“It’s All for Sale:” Erotic Entrepreneurs and the Moral Economies of Sexual Commerce in the Late-Twentieth Century United States

My research examines the business and political activities of erotic entrepreneurs and sex workers in the 1960s and 1970s United States, focusing on their efforts to revise longstanding cultural associations of sexual commodification with criminality, sexual immorality, and commercial exploitation. For most purveyors of sexual goods and services, among them adult bookstore and theater owners, prostitutes, and sex toy dealers, making decisions about how to conduct business meant negotiating questions by potential customers and regulators about the morality of exchanging money for sex. By investigating how erotic entrepreneurs and sex workers answered these questions in stores, in the media, and in city halls, I aim to illuminate how and why new frameworks for making moral distinctions between different economic exchanges emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, my dissertation maps the multiple and shifting relationships between sexual liberalism and free market liberalism in an era of political economic transformation.

Lindsay Zafir, History

States of Denial: AIDS Dissidence, International Treatment Activism, and the Fight Over Antiretrovirals in the U.S. and South Africa

My dissertation examines AIDS denialism—a movement that developed in the late 1980s around the idea that HIV alone could not cause AIDS and that the disease resulted from a deadly combination of promiscuous sex, poverty, and antiretrovirals. First emerging in the North American gay communities hardest hit by the epidemic, denialism took on international significance in the early 2000s when South African President Thabo Mbeki argued that poverty was the most significant cause of the disease. My dissertation traces the shifting meanings and consequences of denialism as it changed shape and transferred hands, with particular attention to the ways race, gender, and sexuality were articulated over the course of the epidemic. I also examine denialism’s relationship to international treatment activism, which developed over the same period of time but for an expressly different purpose: to expand access to antiretrovirals. In doing so, I hope to shine light on the transnational history of the epidemic, as well as what contests over the cause of AIDS can tell us about changing understandings of scientific knowledge and authority at the turn of the 21st century.