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Sexuality and Gender in Colonialism

Updated on June 18, 2013

How has the regulation of sexuality been central to colonial rule?

Colonial rule relied on many methods to socially subdue those ‘others’ they wished to colonise. Of these sexuality and gender roles played a primary role often because women were the first people colonisers had close relationships with; their first strong encounter of these ‘others’. The New World did not conform to the very strict gender positions of Europeans and so acted as a means of differentiating and subordinating the ‘others’. In this frame sexuality and race became entwined, along with such roles as class, to form the significant hierarchical social structuring of colonial rule.

Western ideas of sexuality extended over acceptable standards of behaviour expected of certain categories of people. Perceptions of sexuality and gender were intertwined with perceptions of race and class and so joined means of classifying people and placing them in the social hierarchy. John Wallach Scott claims ‘concepts of gender structure perception and the concrete and symbolic organisation of all social life…[and so] gender becomes implicated in the conceptions and construction of power itself’ (citied in Montrose 1991:1). Gendering had been central to the discovery of the New World as European representations of gender and sexual conduct were projected and these were related in terms of ‘economic exploitation and geopolitical domination’ (Montrose 1991:2). The male and female roles within colonialism were distinct, men being workers and the primary sources of political interest, while women were considered instrumental only in their relation to men. The importance of white women, brought across to the New World lay ‘in their familial roles and…in their ability to transform men’ (Perry 1997:505). They were considered important in relation to their position in society and the influence they would have upon men. White women were also represented as being ‘able to encourage white men to adopt normative standards of masculinity and respectability’ (Perry 1997: 508). This was in reaction to the men working in the fur trade of British Columbia who were able to live in a ‘rough homosocial culture which rejected…many of the cardinal virtues of metropolitan middle-class masculinity’ (1997: 509). Stoler also found that ‘the presence of white women was seen as exerting a civilising, cultured, and restraining check’ on rowdy behaviour of men (1989:144). This emasculating behaviour defied social supremacy and thus defied segregation; these ideals required preservation as they were the foundation of racial and social hierarchy. Thus ‘the sexual and domestic arrangements of European staff were…political economic affairs that acted to sharpen or mute the categories of ruler and ruled’ as opposed to private matters (Stoler 1989:138). Stoler argues that political authority was secured ‘through the management of marriage, domesticity, child rearing, and paid-for and unpaid-for sex’ (2001:835). Typically private arrangements could become a threat to colonialist superiority and so were treated as a public, political issue of interest. Control of sexuality could be perceived as the foundation of colonial privilege and the social boundaries this formed. In essence, colonialism acted to impose ‘protective models of womanhood and motherhood and prescriptions for domestic relations that constrained both the women and men in servitude’ (Stoler 2001:843). These models were actively participated in by men and women themselves in the belief that superiority of colonialists lay in the possession of society as opposed to savagery. European men were expected to follow ‘elaborate codes of conduct that affirmed manliness and virility…their manhood [was] bolstered by perceptions and practices based on their racial superiority’ (Stoler 2001:844). Issues of sexuality managed even to affect the situations of children in the colonies. In the Indies native nursemaids were portrayed as having ‘deleterious effects…on the sexuality of children’ (Stoler 2001:851). Lewis Hough wrote that the ‘coarse hugging, kissing, etc.’ which children would receive from native domestic servants were ‘certain to develop a blind precocious sexualism of feeling and action’ (cited in Stoler 2001:851). Thus, nurseries were established with the aim to ‘protect the sexual innocence of small children from the immoral influence…of domestic servants’ (Stoler 2001:852). Stoler surmised that ‘it was in the gendered and racalised intimacies of the everyday that women, men, and children were turned into subjects of particular kinds, as domination was routinised and rerouted in intimacies that the state sought to know but could never completely master or work out’ (pg.864)

Definitions of sexuality differed greatly between the white colonialists and the native peoples. Sexuality was often emphasised as an aspect of natives of the New World. This is considered to be because sexuality was regarded to be ‘associated with animals…the animal metaphor [being] a powerful instrument of control’ (Corbey 1988:11). Thus, native people were often portrayed as sexual in the sense of being untamed and uncivilised. The colonising forces were rendered as able to control their desires better than a mere animal or native could. However, mixed race relationships did often occur, usually with great encouragement at first as it was native women that ‘taught their new husbands the skills needed to survive’ (Welsh 1997:61). Native women were men’s primary source of education even concubinary relationships gave men an opportunity to learn the native language. It was only as Europeans began to settle in the New World that mixed unions became much of an issue; ‘mixed marriage came to be seen as hindering the creation of an orderly white settler colony’ (Perry 1997:505). Interracial marriages may also have been feared later on as they ‘might be recognised as heirs to a European inheritance’ fracturing the defined structural differentiations (Stoler 1989:154). This is when white women were required in order to remove the men from the temptation of native women; white women would ‘discourage sex and marriage between white men and First Nation women’ (Perry 1997:505). Marriage and relationships with native women was viewed as merely due to a lack of white women thus their introduction would overcome this issue. Mixed unions caused issues in the political structure of domination over the colonies. White men who wed First Nation women in British Columbia were seen to be ‘dangerously flirting with relinquishing their place among the civilised…[these men] compromised their claims to whiteness…[and] relinquished their status as men’ (Perry 1997:506). Thus white men were risking their status of superiority and degrading themselves to the level of the ‘savages’. Native women, in this sense, were often portrayed as ‘instruments of white men’s degradation’ while white women were ‘agents of male uplift’ (Perry 1997:511). In photographs of natives of African colonies, a disproportionate amount are of women, often scarcely dressed, ‘reflecting an erotic interest from the side of the male, European spectators’ (Corbey 1988:1). Corbey argues that these images also presented a message of ‘availability for the male European purposes, as the whole colony was taken to be available’ (1988:5). Often the New World was gendered feminine ‘and the sexualising of it’s exploration, conquest, and settlement’ (Montrose 1991:2). Both Montrose and Corbey agree that these new lands were at times depicted as feminised, virginal bodies; ‘often been equated metaphorically with a mysterious, sensual virgin to be conquered’ (Corbey 1988:2). Sexuality transcended the people on the New World and became a feature of the land itself, something which needed to be conquered and tamed, turned into a civilised world with civilised society and people.

In conclusion, sexuality played a central role in colonialism as it enabled colonialist to create divisions throughout the New World. Through sexuality and gender roles, certain behaviours could be construed as uncivilised and inappropriate for someone’s position in society. White men were expected to uphold the European standards of masculinity and chivalry and native women were perceived as interfering with this. White women were introduced into the colonial world in order to fulfil a predetermined role, as wives, mothers, and upholders of civil society. Thus, a clear divide was established between the native women, encouraging men into undisciplined and rowdy behaviour, and white women who could save men from becoming too native. Native people of the colonies were also perceived as overtly sexual, conflicting with the European standards of civility and control and seeming to colonialists as lowly, closer in behaviour to that of the animals. The sexuality of domestic servants in some colonies were even thought to be a bad influence on children. Children raised in colonies were primed to pick up native behaviours and manners, types of behaviours which contrasted with European standards. Thus, sexuality acted as one of the primary means of dividing the races, creating a European standard of behaviour which contrasted any found in the New World. Sexuality had become a political issue.


Corbey, R. 1988. Alterity: The Colonial Nude. Critique of Anthropology. 8: 75-92.

Montrose, L. 1991. The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery. Representations. 33: 1-41.

Perry, A. 1997. Fair Ones of a Purer Caste: White Women and Colonialism in Nineteenth Century British Columbia. Feminist Studies. 23: 501-524.

Stoler, A. 1989. Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 31: 135-156.

Stoler, A. 2001. Tense and Tender Ties: the Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies. Journal of American History. 88: 829-826.

Welsh, C. 1997. Women in the Shadows: Reclaiming a Métis Heritage. In Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer Penne, J. R. (Tim) Struthers (eds). New Contexts of Canadian Criticism. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press. 56-66.


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