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Sex before SexSex before Sex

Figuring the Act in Early Modern England

James M. Bromley, Will Stockton and Valerie Traub

Narrated by Jim Pelletier

Available from Audible

Book published by University of Minnesota Press

What is sex exactly? Does everyone agree on a definition? And does that definition hold when considering literary production in other times and places? Sex before Sex makes clear that we cannot simply transfer our contemporary notions of what constitutes a sex act into the past and expect them to be true for the people who were then reading literature and watching plays. The contributors confront how our current critical assumptions about definitions of sex restrict our understanding of representations of sexuality in early modern England.

Drawing attention to overlooked forms of sexual activity in early modern culture, from anilingus and interspecies sex to “chin-chucking” and convivial drinking, Sex before Sex offers a multifaceted view of what sex looked like before the term entered history. Through incisive interpretations of a wide range of literary texts, including Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, Paradise Lost, the figure of Lucretia, and pornographic poetry, this collection queries what might constitute sex in the absence of a widely accepted definition and how a historicized concept of sex affects the kinds of arguments that can be made about early modern sexualities.

James M. Bromley is assistant professor of English at Miami University. He is the author of Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare.

Will Stockton is associate professor of English at Clemson University. He is the author of Playing Dirty: Sexuality and Waste in Early Modern Comedy.

Valerie Traub is the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.


Sex before Sex engages questions about method and the future of queer studies. The determination of the authors to ‘embrace the possibilities of the critics simultaneous anteriority and posteriority’ to early modern sex makes this essential reading for early modernists, and I anticipate that it will inspire a good deal of scholarly work to come.”

Renaissance Quarterly

“Reflective hyper-awareness of the most productive practices of critical methodologies is what makes Sex before Sex an engaging and provocative read.”


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