Sexual Dissidence

Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (1991; second edition 2018) is a book about the philosophy of sex by the social theorist Jonathan Dollimore. The book received both positive and mixed reviews. Dollimore was complimented for his discussions of the theologian Augustine of Hippo and the writers Oscar Wilde and André Gide, but was criticized for his repetitive style of writing.

Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault
Cover of the first edition
AuthorJonathan Dollimore
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectPhilosophy of sex
PublisherClarendon Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)


Drawing upon biography, literary theory, cultural theory, theodicy, social history, psychoanalysis, philosophy, feminism, lesbian and gay studies, and cultural materialism, Dollimore discusses "the complex, often violent, sometimes murderous dialectic between dominant and subordinate cultures, groups, and identities" and "those conceptions of self, desire, and transgression which figure in the language, ideologies, and cultures of domination, and in the diverse kinds of resistance to it." He refers to the kind of resistance that operates in terms of gender and "repeatedly unsettles the very opposition between the dominant and the subordinate" as "sexual dissidence."[1]

He discusses writers such as the theologian Augustine of Hippo, the playwright William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, the writers Oscar Wilde and André Gide, the philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Roger Scruton, and the feminist theorist Jane Gallop. Topics discussed include feminism, feminist theory, homosexuality, homosociality, transvestism, deconstruction, and the "perverse dynamic".[2]

Publication history

Sexual Dissidence was first published in 1991 by the Clarendon Press.[3] A second edition, with new material, was published in 2018.[4]


Media commentary

Sexual Dissidence received a positive review from B. R. Burg in Choice and a mixed review from the critic Elaine Showalter in the London Review of Books.[5][6] The book was also reviewed by P. Matthews in New Statesman & Society and Robin Robbins in The Times Literary Supplement.[7][8]

Burg described the book as "thoughtful and challenging book, not only for its reappraisals of hoary academic controversies like the constructionist-essentialist standoff, but because of the many intriguing analytical formulations it propounds." He credited Dollimore with using a "combination of historical method, literary criticism, and generous measures of psychology, sociology, and anthropology to build his complex theses".[5]

Showalter credited Dollimore with "learning and timeliness" but wrote that the book was "too sprawling and dense to be readable outside a highly motivated theoretical community" and that it was "Baffling in its organisation" and "often goes beyond the difficult to the obstructive". She described Dollimore's writing as "numbingly abstract".[6]

Academic assessments

Sexual Dissidence received positive reviews from the sociologist Jeffrey Weeks in Victorian Studies,[9] Craig Gingrich-Philbrook in Text and Performance Quarterly,[10] and Jeremy Tambling in Modern Language Review,[11] and the philosopher Philipp Rosemann in the International Journal of Philosophical Studies,[12] mixed reviews from the Virginia Quarterly Review and Collenn Lamos in Signs,[13][14] and a negative review from Roger C. Wade in the Journal of Sex Research.[15] The book was also reviewed by Paul Giles in Modern Language Quarterly and the cultural historian George Rousseau in History of European Ideas and discussed by Peter Dickinson in Essays on Canadian Writing and Biography.[16][17][18][19]

Weeks described the book as "extraordinarily versatile".[9] Gingrich-Philbrook credited Dollimore with providing "significant resources for the articulation of difference in literature, political critique, and the conceptualization and reporting of performance knowledge" and praised him for his discussions of Wilde and Gide and his criticism of "containment theory". However, he considered the book imperfect and believed that it provided critics of literary theory with "handy examples of impenetrable prose".[10] Tambling credited Dollimore with providing "a highly suggestive and provocative argument, which makes you wish to argue with it and from it." He praised Dollimore's interest in paradox, transgression, and the "perverse dynamic", his comparisons of Freud's and Foucault's views on perversion, and his "placing of feminist debates relative to discussions of homosexuality" in his discussions of Kristeva, Irigaray, and Gallop. He considered Dollimore's arguments about "homosocial relationships" to be "suggestive for further work." However, he criticized Dollimore for aspects of his reading of Gide, for "repetitiousness", and for "going over ground that should be very familiar". He considered some of Dollimore's textual examples irrelevant and believed that his text "seems generally unedited" and that Dollimore made insufficient use of Derrida's work and neglected that of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.[11]

Rosemann described the book as "brilliant". He added that it combined "philosophical acuity with historical depth" and was "one of the finest contributions to the debate over identity and difference in recent years." He praised Dollimore's reconstruction of the Renaissance "conception of perversion" and his discussions of Shakespeare and Wilde, as well as his "theoretical sophistication". He added "Dollimore develops an interpretation of homosexuality as paradigmatic of a dynamic in which the other is drawn out of the same."[12] The Virginia Quarterly Review wrote that the work was "ambitious, stimulating, and sometimes exasperating" and that its "vigorous heterogeneity results in a book as brave as it is uneven." It concluded that the work's "greatest strength is the vigor and irreverence with which it details the degree to which same-sex desire is perpetually at the center of cultures that strenuously attempt to push it to the margins."[13]

Lamos credited Dollimore with "command of Western literary culture", complimented his discussions of Gide and Wilde, and praised his discussions of topics such as Augustine's concept of sin and transvestism in early modern England. However, while she believed that Sexual Dissidence signaled the "coming of age" of queer theory and considered it part of a groundbreaking body of work, she wrote that it risked "becoming trapped in question-begging debates over the transgressive effects of sexual perversion" and that Dollimore was "caught in the conflict between a postmodern version of homosexuality as the refusal of sexual identity and the gay liberation version that calls for sex in the streets." She found his writing repetitive and imprecise. She also suggested that "sexual dissidence" amounted to "a code word for homosexuality", that Dollimore presented a "sanitized" version of gay identity by avoiding subjects such as pedophilia, sado-masochism, and sexual fetishism, and that his treatment of Foucault was inconsistent, in that he was indebted to Foucault's ideas but by insisting on the "radical nature of homosexuality" refused to accept their consequences. She criticized him for being silent about AIDS and for ignoring lesbians in his discussion of homosexuality, and argued that his critique of psychoanalytic accounts of gender difference was "hampered by his cursory knowledge of feminist theory."[14]

Wade credited Dollimore with providing informative reviews of historical views of homosexuality, such as in his discussions of "Augustine's beliefs about sexuality and the problem of evil in Christianity", and with making accurate assertions about, and raising interesting questions concerning, sexology. However, while he accepted that the book was the product of much effort, he also considered it poorly written and unclear and wrote that it would provide little insight to readers unfamiliar with deconstruction. He was also unconvinced by Dollimore's case that homosexuality "has become increasingly central to the maintenance of the current order" and dissatisfied with his discussion of Wilde. He criticized him for failing to consider "whether gay people are finding their true identities or are creating an identity" or to explore the validity of the claim that sexual orientation has a biological basis. He considered Dollimore correct to believe that a more complex understanding of sexual orientation is needed, but criticized him for failing to provide one.[15]

In Essays on Canadian Writing, Dickinson compared Dollimore's work to that of the critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha and credited him with formulating a complex theory of "perverse dynamics" and "transgressive reinscriptions".[18]

In The Lesbian Heresy (1993), the political scientist Sheila Jeffreys described Sexual Dissidence as an example of the way in which gay versions of postmodern theory advocate "the revolutionary potential of transgression". She criticized Dollimore for describing an 1899 incident in which Wilde helped Gide to "buy a young boy musician" in Algeria as a case of "homosexual liberation" rather than as an act of exploitation, for failing to understand that "one person's sexual liberation may be another's oppression", and for using Derrida's work to argue for a theory suggesting that "inversion is necessary and revolutionary and the lesbian feminist project is worthy of derision."[20]


  1. Dollimore 1991, p. 21.
  2. Dollimore 1991, pp. 11–18, 30–31, 39–66, 97–98, 118–119, 157–162, 228, 249–250, 258–262, 284–285.
  3. Dollimore 1991, p. iv.
  4. Dollimore 2018, p. iv.
  5. Burg 1991, p. 1434.
  6. Showalter 1992, p. 15.
  7. Matthews 1991, p. 44.
  8. Robbins 1991, p. 23.
  9. Weeks 1992, pp. 409–415.
  10. Gingrich-Philbrook 1993, pp. 384–387.
  11. Tambling 1994, pp. 175–177.
  12. Rosemann 1996, pp. 139–153.
  13. Virginia Quarterly Review 1992, p. 86.
  14. Lamos 1994, pp. 826–830.
  15. Wade 1994, pp. 78–79.
  16. Giles 1992, pp. 355–358.
  17. Rousseau 1994, pp. 271–274.
  18. Dickinson 1998, pp. 125–146.
  19. Dickinson 2005, pp. 414–432.
  20. Jeffeys 1994, pp. 136–137.


  • Dollimore, Jonathan (1991). Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-811269-6.
  • Dollimore, Jonathan (2018). Sexual Dissidence, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198827054.
  • Jeffreys, Sheila (1993). The Lesbian Heresy: A feminist perspective on the lesbian sexual revolution. London: The Women's Press Ltd. ISBN 0-7043-4382-7.
  • Burg, B. R. (1992). "Sexual dissidence (Book Review)". Choice. 29.   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Dickinson, Peter (1998). ""Running Wilde": national ambivalence and sexual dissidence in Not wanted on the voyage". Essays on Canadian Writing (64).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Dickinson, Peter (2005). "Oscar Wilde: Reading the life after the life". History of European Ideas. 28 (3).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Giles, Paul (1991). "Sexual dissidence (Book Review)". Modern Language Quarterly. 52.   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Gingrich-Philbrook, Craig (1993). "Sexual Dissidence/Performance as Political Act (Book)". Text and Performance Quarterly. 13 (4).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Lamos, Collenn (1994). "Book reviews". Signs. 19 (3).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Matthews, P. (1991). "Soul-destroyer". New Statesman & Society. 4 (166).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Robbins, Robin (1991). "The full range of the forbidden". The Times Literary Supplement (4621).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Rosemann, Philipp W. (1996). "Homosexuality and the Logic of Transgressive Reinscription". International Journal of Philosophical Studies. 4 (1). doi:10.1080/09672559608570828.
  • Rousseau, G. S. (1994). "On sexual dissidence". History of European Ideas. 18 (2).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Showalter, Elaine (1992). "Sexual dissidence (Book Review)". London Review of Books. 14 (8).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Tambling, Jeremy (1994). "Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault/Reading the Text: Biblical Criticism and Literary Theory". Modern Language Review. 89 (1).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Wade, Roger C. (1994). "Deconstructed Sexuality". Journal of Sex Research. 31 (1).   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Weeks, Jeffrey (1992). "Sexual dissidence (Book Review)". Victorian Studies. 35.   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • "Sexual Dissidence". Virginia Quarterly Review. 68 (3). 1992.   via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
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