The Regulation of Desire: Sexuality in Canada


235 pages
ISBN 0-920057-79-9
DDC 306






Reviewed by Meredith Kimball

Meredith Kimball was Associate Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.


This book is mainly a critique and historical overview of attempts by the Canadian state to regulate male homosexual acts. The book begins with early Canadian history and examines the imposition of European gender roles and sexual norms in the lives of native peoples. It then traces changing definitions of sexuality and to some extent gender roles and the parallel changes in regulation of male homosexual acts and homosexuality more generally from the early 1800s through the modern gay liberation movement. From this the reader learns many interesting details concerning gay male history in Canada. There is a very useful discussion of the Wolfenden Report from Great Britain and the importance of its distinction between public and private sexuality for the 1969 Canadian Criminal Code Reform. The author brings together important material in the later chapters about various individual gay men and gay liberation groups which fought for homosexual rights in Canada and helped to forge a homosexual identity. The specific historical information concerning sexuality, specifically male homosexuality, is consistently placed in a wider social and economic context.

The main problem with the book is that it claims to do more than it does. The title itself is an example of this problem. The author claims to be writing a history of both male (gay) homosexuality and lesbianism in Canada. Furthermore, he claims a focus that includes both state control of homosexuality and a perspective of gay men’s and lesbian women’s own experience of their lives. In actuality very little information is included about how gay men experience their lives, particularly outside the realm of sexuality. Even less is included about lesbian women. This is partly due to a lack of material, which the author acknowledges. However, a larger problem, which the author does not address, is that a history of lesbianism in Canada may have to begin in a very different place and use a very different context. By and large the state control of sexual acts, especially public sexual acts, is largely irrelevant to a lesbian history. A more interesting and accurate history of lesbianism would begin from two points. The first would focus on lesbianism, especially overt behaviours such as cross-dressing, as a protest against limited roles and opportunities for women. The second would focus on the history of emotional bonds between women, especially those in romantic or passionate friendships. The attempt to write a social and economic history of lesbianism requires an analysis that only minimally includes state control of sexuality per se but must instead deal with economic discrimination and the organization of private life.


Kinsman, Gary, “The Regulation of Desire: Sexuality in Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed March 29, 2023,