Vulnerable Constitutions

Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood

Cynthia Barounis
2020 Piepmeier Book Prize Winner, National Women's Studies Association
Book Cover

PB: $39.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1507-3
Publication: May 19

HC: $99.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1506-6
Publication: May 19

Ebook: $39.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-1508-0
Publication: May 19

278 pages
6 x 9
2 halftones

Presents an alternative queer-crip genealogy of American masculinity in the twentieth century

Read an excerpt from the Introduction( pdf).


Amputation need not always signify castration; indeed, in Jack London’s fiction, losing a limb becomes part of a process through which queerly gendered men become properly masculinized. In her astute book, Vulnerable Constitutions, Cynthia Barounis explores the way American writers have fashioned alternative—even resistant—epistemologies of queerness, disability, and masculinity. She seeks to understand the way perverse sexuality, physical damage, and bodily contamination have stimulated—rather than created a crisis for—masculine characters in twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature.

Barounis introduces the concept of “anti-prophylactic citizenship”—a mode of political belonging characterized by vulnerability, receptivity, and risk—to examine counternarratives of American masculinity. Investigating the work of authors including London, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, and Eli Clare, she presents an evolving narrative of medicalized sexuality and anti-prophylactic masculinity. Her literary readings interweave queer theory, disability studies, and the history of medicine to demonstrate how evolving scientific conversations around deviant genders and sexualities gave rise to a new model of national belonging—ultimately rewriting the story of American masculinity as a story of queer-crip rebellion.


"Vulnerable Constitutions embarks upon a breathtaking illumination of lost queer and crip entanglements. Barounis guides us through a world of disabled masculinities and homosocialities, and urges us to rethink the relationship between disability, sexuality, gender, and the nation.... Wide-ranging in a scope that includes film, visual art, literature, and contemporary events, Vulnerable Constitutions’ examination of queercrip masculinities has much to offer.... (T)his oracular book is essential reading as we navigate a porous new world."
Journal of Modern Literature

"Barounis not only commits to working in and through the tensions and contradictions at the intersection of disability and masculinity studies, Vulnerable Constitutions is also a deft, imaginative exploration of radical forms of democratic community and biosociality.... Ultimately, Vulnerable Constitutions is a versatile text that will prove important to both masculinity and disability studies, and essential to any discussion of disabled masculinities in twentieth and early twenty-first century America."

"Barounis’s Vulnerable Constitutions demonstrates how a theoretically forward-looking conception of masculinities and their complex social resonances can reinvigorate the field. The most groundbreaking book under review here, Vulnerable Constitutions theorizes masculinities in relationship to a range of different subject positions and embodiments, from the ostensibly straight, white male to Black, crip, queer, and/or trans masculinities.... (Barounis) should be praised for returning feminist ideological critique to the center of discourses around gender, sex, and sexuality, which have become, with their affirmation of all nonnormative desires, identities, and embodiments, almost immune to critique."
American Literary History

Barounis offers a fresh look at a terrain most critics have written off in disability studies and elsewhere. Vulnerable Constitutions takes the common notion of masculinity as privilege and site of authoritarian cultural space of normativity and shows—through a series of largely canonical literary readings—how masculinity has been reworked through queer-crip readings of key American novels. Her robust, meaningful, and unapologetic approach to white/black male masculinities through a crip/queer studies lens allows a new entry into valuable texts.
David Mitchell, Professor of English at George Washington University and author of The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment

“Vulnerable Constitutions is a beautifully written and important book that shows how American masculinity, sexuality, and even democracy itself are built upon a complex web of open wounds, even as they insist upon their opaqueness and impenetrability. Utilizing a queer-crip biopolitical reading practice, Barounis traces the vulnerability of American masculinity from Jack London and James Baldwin through Eli Clare and Chelsea Manning, making a compelling case for what she calls ‘antiprophylactic citizenship.’ This concept underpins a wide range of cultural events, from the canon of American literature to the depathologization of queer sexuality to the current controversy over trigger warnings. A stirring and enjoyable read, sure to be of great interest to readers engaged in gender and sexuality studies, disability studies, and American literary and cultural studies.
Ellen Samuels, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race

Table of Contents


Introduction: Bodies That Leak; American Masculinity and Antiprophylactic Citizenship
1. “An Inherent Weakness of the Constitution”: Jack London’s Revolting Men
2. “Love or Eugenics?”: Faulkner and Fitzgerald’s Crip Children
3. “Not the Usual Pattern”: James Baldwin and the DSM
4. Post-AIDS Permeability: Samuel Delany and Antiprophylaxis
5. Prescribing Pleasure: Asexuality, Debility, and Trans Memoir
Epilogue: Against Queer Resilience


About the Author(s)

Cynthia Barounis is a lecturer in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.