THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE
Taylor was even more explicit in imagining his ‘womb’ being penetrated and impregnated by ‘the spermadote’ of Christ:
O let thy lovely streams of love distill Upon myself and spout their spirits pure Into my vial, and my vessel fill With liveliness. . .
The huge prestige attached to classical literary models similarly gave rise to a fair amount of same-sex imagery in Renaissance writing, as well as to a more general familiarity with the fact that love between men had been favoured, and commonplace, amongst the ancients. Moreover, the ordinary pattern of social relations encouraged considerable emotional and physical intimacy between men (and indeed between women). Even at its most intense, though, such ‘homosocial’ friendship, both in fiction and in reality, was meant to be distinguished from homosexual acts and tendencies. Like heterosexual unchastity, but still more acutely, sodomy was traditionally interpreted as deeply offensive to God, a terribly dangerous form of sexual and social indiscipline, whose toleration showed the inferiority and corruption of other cultures.3*
It is therefore remarkable to find it being increasingly justified on principle at around the same time, and in comparable terms, as heterosexual freedom. One line of argument was to deny that the practice was particularly abhorrent to God. The minimal version of this was, as the nonconformist George Duffus put it when apprehended in 1721, ‘that we were all sinners’: sodomites no more than other Christians. At its most developed, though, the idea went a good deal further. Attempting to seduce the inexperienced William Minton in November 1698, Edward Rigby offered him wine, sat in his lap and kissed him, put his tongue in his mouth and his hand in his breeches, and
* King James I, who was notoriously attracted to male favourites, declared in 1617 to his privy councillors that ‘he loved the Earl of Buckingham more than any other man’, and that they should not take this amiss: after all, ‘Jesus had done the same as he was doing. . . for Christ had his John and he had his George’. He also publicly advised his heir and all his subjects that sodomy was an ‘unpardonable’ crime that ought always to be punished by death: ODNB, George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham; BamXiKov Acopov (Edinburgh, 1599), 38; Calendar of the Manuscripts of the most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, vol. 21: 1609-1612, ed. G. Dyfnallt Owen (1970), 274.
then asked him outright ‘whether he should fuck him’. When Minton expressed surprise – ‘how can that be?’ – Rigby replied, ‘I will show you how, for it was no more than what was done in our forefathers’ time: our saviour called St. John the handsome apostle for that reason. . . do you not read it in the scripture?’ (see plate 1). The allusion was a striking echo of the words imputed more than a century earlier to Christopher Marlowe: ‘that St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodom’.4
Then there were the further examples of celebrated men and grand civilizations. ‘Is it not what great men do?’ asked Rigby confidently, ‘The French King did it, the Czar of Muscovy made Alexander, a carpenter, a Prince for that purpose.’ Most prestigious of all were the mores of the ancient world. By the 1740s, classical precedent had become such a well-known part of homosexual consciousness that Smollett satirized it archly in his novel Roderick Random. When the hero meets the uncommonly affectionate Lord Strutwell, the latter reveals his true colours to us by displaying ‘an intimate knowledge of the authors of antiquity’. Plucking from his bosom a copy of the Satyr – icon, he declaims that any aversion to Petronius’s ‘taste in love’ was
more owing to prejudice and misapprehension, than to true reason and deliberation. – The best man among the ancients is said to have entertained that passion; one of the wisest of their legislators has permitted the indulgence of it in his commonwealth; the most celebrated poets have not scrupled to avow it.5
A similar mindset appears to have underlain the first extended public defence of homosexual relations in English, Thomas Cannon’s Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d (1749), which, disingenuously pretending the custom was now universally ‘exploded. . . and disowned’, described it as ‘that celebrated passion, sealed by sensualists, espoused by philosophers, enshrined by kings’, and set out to ‘discuss it with freedom, and the most philosophical exactness’. As Cannon pointed out in his introduction, ‘every dabbler knows by his classics. . . that boy-love ever was the top refinement of most enlightened ages.’6 Justifying the work to his anxious printers, he likewise ‘made an elaborate display of learning, in which he talked of Petronius Arbiter and Aretine, and quoted other ancient writers, Greek as well as Roman’.7
Especially in private, homosexual freedom was also justified with growing confidence as natural, harmless, and commonplace. In the summer of 1726, shortly after a series of raids and executions for sodomy in London, William Brown, a married man, went cruising at Moorfields, a notorious pick-up spot. He recognized Thomas Newton, a well-known catamite; what he did not know was that Newton, having been detained himself, had turned to the betrayal and entrapment of others. Yet when, having steered the other man’s hand into his breeches, Brown found himself surrounded, arrested, and challenged as to ‘why he took such indecent liberties. . . he was not ashamed to answer, I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body’. ‘There is no harm in this, my dear’, the predatory head of Wadham College, Oxford, was said to have explained at length in 1737, when his barber, bending over to shave him, ‘found the Warden trying to introduce his hand into his breeches’. ‘I asked him what he meant by it?’, deposed one of George Duffus’s bedfellows, ‘He answered, no harm, nothing but love.’ ‘He told me’, reported a second, ‘that I need not be troubled, or wonder at what he had done, for it was what was very common, and he had often practised it with others.’8
Such assertions were not unusual. ‘He did frequently do and use the same practice with diverse other persons,’ another man told the weaver John Jones in the early 1690s, after he had fondled him, taken him to an alehouse, and persuaded Jones ‘to frig him’ – he hoped they could do it again.9 Thomas Rix, hanged for sodomy in 1806, recounted that his initiation into homosexual practices had happened about twenty years earlier, when he had stopped to pee one night on the way home from a Manchester pub. His drinking companion ‘came up to him and took hold of his yard’; they ‘used friction with each other till nature spent’; and his friend reassured Rix that ‘there were many other persons who did what they had been doing’. As Cannon expressed the sentiment, homosexual lust was no different from any other kind – ‘Unnatural desire is a contradiction in terms; downright nonsense. Desire is an amatory impulse of the inmost human parts: are not they, however constructed, and consequently impelling, nature?’ The physical and emotional pleasures of sodomy were, if anything, greater than those of coition with women.10
The final inversion of conventional thinking was to suggest that the toleration of sex between men might actually have broader social benefits. This was a difficult and more abstract proposition to defend, but it evidently was discussed. Lord Strutwell explained that the practice prevented bastardy, seduction, prostitution, and venereal disease. As for being unprocreative, argued Cannon, so was sex with a pregnant woman; whilst the fact that sodomy did not cause depopulation more generally, ‘all China swarming with inhabitants, yet warmly pursuing uncontrolled pederasty, beyond contradiction demon – strates’.11
Even harder to contemplate was the notion of sex between women. Compared with sodomy, this was a much more obscure matter. It was not in itself a criminal offence; it had never been the focus of deep theological or moral concern; the evidence of actual relationships was very limited; and its contemporary discussion was correspondingly vague and piecemeal. Yet, from the later seventeenth century onwards, perceptions of it seem to have developed in analogous ways.
By the 1740s it was possible, at least in libertine circles, to posit a straightforward equivalence between the same-sex affairs of men and of women, not just in terms of intimate friendships and natural passions, but also of their essential innocuousness. Thus, in Sir Charles Hanbury Williams’s facetious verse dialogue between the politician Thomas Winnington and his lover, the Viscountess Townshend, she defends a supposed affair with Catherine Edwin as not just enjoyable but safer than sex with men: for ‘when I melt in tender Kitty’s lap, / I fear no children, and I dread no clap’.12 And when, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister set down the first full, albeit private, justification of lesbian love in English, she drew on precisely the same intellectual resources as were deployed by advocates of other kinds of sexual freedom. Her relations with other women, she argued, would not be damned but understood and forgiven by God – ‘lord have mercy on me and not justice’. In addition, she pursued the idea that sexual norms were culturally determined and unfairly oppressive of women, exploring the freer sexual customs of other religions and describing the marriage of one of her lovers as nothing more than ‘legalized prostitution’. She herself had ‘no priest but love’. For positive examples, classical literature provided a rich source of allusion to male and female homosexuality and androgyny, which Lister assiduously collated and interpreted, where necessary reading against its misogynist grain and into its suggestive silences to support her own presumptions. Further inspiration came from defences of male libertinism and romantic freedom, such as Byron’s poetry. Finally, like all previous defenders of sexual liberty, Anne Lister laid great stress on the naturalness of her emotions and actions: ‘my conduct and feelings being surely natural to me inasmuch as they were not taught, not fictitious but instinctive’.13
Given how strongly the public defence of same-sex relations was discouraged and repressed, it is not surprising to find such views articulated mainly in self-interested, indirect, and fragmentary forms. Their most fearless exponent, Thomas Cannon, was prosecuted and his work disappeared. He fled into exile, only to return a changed and broken man: compelled to print a penitent retraction, he spent years living in quiet retirement, writing prose and verse that reviled deists and extolled the truth of Christianity, the virtues of chastity, his yearning for ‘Jesus, my bleeding only love’, and his ‘immense desire’ for death.14 As in the case of sexual freedom for women, the evolution of new ways of thinking about sex therefore had a dual impact. The perception and persecution of sodomy as quintessentially ‘unnatural’ was certainly sharpened by the heightened importance of defining ‘natural’ behaviour. Yet the new approaches to human nature, law, and ethics that had advanced the idea of heterosexual liberty also made it increasingly possible by the later eighteenth century to defend homosexual freedom in equivalently wide-ranging, cogent, and dispassionate terms.
The fullest evidence of this development lies in the sustained critical attention devoted to the subject, throughout his adult life, by Jeremy Bentham, the greatest reforming mind of the age. Over many hundreds of pages of notes and treatises, composed between the 1770s and the 1820s, he not only systematically considered and dismissed every conventional argument against the toleration of sodomy, but also took up the existing justifications for heterosexual liberty and argued for their logical extension to homosexual and other supposedly unnatural acts.15
Bentham’s attack on the religious foundations of homophobia (‘the supposed warrant from scripture’) was two-pronged. Like many of his predecessors, he argued that the whole Judaeo-Christian obsession with chastity had been artificially imposed on society by priests and rulers, for their own pernicious ends. This ‘false religion’ had produced ‘a labyrinth without an end’ of irrational sexual prohibitions.16 In fact, the Jews’ prohibition of sodomy deserved no more respect from more advanced civilizations than their dietary or sartorial taboos, or their proscription of intercourse with a menstruating wife.17
On the other hand, in order to fight the enemy on its own territory, he also pushed to newly elaborate extremes the favourable reinterpretation of scriptural precedents. The inhabitants of Sodom, his reading of the Bible convinced him, had been punished not for their homosexual practices, but for imposing them by force on strangers: it was the rape and the violation of hospitality that had so offended God.18 Furthermore, he found that the Israelites had often disregarded the Mosaic injunction against sodomy and openly tolerated homosexual behaviour. The relationship between David and Jonathan was plainly one of ‘the most ardent sexual love’, and there were many others like it. Such conduct was deemed natural, commonplace, and praiseworthy: sometimes it was even promoted by government. After all, did the Old Testament not refer to ‘the houses of the sodomites that were by the house of the Lord’ (II Kings 23.7)? Thus, ‘so far from its being punished, we find receptacles for this species of gratification set up by authority and maintained at different periods in Judah’.19 Most telling of all was the example of Jesus himself, whose real message (‘sexuality not discouraged rather encouraged’) had later been concealed and distorted by St Paul and his successors. Not only did Christ ‘declare the utter abolition of the Mosaic law’ (including the Ten Commandments), as ‘but a mere human law. . . ill adapted to the welfare of society’, it was clear that he viewed with ‘scorn and ridicule’ all forms of ‘ascetic self-denial’ and punishment for ‘sexual irregularity’: ‘On this whole field, in which Moses legislates with such diversified minuteness and such impassioned asperity, Jesus is altogether silent.’20 He was in fact ‘an Epicurean’, who considered no kind of sexual gratification to be sinful. He lived at a time and place where ‘the practice in question [was] universally spread’. His most faithful attendant was a young male prostitute, whom he treated without any disapproval. Christ himself was not only sexually active with women such as Mary Magdalen, but likely also to ‘have been a participator in the Attic taste’, and to have enjoyed a sexual relationship with St John the Apostle.21
Why, then, should consensual sex between men not be freely allowed in modern society? Bentham granted that, except to its practitioners, such behaviour was thought ‘to the highest degree odious and disgusting’. He himself described it in his early writings as a ‘miserable’, ‘corrupted’, ‘detestable’, and ‘perverted taste’, ‘a filthiness’, an ‘infection’, a ‘physical impurity’, a ‘preposterous propensity’, a ‘depraved appetite’, and an ‘abomination’.22 But the fact that the custom was abhorrent to the majority of the community no more justified the punishment of sodomy than it did the killing of Jews, Moors, heretics, Anabaptists, hermaphrodites, smokers, or people who ate oysters. ‘To destroy a man there should certainly be some better reason than mere dislike to his taste, let that dislike be ever so strong’.23 The action was voluntary, and evidently pleasurable to the participants. It did not cause them any immediate injury, or disturb the peace of others. It was tolerated in other contemporary societies and had been practised by many great men in the past. So the real question ought to be, what harm did it produce?24
Might the habit of sodomy tend to enervate men, as was sometimes suggested, and hence reduce the strength of the state? There was no physiological evidence that it did, and history suggested the opposite. The ancient Greeks and Romans were stronger and braver than any modern nation, yet amongst them ‘this propensity was universally predominant’ – ‘everybody practised it; nobody was ashamed of it’.25 Did it lead to depopulation? This traditional fear, too, was disproved by the example of other societies; and by 1800 it had been replaced in any case by Malthusian concerns about overpopulation. Either way, argued Bentham, sodomy was a priori far less important in determining population levels than economic circumstances, voluntary celibacy, female biology, heterosexual seduction and prostitution, and other extraneous factors.26 Finally, did sodomy infringe the rights of women, by making men indifferent to them and thus diminishing the amount of ‘venereal enjoyment’ that they received? Given that in all civilized countries women were permitted to gratify themselves only within marriage, the answer must be no. For the evidence appeared to show that same-sex relations were not normally permanent or exclusive: it was only persecution that tended to encourage that. Sodomy itself did not preclude or delay marriage, nor need it injure a wife any more than would heterosexual adultery.27 In short, it was harmless, ‘an imaginary crime’: no more dangerous to society than the practices of scratching or of blowing one’s nose, and penalized ‘on no other foundation than prejudice’.28
It was even possible, reasoned Bentham, that the toleration of sodomy would be socially beneficial. It was likely to decrease masturbation, which, though unpunishable, appeared of all sexual acts to be ‘the most incontestably pernicious. . . to the health and lasting happiness of those who are led to practise it’ (this was the conventional eighteenth-century view, which even Bentham was persuaded of).29 Unlike heterosexual intercourse, sodomy did not lead to the seduction and prostitution of women, unwanted pregnancies, dangerous childbirths, abortion, infanticide, illegitimacy, or overpopulation. In fact, he came to argue with increasing conviction, it was tendentious and wrong to call the practice ‘unnatural’. Lust was a natural
human appetite: a taste for this particular way of gratifying it was encouraged whenever civilized nations saw fit to educate their virile young men in close proximity to one another, whilst restricting their intercourse with women.30
Indeed, Bentham’s justification of ‘irregular’ sexual practices was not restricted to sodomy. On the same grounds, he came to urge the toleration of sex between women, relations between pupils and teachers, bestiality, and any sexual act between consenting adults, within or without marriage – for ‘if there be one idea more ridiculous than another it is that of a legislator who, when a man and a woman are agreed about a business of this sort, thrusts himself in between them, examining situations, regulating times, and prescribing modes and postures’.31 On the contrary, from a utilitarian point of view, the sum total of human pleasure that could be derived from sex was without compare. It was the most universal, the most easily accessible, the most intense, ‘the most copious source of enjoyment’, ‘of all pleasures the most exquisite’; nothing, it could be mathematically demonstrated, was ‘more conducive to happiness’. Were an ‘all-comprehensive liberty for all modes of sexual gratification’ to be established, including the toleration of contraception, abortion, infanticide, and divorce, it would be of huge, permanent benefit to humankind: ‘what calculation shall compute the aggregate mass of pleasure that may be brought into existence’?32
It is notable that Bentham never published these proposals, though he repeatedly considered doing so. He was intensely aware of the odium they would bring upon his philosophy and his personal character in a climate in which, as he himself analysed so acutely, hatred of sodomy had become a touchstone of respectability.34 Yet ‘for the sake of the interests of humanity’ he also felt compelled to think them through in detail, to set them down on paper repeatedly and at great length, to share them privately with others, and to hope that all this might contribute to their eventual ‘free discussion’ and general acceptance: ‘at any rate,’ he explained, ‘when I am dead mankind will be the better for it’.35
We can be certain, moreover, that these ideas were debated amongst his friends and in radical intellectual circles more generally. Whilst revising them in the mid-i8ios, Bentham lived together with his close friends and helpers, Francis Place and James Mill, the political philosopher (as well as the latter’s young son, John Stuart Mill, whose own later strictures against ‘Christian morality (so called)’ and its ‘horror of sensuality’ owe an obvious debt to Bentham). Amongst others evidently aware of Bentham’s views on sodomy were such influential thinkers and activists as William Godwin, Aaron Burr, Peter Mark Roget, Etienne Dumont, and his own brother and collaborator, Samuel.36 Already as a young man in the early 1770s, Bentham had come to know ‘more than a few’ heterosexuals who, like him, abhorred the irrational persecution of ‘innocent’ men whose sexual tastes did ‘no harm to anyone’. Shortly after his death, many of the arguments he had privately elaborated were given lengthy printed utterance in the remarkable anonymous poem ‘Don Leon’, whose plea for the toleration of the harmless natural passions of sodomites was circulated, at first semi-clandestinely and then publicly, from the 1830s onwards.37 Even though such views remained exceptional and objectionable, their increasing elaboration demonstrates just how potentially far-reaching the ideals of sexual freedom had become by the dawn of the nineteenth century.