Thinking the unthinkable
More notable still was the gradual extension of sexual liberty to homosexual acts. This was a development that would have been inconceivable to most early advocates of sexual licence, whose intention was often precisely to prevent sodomy,1 and it remained anathema to mainstream opinion throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and for most of the twentieth. Indeed, the legal punishment of sodomy, and its denunciation as the antithesis of normal sexual conduct, became more common after 1700 than it had been before: executions for sodomy took place regularly in England until the 1830s. Yet alongside the heightening of official and unofficial ostracism and repression there slowly emerged a semi-clandestine, alternative, minority pattern of argument in justification of same-sex relations.
This was not just an intellectual development. This period also saw the birth of a whole new culture of male homosexuality in London and other western European cities. The same kind of urban, pluralist environment in which the theory and practice of heterosexual freedom first developed thus also fostered the emergence of distinctively modern ways of same-sex living and thinking.2
Homoerotic sentiments were themselves not new. Indeed, especially between men they had long been regarded as entirely compatible with the main well-springs of English culture. Though Christianity unequivocally condemned the act of sodomy, its conception of religious commitment as love and marriage with Christ sometimes led sixteenth- and seventeenth-century men to express themselves in unabashedly sensual terms. ‘Batter my heart, three personed God,’ wrote John Donne in one of his Holy Sonnets, ‘Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you enthral me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.’ The New England Puritan Edward