Yesterday I ended up getting into a discussion on Twitter with Naomi Wolf over her 2019 book Outrages, which was published in Britain but pulped in the United States after a British interviewer pointed out that Wolf had based some of her argument on alleged sodomy executions that did not occur, having mistaken odd British penal terminology for a death sentence. The last British sodomy execution occurred in 1836, but Wolf had alleged that they continued deep into the nineteenth century. A revised version of the book has now been published here. After seeing a tweet Wolf made yesterday, I expressed my dismay that Wolf was still defending that position and also my sadness that she describes John Addington Symonds, a Victorian-era author whom I’ve discussed before, as a man who “refused to be silenced” in pursuit of gay rights. Wolf took issue with my tweet and we had a lengthy discussion of the matter that ended productively. That’s an improvement over my usual interactions with the likes of Scott Wolter and Giorgio Tsoukalos!
Symonds lived a life by turns sad and sweet as he struggled to reconcile his same-sex attractions with Victorian morality, but by no means was he a firebrand for gay rights. He did make some of the first efforts to organize for gay rights, but without ever speaking of himself as a potential beneficiary. He didn’t let his work on same-sex love be published in his lifetime, and though his friends and colleagues knew that he had a male partner, alongside his wife and children, he studiously avoided offending Victorian morality by making this knowledge widely known. His private pain was just that—private.
Wolf correctly notes that the British government tried to stamp out homosexuality and made life hard for gay men. But the issue at the heart of our disagreement is exactly who counts when discussing the Victorians and their culture. The Victorian elites—the upper middle class and the aristocracy—were certainly increasingly anti-gay and passed harsh legislation. But their attitudes aren’t indicative of the vast majority of Victorians, who were not always happy to be led by a small minority of elitist prudes. In Havelock Ellis’s seminal 1897 study Sexual Inversion, to which Symonds was a posthumous contributor, we see a much different portrait of Victorian England.
Although Ellis’s main concern was with the educated classes, he gave, around the edges, a portrait of a culture that doesn’t comport to the stereotype of Victorian oppression. Here, for example, he describes people he obviously abhors—poor people and non-white folk—and makes quite plain that they weren’t half as censorious or oppressive as the dour men in frock coats and top hats:
On the whole, the evidence shows that among lower races homosexual practices are regarded with considerable indifference, and the real invert, if he exists among them, as doubtless he does exist, generally passes unperceived or joins some sacred caste which sanctifies his exclusively homosexual inclinations.
One of Ellis’s correspondents was much more explicit about the widespread nature of same-sex prostitution in England and its widespread acceptance, even among law enforcement:
"Among the working masses of England and Scotland," Q. writes, "'comradeship' is well marked, though not (as in Italy) very conscious of itself. Friends often kiss each other, though this habit seems to vary a good deal in different sections and coteries. Men commonly sleep together, whether comrades or not, and so easily get familiar. Occasionally, but not so very often, this relation delays for a time, or even indefinitely, actual marriage, and in some instances is highly passionate and romantic. There is a good deal of grossness, no doubt, here and there in this direction among the masses; but there are no male prostitutes (that I am aware of) whose regular clients are manual workers. This kind of prostitution in London is common enough, but I have only a slight personal knowledge of it. Many youths are 'kept' handsomely in apartments by wealthy men, and they are, of course, not always inaccessible to others. Many keep themselves in lodgings by this means, and others eke out scanty wages by the same device: just like women, in fact. Choirboys reinforce the ranks to a considerable extent, and private soldiers to a large extent. Some of the barracks (notably Knightsbridge) are great centres. On summer evenings Hyde Park and the neighborhood of Albert Gate is full of guardsmen and others plying a lively trade, and with little disguise, in uniform or out. In these cases it sometimes only amounts to a chat on a retired seat or a drink at a bar; sometimes recourse is had to a room in some known lodging-house, or to one or two hotels which lend themselves to this kind of business. In any case it means a covetable addition to Tommy Atkins's pocket-money." And Mr. Raffalovich, speaking of London, remarks: "The number of soldiers who prostitute themselves is greater than we are willing to believe. It is no exaggeration to say that in certain regiments the presumption is in favor of the venality of the majority of the men." It is worth noting that there is a perfect understanding in this matter between soldiers and the police, who may always be relied upon by the former for assistance and advice. [...]"
Ellis, in dismissing all of this, declares it the result of lower classes’ atavistic natures and refers to it as a “primitive indifference” to morality. But he was only reflecting the biases of his class. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those “lower classes” that had no repugnance at the thought of sexual diversity made up the majority of the population. The middle class comprised just 15% of the people in the Victorian period and the aristocracy still less. So, about 80% of people were lower class.
While Wolf’s overall argument about growing oppression in the late Victorian period is correct, it’s important to remember the broader context, that this oppression wasn’t a natural development from a culture of prudery but was consciously imposed by a small, elite minority onto a population that had previously held the opposite opinion. The sad fact is that today the opposite is true and the working classes hold on to those Victorian inventions while the new elites are still working to undo them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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