Note: This piece first ran earlier this week in my Substack newsletter. I am cross-posting it here.
A firestorm erupted this weekend in intellectual circles when economic philosopher Guy Sorman told the Sunday Times that the famed—and long dead—French intellectual Michel Foucault was a pedophile who sexually exploited young boys in Tunisia in the late 1960s. Sorman said that he witnessed boys eager to trade sexual favors for Foucault’s money. “They were eight, nine, ten years old, he was throwing money at them and would say ‘let’s meet at 10pm at the usual place’,” a nearby cemetery, Sorman told the Times. “He would make love there on the gravestones with young boys. The question of consent wasn’t even raised.”
The accusation, or more likely revelation, should not have surprised anyone who remembered that Foucault had signed a 1977 petition asking the French government to legalize sex between adults and children. Foucault was one of many French intellectuals who supported the move, including the existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida, and literary theorist Roland Barthes. At the time, Foucault called consent laws “a trap” designed to turn love into a criminal act, arguing that the “intolerable” and real “abuses” were pretending children didn’t understand or couldn’t consent to sex with middle-aged men.
The Times immediately framed the story as a political issue, claiming that the prevalence of Foucault’s philosophy among “woke” liberals meant that his sex crimes would discredit liberal approaches to issues of sex and gender—a claim belied by the lack of impact accusations against prominent conservative figures had on conservatives’ sexual moralizing.
But outside the typical sniping about how the story will impact the culture wars, Foucault’s transgressions were part of a larger story that takes uncomfortable turns involving pederasty and power dynamics, and centered within the nineteenth century origins of the gay rights movement. The modern gay rights movement prefers to trace its origins back to the middle twentieth century, in large measure because the first major push for gay rights half a century before was intimately tied to power and predation in ways that rightly strike many today as abusive. The story is complex, and this article can only skate along some of the highlights. But it is nonetheless important.
Nineteenth Century Origins
The later nineteenth century saw a number of controversies over the place of homosexuals in European and American society. Most countries had extremely repressive laws banning sodomy, and Europeans also exported those laws to their colonies, imposing them even where culture and tradition had previously been more liberal. However, these laws were never popular, and reports from the period record widespread trade in same-sex sexual contact, often quite openly. In Britain, it was common for soldiers on leave to trade sex for money, making arrangements in public parks. The volume Sexual Inversion recorded that among the lower classes, there was no particular stigma attached to homosexual relations, provided it occurred out of sight. Public expressions were, of course, viciously and sometimes violently condemned.
Deep concerns and stigma over private behavior were more often the province of the elites. Marxists would argue that such concerns were due to the need to enforce heterosexual unions to control the legitimate passage of property between generations, while conservatives argued that it derived from a desire to conform to traditional Christian morality as a public show in an era of declining faith. The reason is less important than the effect. After decades of relative liberalization, anti-gay attitudes roared back in the terminal nineteenth century, a time when scholars first began to classify “inversion,” as they called it, as a mental illness.
Nevertheless, it was an open secret that same-sex relations were tolerated in some elite circles, as long as they followed particular forms. The British boarding school, for example, was a well-known locus of elite same-sex relationships, many not consensual, between older boys and younger boys and between educators and their charges. The distinct power dynamic, reinforcing hierarchy, made such relationships seem natural in a world remade by Darwinian battles for dominance. Many men looked back with affection and fondness on their schoolboy relationships. There is a strange story of a British colonial official who had a room in his estate remodeled into a copy of his boarding school bedroom, and he would go there to quietly contemplate pictures of his schoolmates. Read into that what you will. I’m guessing you don’t go through all that trouble if it isn’t your sex room, but who knows?
By the end of the century, though, many homosexuals and bisexuals wanted more than schoolboy memories and backroom trysts. In casting about, however, for precedent for the upending of the traditional prohibition on sodomy, those young men who attended boarding school made use of their elite education to cite the Classics. Ancient Greece provided the best model for a society that had made official space for same-sex relationships. If the Greeks and Romans, those great men to whom the European empires turned for inspiration and justification, had tolerated or even encouraged such unions, then so too could Western cultures.
But the Greek model was problematic. It came with a Classical pedigree but morally unpleasant overtones for Victorian society. The Greeks practiced pederasty, in which the idealized relationship involved an adult man masturbating with a teenage boy, to put it grossly. John Addington Symonds was one of the most eloquent voices idealizing the Greek form of love as precedent for liberalizing attitudes toward same-sex love in the Victorian era. His A Problem in Greek Ethics (1873/1883) cast Greek boy love in terms of an idealized union of souls contrasted with a grosser form of sexual satisfaction. But he often colored Greek views more romantic than they were.
Speaking of the Musa Puerilis, a collection of more than 250 Greco-Roman romantic poems about teenage boys, Symonds wrote that “A very small percentage of these compositions can be described as obscene; none are nasty, in the style of Martial or Ausonius; some are exceedingly picturesque; a few are written in a strain of lofty or of lovely music; one or two are delicate and subtle in their humour.” Yet, to modern eyes, those poems are difficult to read. In one, the poet Strato muses on his favorite ages, talking of his preference for fondling boys as young as twelve. In another, he writes of how he prefers boys because women won’t do anal and don’t have penises for his “wandering hand” to grab on to. Even the more ethereal poems only seem beautiful when you forget a grown man wrote them about teen boys.
Such precedents, however, moved nineteenth-century artists and decadents, those discontented with Victorian manners and mores. When Oscar Wilde went to court first suing for libel and then on trial for gross indecency over the relationship he had with the much younger Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde turned to the Greek model to defend not just same-sex love but the importance of large age gaps in such relationships. They met when Douglas was 21 and Wilde was 36. In court, Wilde gave this explanation:
“The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name”, and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Such ideas were common among the intellectual and social elites of the Victorian and Edwardian worlds, and more often than we care to admit, it justified outright pedophilia, particularly in the colonies, where issues of power and race colored the predatory behavior of colonial officials toward local boys. Among the French, the North African colonies became popular destinations for men who wanted to have sex with boys. Oscar Wilde’s good friend André Gide, France’s greatest living novelist, had met Wilde in Paris and spent time with him in Algiers, where Wilde discussed homosexuality with Gide, thinking he was breaking new ground for the Frenchman, unaware that Gide had used his time in the Algerian capital to explore his newfound passion for teenage boys. The two men indulged their mutual love of boys together, taking two adolescents up to Wilde’s rooms in Algeria and, to be indelicate, fucking them in adjoining bedrooms.
Gide dressed it up as a question of homosexual freedom but distinguished between pederasty and homosexuality, classifying himself as a pederast, which he considered a noble calling. “That such loves can spring up, that such relationships can be formed,” he wrote, “it is not enough for me to say that this is natural; I maintain that it is good; each of the two finds exaltation, protection, a challenge in them; and I wonder whether it is for the youth or the elder man that they are more profitable.” As such, he inspired Sartre, who later joined Foucault in demanding an end to the age of consent. Such men fooled themselves into believing that boys wanted sex with men and benefited from being abused.
The Casting Couch
Gide is little remembered in America except for his 1902 semi-autobiographical novel L’Immoraliste, the story of a man who discovers his homosexuality in Algeria after becoming uncontrollably attracted to teenage Arab boys. The novel retains importance only because it was adapted into a play in 1953 in which future movie star James Dean played a scheming Arab houseboy luring an older man into the temptation of homosexuality.
The story of how Dean ended up in that role in The Immoralist is an illustration of how thoroughly the corrupt ideas of a homosexuality centered on predation permeated the artistic class in middle twentieth century. In the first half of the twentieth century, there were two competing views of homosexuality, both problematic. The scientific view held homosexuality to be a mental disorder, and its practitioners mentally ill. The competing model, drawn from nineteenth-century views like Wilde’s, recast homosexuality as noble, the province of the intellectually, artistically, and spiritually superior, provided it involved superior older men bestowing their benefits on receptive younger men. (That is not to say people of different ages cannot have loving relationships, but that practitioners of the time assumed a power difference was essential.) Wilde had described such unequal relationships as the province of artists, equals even to Christ, in his letter to Douglas known as De Profundis, published in full for the first time in 1949. Such philosophy conveniently justified the abusive power dynamics Hollywood and Broadway types used to seek sex from aspiring actors.
In 1951, at the age of 20, Dean entered into a consensual relationship with a much older advertising executive and aspiring Broadway producer, Rogers Brackett.(Ironically, their age difference was the same as that of Wilde and Douglas.) Brackett introduced him to circles of gay entertainment executives on both coasts. These were, almost to a man, predators who dressed up their lust in pretty language. They would cite French literature and Oscar Wilde to justify obscene demands. One of them—it’s not known who—introduced Dean to De Profundis, which shaped his views of the artist as transgressive rebel.
In 1953, Brackett introduced Dean, then out of work, to Lemuel Ayers, a Broadway set designer nearing 40 who was planning to produce his first Broadway show. The married Ayers hired Dean to serve as a deckhand on his yacht during his annual vacation cruise, and Dean assumed it would be an opportunity to ingratiate himself and earn a chance to try out for a real Broadway play. He believed that Ayers having his wife on board the yacht, with a full crew, would prevent any untoward behavior, despite Ayers’s reputation. What happened next can only be reconstructed through collating overlapping partial references and secondhand stories, but it’s clear that Ayers pressured Dean for sex, with his wife’s approval. Dean refused to speak about what occurred, even to his closest friends, but it was clear that the events traumatized him. For the rest of his life, he became agitated and angry about what he described as abuse, even if he never explicitly shared the details. He bought a large knife and later a revolver and kept them with him whenever he was in a studio or theater.
Ayers arranged for Dean to be cast in the lead in See the Jaguar, a bad play that quickly closed. But the good reviews he got for his performance catapulted him straight into another production, The Immoralist, of all things, an adaptation of Gide’s L’Immoraliste. It was a showcase role, but one that required him to wear basically something akin to blackface to portray an evil Arab catamite. “Hate this fucking brown makeup,” he wrote in a letter. Even so, his performance as a seductive, predatory homosexual teenager was an ironic counterpoint to Gide’s own predatory pederasty.
Gide’s and Foucault’s abuse only reminds us that all the ethereal beauty of words cannot hide the abusive, predatory behavior that has long used gay rights as a cloak to conceal real harm. Decisions made long ago rattle down the decades, shaping the future in ways it can be difficult to fully capture or quantify.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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