Sexuality à la carte?
I’m currently reading Troublesome Young Men, a history of anti-fascist parliamentarians in 1930s Britain. At first blush, this has very little to do with David’s excellent post on homosexuality, pedophilia and desire. But the book’s treatment of Robert Boothby, a promiscuous Scottish MP, is worth reproducing:
Boothby loved Germany and had visited it many times. Fluent in German, he came to see his friends, talk politics and economics, and listen to opera (he was a regular at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth). He also sampled the decadent night life of Berlin, where “along the Kurfürstendamm,” in the words of Stefan Zweig, “powdered and rouged young men sauntered, and in the dimly lit bars one might see men of the world of finance courting drunken sailors.” Although Boothby’s sexual relationships were primarily with women, he was also known to engage in homosexual escapades. In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, he recalled in his memoirs, “homosexuality was rampant; and, as I was very good looking [then], I was chased all over the place and rather enjoyed it.”
As David notes, the idea of a class of permanent homosexuals is a fairly recent cultural development, but that notion seems to have become conventional wisdom over the past several decades. Gay conversion stories are universally ridiculed in the mainstream, and if I was to tell my friends I had sex with a man the other night, they wouldn’t assume I was dabbling; they’d assume I was gay.
Just because this is conventional wisdom, however, doesn’t mean our ideas about the permanence of sexual attraction are wrong. Here’s David:
Part of this cataloging and extirpation process was the identification of homosexuals as a sub-set of the population who were like other people except with respect to this single pathology. This made its way into general opinion in odd, quasi-medical ways, but the general sentiment directed towards this newly invented population, I gather, was not unlike the way we feel about pedophiles today: a covert, unspeakable menace threatening our children in the midst of us.
Hindsight and the crudity of mid-century scientism have allowed Foucault and others to speak of our “invention” of permanent sexual preferences. Although early efforts to classify and catalog human sexuality are undoutedly rife with misunderstanding, this doesn’t mean contemporary views of same-sex attraction are wrong. Instead, I’d compare our attempts to understand human sexuality to modern medicine’s understanding of the human body. It does not follow from the problems of over-diagnosing or over-prescribing medicine that doctors or Big Pharma “invented” cancer and schizophrenia. Similarly, our limited understanding of human sexuality does not mean that permanent same-sex attraction is purely a product of modern cultural conventions.
To return to Boothby, I think it’s possible that some people are and always have been attracted to both sexes. But I also think it’s possible that the fluidity of premodern human sexuality was not, as Foucault suggests, our natural state of affairs. Instead, it’s just as likely that older ideas about “dabbling” in same-sex liaisons were misguided attempts to rationalize homosexuality as a transitory phase or youthful foible.