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Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

Before Wilde is a social history of sex between men in early-to-mid-nineteenth-century Britain. It is based on a sample of over one thousand trial reports relating to sex between men published in leading London newspapers between 1820 and 1870. Most of the cases analyzed were not sensational, and disappeared from the public discussion after a few weeks. Taken together, though, and when combined with personal letters, obituaries, state documents, and other primary sources, they reveal the ways in which average men at all levels of society understood same-sex desire, and how they pursued those desires at a time when acting on them was regularly punished with imprisonment.

The first section of the book examines the social and the spatial contexts where these incidents unfolded. This begins with the family.  While the family has often been neglected when analyzing same-sex desire in the nineteenth century, it was in many cases the first forum within which these actions were judged. By combining evidence from hundreds of different cases, it is possible to create a composite picture of how mothers, fathers, sisters, nieces, brothers and sons reacted when a man within a family showed sexual interest in other men. While family members worked assiduously to end these relationships, the rhetoric of “the worst of crimes” was absent, and many men were not permanently ostracized from their families. The most vehement denunciations of same sex desire seem limited to the public statements of elite men, whose social power was most threatened by the public disclosure of sex between men.

The analysis of where incidents occurred also reveals a greater diversity than previously documented. While molly houses and cruising areas associated with eighteenth-century sodomites persisted, the vast majority of incidents described in the newspapers began in more innocuous spaces: in public houses that were not molly houses, on quiet streets and more frequented thoroughfares, in parks during the daytime and at night, and in private homes and public shops. The reporting reveals a wide-ranging geography of casual encounters between average individuals, suggesting that even though arrest was an ever-present possibility, men still pressed their luck in a range of urban spaces, often doing so many times before finally being brought before the law. 

The middle section of the book examines how the laws, the policing, and the reporting of sex between men changed in the 1820s, and how the patterns set at that time persisted for the next fifty years. Many of these changes were not done primarily to influence the way the state prosecuted sex between men, but were part of a broader effort to adapt institutions to new political and social circumstances following the Napoleonic Wars. Britain’s criminal law received its first systematic review and consolidation in this decade, resulting in the more widespread use of the laws against attempted sodomy, unnatural assault, and extortions based on unnatural crime. The new reformed system of policing in London took a greater interest in all petty crimes, including those related to sex between men. Most major newspapers reported significantly more of these cases after 1822, but it was the liberal daily press, led by the Times, that had the most coverage. While the Bishop of Clogher’s 1822 arrest on attempted sodomy charges was the initial catalyst, the new patterns of policing and reporting persisted into later decades because of these broader institutional changes. 

The final section of the book analyzes how ideas of masculinity and character influenced the understanding of same-sex desire. It first examines the types of cases that were most rarely reported over this fifty-year period. Cases involving foreigners, cross-dressers, wives as prosecutors, and debauched upper-class men represented only a tiny fraction of the total reporting. The vast majority of cases were between men of differing class status involved in an encounter in pubic space. At such times it often came down to one man’s word against the other’s, at which point evidence of past respectability and character could be decisive. The importance of respectability in these cases is further demonstrated by the handful of incidents where two men of high status and impeccable reputation accused one another in court of sexual advances. More than in any other category of case, the usual procedures of the law seemed to break down in these trials, and almost any reason was accepted, however implausible, to preserve the fiction that two otherwise respectable men could not feel these desires for one another.

This illustrates the idea prevalent at the time that same-sex desire stemmed from a failure to control desires, and that anyone with unchecked lust, over time, might seek out homosexual as well as heterosexual partners. Other men, however, especially those who felt that their own same-sex desires were innate, natural to them, and not the result of a lack of control, contested this idea. These competing understandings of same-sex desire were debated within the early works of sexology, and the final chapter examines this literature in light of the new information provided in the previous sections. It highlights the ways in which mid nineteenth-century understandings of class and character operated in the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and how it was only with Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds that the Victorian linkages between masculine respectability and same-sex desire were decisively challenged.