Progressive Sex? – Considering One Hundred Years of Deviance, Tolerance and Change in Sex and Sexuality in Britain and Beyond

Session Abstract : Sex and sexuality occupy a key role in progressive politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Legal and cultural acceptance of non-normative sexuality is perceived as a benchmark of enlightened modernity, and setbacks to the same an assault on hard-won political liberties and social tolerance. In the present political climate, many an op-ed piece argues we are seeing a backlash to twenty- and twenty-first century progress. Such commentary relies on a teleology that links growing open-mindedness to social and political justice. A historical perspective can contribute to, and perhaps complicate, this strand of thought by underscoring the uneven nature of change and ever-evolving schemas of deviancy. How are new standards of sexual normalcy conveyed and diffused? How, in contrast, does perceived sexual deviancy morph over time? How is it defined and managed by administrations or experts, including the state and the medical community? How much do prominent individuals or experts impact, or reflect, wider trends? This panel takes the long-view with paper topics ranging from the nineteenth to the late twentieth century, considering sexual barometers of normalcy through Victorian medical diagnoses of sexual insanity, the impact of the Kinsey reports on the “Angloworld,” and late twentieth-century sanctions on gays and lesbians working for the British Foreign Office.

Session Chair: Matt Houlbrook

Paper 1 Abstract : Amy Milne Smith, Wilfred Laurier University
For Victorian mad-doctors, courts, and families, understanding the difference between normal and deviant behavior was a difficult, if not impossible, task. And yet in an era of general confinement of the mentally ill, it was crucial. Sexual perversity was one of the most obvious, and troubling, signs of madness. It is not hard to find moralists, doctors, and religious authorities railing against the horrors of masturbation, promiscuity, and homosexual liaisons. And yet those were not the only voices in the landscape. Pushing past proscriptive literature to cultural sources, family records, and asylum notes, a more complicated and nuanced idea of Victorian sexuality emerges. Doctors were sometimes unconcerned with eccentric sexual behavior; and patients were sometimes obsessed with their self-identified sexual problems.

For example, one fifty-five year old solicitor was convinced that he had committed grave sexual sins. His guilt and delusions were such he attempted suicide, and he was terrified at being placed among good company, or ladies in particular.[1] His doctors were not troubled by his initial behavior, but rather his over-reaction to his sexual sins. It was his morbid obsession and guilt, rather than his actual sexual desire, which doctors identified as dangerous.
Issues of class, age, publicity, and intent complicated the boundary between normal and deviant sexuality.

This paper will explore the experiences of those deemed sexually insane either by themselves or outside observers. In teasing out the unstable terrain between “normal” and “deviant,” I will employ the lessons of intersectionality to untangle why particular behaviours and ideas became pathologized, while others did not.

Paper 2 Abstract : Ruby Ray Daily, Northwestern University

From 1824 to 1930 twelve million people emigrated from Britain, most moving within North America and the Antipodes. Within this “Anglo-world,” print media became increasingly egalitarian and accessible due to cheap modes of production, increasing literacy, and newly inexpensive postal services. With the capacity to reach millions, burgeoning print media connected far-flung British subjects or immigrants, and increasingly raised the specter of “Americanization.” Racy and sensationalist exposes, tabloid coverage of sexy film stars, and polling or statistical analyses of romance and sex are hallmarks of both “modern” media, and newly “permissive” standards of sexuality. However, a closer look indicates these changes sometimes filtered through the Anglosphere in unexpected and partial ways. One telling example is the renowned research of Alfred Kinsey on human sexual behavior. Kinsey’s correspondence reveals that his name may have echoed around the world, but his findings were largely inaccessible to the poor, distant or timid except through vague and often disapproving newspaper coverage. Many Britons who wrote to Kinsey encountered his name and project repeatedly, but could only guess at what his research revealed or concluded about human sexuality.

This paper will juxtapose the global implications of the Kinsey project with the superficial and certainly uneven penetration of his actual findings and conclusions among British subjects. The heightened flow of people and information makes it obvious that a transnational lens of analysis is required, but also calls into question the true impact of global phenomena and mass media. What do benchmarks of change in sexual mores look like and how does substantive change occur? The field of sexuality studies is often hampered by teleologies of change and progress, but what does the alternative look like and how can it be measured? This, in turn, highlights the perennially ambiguous relationship between sexual behavior and sexual discourse, progress and stasis.

Paper 3 Abstract : Paper 3 Abstract: James Southern, Queen Mary University of London

In 1991, Conservative Prime Minister John Major announced that it would no longer be illegal to be a gay or lesbian British diplomat. What Major did not reveal in his statement, however, was that the lifting of the homosexuality bar had been the result of decades of intense internal debate at the Foreign Office (FCO), as diplomats scrutinised the legitimacy of the policy from every conceivable political practical and ethical standpoint. Ever since homosexual acts between men were partially decriminalised in 1967, the FCO had remained a citadel of exclusive heterosexuality – citing as its main argument the risk of blackmail from Soviet spies who, it was supposed, would extract state secrets from gay diplomats under threat of a public exposure of their sexuality.

This paper uses hitherto-unreleased files, held at the FCO archive, to chart internal discussion about the homosexuality bar from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. Analysing chronologically the contents of the files, it teases out the changes in social attitudes in Britain and in the international diplomatic community that developed over the second half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, it will explore the ways in which diplomats’ opinions and arguments reflect broader political discourse in each period – from the liberal early 1970s to the politically partisan 1980s.

Ultimately, the paper seeks to ask: what can historians learn from a study of the sexuality of diplomats? It argues that cultural histories of diplomatic organisations can enrich and refresh scholarly understanding of the mores, norms and mentalities that ultimately govern behaviour and practice in the international community.