MODERNITY and SEXUALITY

Modern Homosexuality

The beginning of the modern homosexuality is linked to a new economic system: capitalism.  Capitalism, compared to feudalism, is marked by a specific kind of society characterized by urban centers and bureaucracy.  Capitalism, compared to rural societies, which favor small clusters where everyone knew everyone else, was impersonal, regulated by detached actions and distanced decisions.  Unlike the village market, where the local butcher might reduce the price of meat for a needy family, the capitalist market is vast and impersonal and is driven by an economic machinery that is inhuman and alienating to human needs and desires and to human beings and their feelings. To succeed in such a society, the new human of the nineteenth century needed to cultivate behaviors that got positive rewards under capitalism: rational thinking, disciplined lifestyle, independence, self-direction, self-control, and, above all, competitiveness.

Capitalism favored the family unit as the economic unit and, in doing so, redefined “family,” from “extended” or inclusive to “nuclear” or isolated.  With the nuclear family now deemed the central economic unit, market forces found it easier to separate extended family units, as individuals left the villages and their family roots, searching for work. The nuclear family, under this new familial regime—a combination of the religious and the economic, now empowered the male as head of the family (by divine right) and subordinated  (through religious custom) the females of the household to his rule. Frederick Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884 that the second class status of women began with the concept of “private property.” Earlier, Karl Marx argued that capitalism reduced human relations to economic relations and resulted in alienation, now extended, according to Engels, to that most intimate of relations, sexuality and marriage. 

While the status of the individual male and his social mobility could rise under capitalism, the status of the female sank during the nineteenth century to a historical low. Existing under conditions of psychological alienation, women lost mobility, both social and economic. They lost all legal and economic rights. They were denied full access to the culture, from education to suffrage. Any status women had was second hand, siphoned at a distance from their fathers or their brothers or their husbands.  Without male protectors, women became invisible and without a husband, women did not exist. More about the status of women later, but for now, we need to note that the “family” is not only gendered but sexed as well: it is heterosexual, meaning male marries female.

What was the impact of competitive capitalism upon relations among men?  Under the circumstances of impersonal market forces and an almost Darwinian struggle for existence, male (human) emotions could not be expressed or acted upon.  Kept in a state of tension and competition against each other, so that the strongest could “win,” men could not have feelings of comraderie or intimacy towards each other.  Any actions that negatively interfere with competition must be eradicated if the man is to achieve success.  Middle class parents began to raise their male children to succeed in the market, by shaping them to be self-reliant and to behave with self-control and foresight.

In the early decades of High Capitalism, it was necessary to restrain oneself in order to accumulate capital and to sustain prosperity. Unlike ancient Greece, where men loved one another or ancient Rome where men respected each other, modern men could socialize only the most rigidly controlled and organized conditions, most of which were extensions of competitive sports. As Eve Kosofsky Sedwick stated,

Because the paths of male entitlement, especially in the nineteenth century, required certain intense male bonds that were not readily  distinguishable from the most reprobated bonds, an endemic and ineradicable state of what I am calling homosexual panic became the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement.

Surveillance of sexual conduct directed towards male children and adults became necessary to regulate behavior towards “productive” ends.  Homosexuality was “unproductive” in that the male “couple” could not reproduce themselves.  Masturbation was “unproductive” in that the ‘seed” was “spent,” or wasted like money spent on bad investments.  Pleasure, even among men and women, husbands and wives, was also redefined in economic terms “unproductive,” a “waste” of time.  In its unproductiveness, pleasure threatened the family, the basic economic unit.

Pleasure in all its forms was repudiated and sobriety in all its grimness was embraced.  Abstinence became the valued conduct, along with chastity, even within marriage, where small families were the only economically viable social unit.  Sexual pleasure had contained, for both men and women.  Doctors obligingly declared that women were incapable of sexual feelings and, therefore, men became indifferent to the needs of their wives. The result was a more or less well-regulated sex traffic in women whose low class and lack of education left them with few recourses. Many women, rural refugees, came to cities only to become prostitutes. The male customers could participate in prostitution with impunity while women were caught up in the policing of sex and carried the public shame.

Although there was a trade in homosexual prostitution, male prostitutes were much more underground as homophobia forced homosexuals to go to extremes to express themselves sexually. Homosexual pleasure-seeking was forced to shift from children, now declared off limits, to other adult men in impersonal settings in public, such as restrooms and baths. Homosexuals, or men with same-sex preferences, could come together as a culture only in an urban setting.  As early as the seventeenth century, a distinct sub culture of homosexuality emerged in “Molly Houses,” or sites of social gatherings of men.  Here a specific and recognizable culture was created with distinctive dress and jargon and gestures.  As the broader culture came more and more under the regime of capitalism and competition, these urban subcultures were driven underground by social disapproval.

Unlike heterosexual relations between men and women, a purely economic exchange, which was legal, homosexual acts of any kind became illegal The Labouchère Amendment of 1885 in England was the first to criminalize homosexual acts between men. The new laws that began to be enacted at the end of the nineteenth century set prison sentences for homosexual acts among men. By the end of the nineteenth century, Europe and America had entered into an age of imperialism and militarism, an era, which demanded a high level of masculinity and of what were considered masculine traits and behaviors.

Molly House behavior would not be tolerated in a society that needed its men to cultivate disparate traits of self-control, lack of emotion, and violence. All of these qualities were necessary to cultivate if the imperialistic culture was to dominate and control the inferiors and to kill, if necessary to protect one’s possessions.  Women were needed to breed these new warriors for the new empires and no more.  Peace was dreaded as being “effeminate” and dangerous to men who must be bred to fight and kill.  Although by 1870 the death penalty against homosexuality had been lifted, other laws against “sodomy” were enforced and any public displays of homosexual behavior was condemned.

Even though the family was the prime economic by the twentieth century, the structure of the family created great anxiety over “masculinity” because women, excluded from society, were the prime caregivers.  Young boys identified with their mothers and had to undergo ritual separation from their mothers and sisters to be initiated into the rights and rituals of manhood.  From childhood on, boys had higher status than girls, even their older sisters and mothers and the male privileges taught them to separate themselves from low-status females. Little boys were taught sports by their fathers to combat feminine influences and were taught how to “act like men.”  Everything that was female and feminine was denigrated in a patriarchal male society and all that was masculine and male was valorized.  Clearly, in this highly masculinized society, homosexuals, especially effeminate homosexuals, had no place.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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