There has been much discussion of homophobia in the Victorian period in response to Naomi Wolf’s new book about Oxford poet and historian, John Addington Symonds. Initially I said nothing about this dispute as I had been comissioned to comment on the text within my expertise as a medical historian with a focus on Victorian sexualty, and to write an essay to accompany Outrages, in which I situated Symonds in relation to sexologist Havelock Ellis, with whom he published the first English medical work about homosexuality that contained a positve political statement about homosexual rights. This medical context is important for understanding Symonds, and I believe needs to be added to the debate.
Outrages joins a line of biographies of Symonds, including Horatio Brown (1895) and Phyllis Grosskurth (1964) who have used Symonds’ life as a way of examining the intellectual culture and sexual mores of the Victorian upper middle classes. The amount they say about his homosexuality indicates a lot about the times in which the biographers wrote. More recently, Sean Brady published a scholarly critical edition of Symonds’ homosexual writings (2012); and Amber K Regis recently published Symonds’ Memoirs in their entirety (2016). It was time that a popular account of Symonds life became available to contemporary audiences, and having defended an Oxford D.Phil on Symonds and Walt Whitman, Wolf was very well placed to write it.
Wolf is happily on the good side. She shows how homophobic Symonds’ context was in great detail, examining laws for divorce and obscene publications which specifically targetted sodomy. Most importantly, she offers a close reading of the intellectual relationship between Symonds and Walt Whitman, and demonstrates how Whitman’s Leaves of Grass shaped English homosexual rights, through its influence on gay men, giving them a language for their desires, celebrating the masculine qualities they admired, and providing them a political struggle with censorship and silencing that has profoundly shaped queer life even to the present. We still live in a time where queer lives are censored (see the fallout of Tumblr’s porn ban on queer representation online, for example). Outrages helps us to see the Victorian roots of modern-day homophobia.
Frustratingly, most of the critical reception of the book has focused on legal definitions and misunderstandings in regards the death penalty for sodomy (not removed until 1861 in England but later in many of the former English colonies), and has thus suggested that the formal intensification of homophobia did not come until the end of the nineteenth century, flourishing in the twentieth in the decades before the decriminalization of gay sex. Wolf has responded to these criticisms and updated her work, but it is important to remember that there were other mechanisms of power than the law that shaped the lives of homosexuals in the nineteenth century. Particularly, we should not forget the immense power of medical professionals in this debate, which expanded its professional interests after the last executions for sodomy in England in 1835 (although a number of executions still took place in British colonies for the crime). This complex picture, which has been raked over by historians since the 1970s, still can teach us a lot about the roots of modern homophobia and the struggles for sexual rights that are still relevant in today’s political landscape. It is still doctors (along with lawyers) who frame the acceptance of sexuality in our times, for example the recent removal of transgender identity from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11) or the growing medical support for the decriminilsation of sex work. Symonds was one of the first British men to articulate his resistance against this medico-legal system, and for this reason it is important to revisit his life story.
The Obscene Publications Act and Matrimonial Causes Act (both 1857) created a framework for the persecution of sexually-inverted men that worsened before Labouchère’s 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which Havelock Ellis called the blackmailer’s charter and which snared Oscar Wilde. The law is only a part of this framework, however. Medical specialisms since the 1820s were a forum for discussing sexual problems, notably venereal diseases, which saw a consolidation of medical power in the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, and the panic about spermatorrhoea, the involuntary loss of seminal fluids that was believed to diminish a man’s virile powers. To cure spermatorrhoea, many Victorian doctors demanded a total abstinence from masturbation, and only advocated sexual intercourse after marriage. The treatment was typically cauterization of the urethra with a caustic silver nitrate solution, and sometimes the use of mechanical restraints to prevent self-gratification or electric alarms that woke the sleeping boy and his vigilant parents when a nocturnal erection closed the circuit (Crozier, 2000). It is partly from here that the famed sexual purity of the nineteenth century stems. Other politically-motivated tracts advocated the use of contraception, with “free love” considered preferable to abstinence, so long as it was heterosexual. Occasionally in these anti-masturbation texts we see coded guidance against sodomy. Prior to Ellis and Symonds’ Sexual Inversion (1897/2008), there were no significant positive words in the anglophone medical press about homosexuality. Symonds essayed to give it a voice in a hostile time.
Sexual panics are not only found in medical discourses. English public schools in this period consolidated their interest in competitive sports in part to exhaust the boys of their sexual energy. Dr Vaughan, headmaster of Symonds’ Harrow, was a particular fanatic of such athletic regimes, promoting mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) — but also advocating a sense of competition and team belonging that became central to elite English public school life. Only effete, sensitive boys eschewed this athletic bravado, and there was a fagging system to keep them in line. There were risks, as venerologist Wiliam Acton pointed out, in having boys read Plato all day at one of the ‘good’ schools, and then locking them up together alone at night (Crozier, 2001). The way to mitigate such risks was to firmly entrench the idea that sexual excesses — non-marital, non-reproductive, non-heteronormative orgasms — were deleterious to health, in medical and popular discourses. This was the mindset that Symonds and other Victorian homosexuals grew up in, and they witnessed the expansion of control over their desires throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. This is why Symonds was so focused on writing about homosexuality. His classicism showed that sex between men could be noble (and that was censored out successive editions of his textbook); his politics saw him rally medical, historical and artistic evidence against the legal persecution of homosexual relations.
Medicine became more powerful in the nineteenth century than any time before. It does not help that Symonds father was a doctor, a homophobic one that had one Harrow teacher’s career destroyed for homosexual activity. We know that Symonds was so disturbed by his seminal incontinence that he sought out Acton in Marylebone in 1864, to have his penis cauterised in order to stop it (Darby, 2006). This horrendous medical intervention did not curb Symonds’ desire to masturbate, nor his fantasies about young men. It should be seen as a corporeal response to the demonization of male sexuality in this period. Likewise, forensic medical textbooks contained details of what to look for when examining a man’s anus for signs of sodomy, which could be used as corroborative expert evidence. We have no way of knowing how many Victorian men underwent these and other procedures to stop themselves feeling sexual desire, nor how many changed their behaviours through fear of these medical procedures, but it seems likely to me that there were many, given the number of eminent Victorians who wrote about such issues in their memoirs. This is one reason that the queer community has historically been so wary of the medical profession, which has done much to demonise same-sex relations. We find men in Victorian cases of “sexual perversion” approaching doctors to be rid of their socially abhorred desires. Homophobia was so entrenched that at times men have found it preferable to be tortured in search of a cure than to be able to enjoy their sexual pleasure.
Symonds’ response to this intellectual climate is incredibly important for us. He wrote a textbook for classics students that was used at Oxford — Benjamin Jowett’s Oxford, later Walter Pater’s and Wilde’s Oxford — which intially spoke favourably about homosexual relations, but which was increasingly censored. He wrote important literary and historical studies of the Renaissance, and biographies of famous homosexual artists, such as Michelangelo. Wherever possible, he highlighted aspects of this culture that would touch inverted readers. This is how homosexual communities were first built. At the end of his life, he produced two tracts that advocated homosexuality in the ancient and modern worlds, neither of which were published in his lifetime. At the time of his death, he was engaging with the new sexological literature in the form of a collaboration with Havelock Ellis, which resulted in the posthumus Sexual Inversion (1897), the first English medical text to criticise the laws and positively advocate for homosexual relations, and the beginning of Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex (7 vols., 1897–1928). Appreciating these medical aspects of sexuality is central for placing Symonds in the context in which he wrote, and is key for understanding the strained relations between medicine, law and sexual diversity today.
Sean Brady, John Addington Symonds and Homosexuality: a critical edition of the sources, (Palgrave, 2012)
Horatio Brown, John Addington Symonds: a Biography 1895
Horatio Brown, Letters and Papers of John Addington Symonds 1926
Ivan Crozier, “William Acton and the history of sexuality: the professional and medical Contexts,” Journal of Victorian Culture, 5, 2000: 1–27
Ivan Crozier, “‘Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds of May’: A Note on William Actonand the Sexuality of the (Male) Child,” Journal of Family History, 26.3, 2001: 411–20.
Robert Darby, A Surgical Temptation: The Demonisation of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain (University of Chicago Press, 2006)
Havelock Ellis and John Addinton Symonds, Sexual Inversion (1897), ed. Ivan Crozier (Palgrave, 2008)
Phyllis Phyllis Grosskurth John Addington Symonds: A Biography (1964)
Phyllis Grosskurth ed. The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds (Hutchinson, 1984)
Amber K Regis (ed.), The Memoirs of john Addington Symonds: a critical edition (Palgrave, 2016)
Ivan Crozier is a historian of sexuality. His critical edition of Ellis and Symonds’ Sexual Inversion was published by Palgrave in 2008. He is currently developing a history of sexuality walking tour of Marseille, France.