Category Archives: Week 3: Sexology, Inversion, Uranianism

Lecture notes: Sexology, Uranianism, Theories of Inversion

By Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

Sexology, Uranianism, Theories of Inversion

Introduction and context 

20th-century historian Michel Foucault challenged the so-called “repressive hypothesis” in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (vol. 1, 1976).  Foucault argued that while sex was officially treated as a private (and often shameful) matter by Victorian and fin-de-siècle French and German culture and Victorian culture has consequently been seen as “repressed” in hindsight, this very culture actually found many outlets to talk and think obsessively about sex.  One of the most important developments, in Foucault’s view, was the scientific discourse we now refer to as “sexology,” the science or study of sexual behavior in humans.  Before Freud formulated his theories of sexuality as a function of biological and mental instincts and drives, the sexologists laid crucial groundwork for thinking about so-called “pathological” or “perverse” forms of sexuality.  One of the primary focus points for sexologists was male same-sex desire and behavior, which was still widely legally criminalized at the time.  The term “homosexual” [homosexuell] first appeared in 1869, in an anonymous German pamphlet by Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

Legal background regarding male homosexuality in Britain:

  • Buggery act: legal term for sodomy since the 16th century.  Under Henry VIII being convicted of buggery, “the abominable crime,” carried the death penalty.  During Queen Victoria’s reign, however—until 1861, when the law was changed—no one was executed for the crime.
  • New law of 1885 with notorious section XI, the “Labouchère Amendment,” assigned prison terms to homosexual acts between males, no matter whether performed in public or in private.

Lesbianism was mostly invisible in the eyes of the culture and the law—to many, such “perversion” in women (who also had a long tradition of intimate female friendship, which helped mask same-sex desires by interpreting them in this “harmless” and approved light).  Fortunately, lesbians actually flew mostly “under the radar” as far as 19th-century laws were concerned, but garnered serious legal attention in the 1920s, with the Radclyffe Hall obscenity trial. The trial involved her work dealing with a transgendered FTM protagonist in love with a woman, The Well of Loneliness, which she wrote specifically to provoke social empathy for “inverts,” and which popularized the cultural stereotype of the “mannish lesbian.” Havelock Ellis specifically endorsed The Well of Loneliness and wrote a preface.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs  (1825–95) first coined the term “Urning” or “Uranian” to describe homosexuality and same-sex desire (in Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe, literally, “Scientific Observations about the Riddle of Man-Manly Love,” 1864-65). Ulrich’s concept of Uranianism alludes to one (of several different) myths of Aphrodite, who was born from the Greek God Uranus (“Heaven”), who had been castrated by his son Chronos (“Time”) and thrown into the sea.  According to the myth, Aphrodite was born of the bubbling foam emanating from Uranus as he was thrown in, without the physical participation of a female.  (The myth is alluded to in Plato’s Symposium, in a discussion on Eros.)  This Uranian Aphrodite is also associated with loving male youths.

Ulrichs understood male urnings as essentially feminine, possessing a female soul in a male body.  He also developed complex codes for classifying sexual behavior along masculine-feminine lines, seeing receptive or “passive” sexual behavior as more feminine than giving or “active” sexual behavior, which his system considered more masculine.  In fin-de-siècle London, the terms and concepts of Uranianism as a scientific theory were widely known and understood to refer to male homosexuals.

Richard Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), Austro-German psychologist and sexologist, wrote the famous work Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).

The Oscar Wilde trials in the spring of 1895 embodied a cultural and legal watershed that led to more censorship and legal prosecutions in Britain; many homosexual men fled Britain for the continent (especially France) during this time.  France and Germany were the most liberal countries regarding gay culture at this time; the modern homosexual human rights movement largely started in Germany and based its claims for more cultural, social, and legal tolerance largely on the work of the mentioned sexologists, many of whom were German.

Henry Havelock Ellis (English, 1859-1939):  In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 1901, first published as Sexual Inversion with John A. Symonds in 1892, critiqued and modified Ulrichs’ statements, arguing for the concept of “inversion” instead: “Sexual inversion, as here understood, means sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality towards persons of the same sex.”  Symonds (the “case study” included in today’s readings) had been Ellis’s patient.

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929): not a scientist but a writer and early gay activist, wrote famous pamphlet The Intermediate Sex (1908), modified Ulrichs’s ideas about “Uranian” love by arguing that biological sex and internal gender traits were separate and the mixture of femininity/masculinity in a person attracted them to someone who would balance out their own gender traits.  Homogenic Love is from 1894, one year before the infamous Oscar Wilde trial for “acts of gross indecency” changed the cultural landscape, but could not be published until 1902.

Discussion questions:
  1. What are some of Ellis’s major ideas and conclusions about homosexuality in the excerpts we’re reading?  How does this compare to debates in our own culture today—do some of these ideas still seem familiar?  Which ones/why?
  2. How do Carpenter’s points compare to Ellis’s (and what are they)?
  3. How can you tell that there is also a specific agenda (social, cultural, political…) in the ways these seemingly objective scientific texts read and represent homosexuality?

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Identity, Queerness, and Love

“It is almost as if, starting from a certain point, every decisive political event were double-sided: the spaces, the liberties, and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepared a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order, thus offering a new and more dreadful foundation for the very sovereign power from which they wanted to liberate themselves.”
Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, p.72

Giorgio Agamben, in the preface to Homo Sacer, frames the project that he is beginning (and has continued to pursue in subsequent volumes) as an interrogation of the unarticulated link between Hannah Arendt’s analyses of totalitarianism (in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, etc.) and Michel Foucault’s analyses of power (in The History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish, etc.). His engagement with the fundamental concepts of Western political theory (and their contemporary crisis) leads him many places, all of which are important, but only a few of which we will touch on here. Relevant to us is his extension of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics beyond the historical origin that Foucault assigned it (the end of the eighteenth century) back to the very beginnings of Western sovereignty. If Agamben is correct that our current mode of thinking politics is nothing more than an extension of the Aristotelian categories incinerated by analyses like his and Jacques Derrida’s (whose thought has been decisive in the formation of contemporary queer theory), then we must pay attention to the results of those analyses—namely, that such a way of thinking the world is inherently ethnocentric and violent. I will here discuss how we might apply the conceptual tools given us by these and other relevant thinkers to queer theory, especially as it does (or does not) relate to identity politics.

Judith Butler begins her massively influential Gender Trouble by noting that, largely and historically, “feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued”—but that this “very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms” (1). This is the case because “there is very little agreement after all one what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women”. Butler then situates this observation in the context of Foucault’s analyses of the ‘technologies of the self’ used by juridical systems of power to produce the kinds of subjects necessary for the systems to function. The category of ‘woman’, then, may be understood as arising from the similar historical process that created the category of the ‘homosexual’ (also the ‘deviant, ‘pervert’, etc.) as detailed in Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

Let us quickly gloss this notion of ‘subject production’ using some of Agamben’s language. Homo Sacer famously opens by observing that the Ancient Greeks had no one word that signified all that we mean when we use the word ‘life’. They instead had two related, but distinct, terms: zoē, which signified the fact of life (common to plants, animals, humans, and gods); and bios, which signified the form of life (such as that of the shoemaker, the musician, the politician, etc.). Zoē was seen as appropriate to the oikos (the home, the domestic sphere, the private), and bios to the polis (the city, the public sphere, politics). Foucault’s notion of productive power in the form of technologies of the self (as opposed to repressive power in the form of political techniques like the police and military) may be articulated as follows: when one enters a community of the sort that Western politics has always taken (and continues to take), she or he is forced to inhabit a certain representable form of life; a certain set of possible bioi may be imposed on the member’s zoē, and one of these must be chosen. The production of the categories of ‘woman’ and ‘homosexual’, then, may in fact be nothing less than an outcropping of the very power structure that the categories’ production was supposed to rectify (in the form of increased rights and ‘freedoms’). Indeed, if Alain Badiou is correct that the State is not founded upon a joining-together but rather the dissolution that it prohibits, then we may say that the purpose of recognizing a group or a political identity for the State (representing said identity in the laws it passes, etc.) is solely so that the group in question does not begin (or continue) to operate outside of State power. As Agamben puts it in The Coming Community, “[a] being radically devoid of any representable identity would be absolutely irrelevant to the State” (86).

This, then, is the aporia inherent in identity politics. When marginalized groups fight to be recognized as groups by the State, they cede some of (even most of) their freedoms to that sovereign power. This is even and especially true in the so-called ‘democracies’ of the West today. Indeed, Agamben argues, what does distinguish modern politics from its predecessors is not as Foucault argued the seizing of biological life as the object of sovereign power—but rather that this seizing has now come directly into the light, and has as such begun to ‘hide in plain sight’. Consider the following:

“If anything characterizes modern democracy as opposed to classical democracy, then, it is that modern democracy presents itself from the beginning as a vindication and liberation of zoē, and that it is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē. Hence, too, modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men [the object of political science for Aristotle is eudaimonia, or happiness] into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjection. … To become conscious of this aporia is not to belittle the conquests and accomplishments of democracy. It is, rather, to try to understand once and for all why democracy, at the very moment in which it seemed to have finally triumphed over its adversaries and reached its greatest height, proved itself incapable of saving zoē, to whose happiness it had dedicated all its efforts, from unprecedented ruin.” (13)

This is a thought with which we must reckon. Rights and liberties that were decades ago unthinkable have accomplished incredible things; they have saved and improved many lives. But we must ask ourselves: are the forms of life we are winning those that we give ourselves, or those that are given us by the same violent and powerful State that previously denied us our happiness? There is no doubt that policies around the world toward marginalized persons need to be changed in some fashion. The Other must be included in discourse, but Agamben urges us that when this is done in the form of State representation (as it is in identity politics), that inclusion becomes an operation of power that consists in forcing the Other to assume a recognizable bios (which may then be included—or senselessly excluded, as was done with the categories of “Jew”, “Gypsy”, “homosexual”, and many others in Nazi Germany).

I now wish to turn to Edward Carpenter’s “Homogenic Love” as a case study of ‘homosexual liberation’ gone wrong. To do so is not to fashion a normative judgment to be bestowed upon the historical person Edward Carpenter, but rather to learn from his (perhaps ‘well-intentioned’) mistakes, that we might think a new politics today. I read the excerpt from class as divided into three sections, each with an operative binary (in the Derridean sense, wherein one term is prioritized over and preferred to the other). The first part of the piece states that there is a disjunction between science and morality, that is, that the former (at least most often) cannot influence decisions of the latter; and, that morality is in some way more immediately accessible to us than science (the first binary, then, is morality over science). The second part argues that homosexuality is, in fact, a moral good—that it builds character, fosters a Whitmanian “comradeship”, as a spiritual kind of love as opposed to heterosexuality’s gross materialism (the second binary is spiritualism over materiality). Third, assuming that the purpose of law is benefit to benefit society, Carpenter argues that it ought to be changed to reflect his character-based analysis; that is, homosexuals ought to be granted further rights (the last binary could be said, then, to be society/character over law).

Carpenter’s mistake by now should be obvious. He does not question the existence of the ethnocentric binaries handed down to him from history; he accepts them and manipulates them to argue for legal recognition of homosexuals as a political category. But it is this very representation within the juridical framework that allows for the systematic control of that form of life represented. And, indeed, Carpenter’s folly is even more sinister than this, for he does not just say that homosexuality is good—he says that homosexuality is better than heterosexuality. This means that the ethnocentrism of sovereign logic seeps through his writing. Consider, for example, his argument (contra Christian morality, for example) that sex for sex’s sake is more spiritual than sex reproduction’s sake. While this argument indeed furnishes a reason not to discriminate against homosexuals (and any who choose to engage in sex acts for non-reproductive ends), it also provides a foundation for the oppression of heterosexuals.

But we must be careful here—for there is a third way. We need not passively accept the discriminatory binaries that have characterized the history of Western metaphysics. We can find new nonviolent ways to think about the world. And this, indeed, is in some sense what contemporary queer theory does in continuing the legacy of Deconstruction. The important thing to recognize about the power of the label “queer” is that it is meant to be an anti-label; it is an identity that is an anti­-identity.

I propose that we may draw some connections between it and Agamben’s exploration of the messianic form-of-life in The Time That Remains, a life that he has also deemed “whatever being” (in The Coming Community) and a “life of power” (in Means Without End). The messianic klesis (calling) is “essentially and foremost a calling of the calling. For this reason, it may apply to any condition; but for this reason, it revokes a condition and radically puts it into question in the very act of adhering to it” (23). It is therefore captured in the formula hōs mē, that is, “as not”. He cites Paul in 1 Cor. 7:29-32: “But this I say, brethren, time contracted itself, the rest is, that even those having wives may be as not having, and those weeping as not weeping, and those rejoicing as not rejoicing, and those buying as not possessing, and those using the world as not using it up” (emphasis added).

Here, I argue, is the (anti-)essence of the queer. It is not that we abandon any and all cultural signifiers that could represent masculinity or femininity—this would be impossible. We instead repurpose those cultural signifiers (this is the messianic theme of ‘recapitulation’ described elsewhere in The Time That Remains). We open these static signifiers up to new use; we take the sacred (here our ‘necessary’ cultural codes) and profane it. Just because I have a beard does not mean I must live a masculine life. Just because I listen to Britney Spears does not mean I must live a feminine life. Just because I do anything does not mean that I must live any particular culturally codified form of life that might include that anything—and just because you have x, y, and z qualities does not mean that I must make a judgment about your quality; it does not mean I must understand you keeping in mind what those qualities ‘represent’. I instead grasp you for who you are. I—and this is really as simple as it gets—love you. For, as Agamben writes in the short essay entitled “Whatever” that opens The Coming Community:

“Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): the lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is. The lover desires the as only insofar as it is such—this is the lover’s particular fetishism. Thus, whatever singularity (the Lovable) is never the intelligence of some thing, of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility.” (2)


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Reflection on Ellis’s “Studies in the Psychology of Sex”

The first thought (read: string of tangents) that popped into my mind as I read the excerpt from Ellis’s “Studies in the Psychology of Sex” was this youtube video – which I think aptly captures the progression of gay rights activism and views on homosexuality from the 1900s through to today. Like many other videos on youtube, the comments section is atrocious and brings up many other issues that, for the purposes of this blog post, I am deciding to ignore it; I’ve also decided to ignore the political side of this video and the fact that it is a trailer of sorts for a documentary.  What I am really interested in are how the views on homosexuality have (or have not) changed since Ellis’s time. Let’s begin by retrieving parts of Ellis’s time capsule.

Ellis’ observation that two consenting adults who choose to engage in sexually intimate acts have not committed indecency would have been a bold and radical statement during his time, but to most of modern society this view seems commonplace. Modern society seems to turn a blind eye towards things that go on behind closed doors – which leads to Ellis’s idea about perception. In the same paragraph, Ellis comments on the fact that acts can only be regarded as indecent if the participants or witnesses choose to view it thus. Simultaneously, Ellis implies that the context of acts, i.e. where the acts are performed, affects people’s perception of them as decent or indecent. He gives the example of childbirth, an act that by itself is not indecent, but may be seen as such if carried through in public. To me, this gray area of human perception and the difficulty of straddling the line between the concepts “decent” and “indecent” are immensely interesting. We struggle with similar dilemmas today of which the laws governing indecent exposure (which vary widely around the world) are an example. However, sodomy laws, to use an umbrella term, have mostly been repealed or struck down – at least in the United States. Was the question of morality ever tied into our judgments of things as decent or indecent? Perhaps by touching on this idea of “impropriety” being a product of our own perceptions, Ellis reaches the bigger, more elusive, and timeless topic of morality.

Morality encompasses the values that delineate the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad. Such principles apply to people and people form societies. It should come as no surprise that society’s views can shape moral values and vice versa. Having been under the impression that most people who view homosexuality as a disease also find it to be immoral, I was initially surprised by Ellis’s concession that homosexuals could be completely moral people aside from their inversion; their “condition” did not detract from the fact that they could be good and just people. In contrast, today’s view of the immoral homosexual seems to pin “immorality” on homosexual thoughts and actions, instead of actions alone. Perhaps the shift in the point at which homosexuality becomes immoral is only an illusion because Ellis’s views do not reflect average society or religious society’s views on homosexuality as immoral behavior. In the end, Ellis rises above it all and calls for balance and reason: to eliminate inverts would be unreasonable and may “destroy also those children of the spirit which possess sometimes a greater worth than children of the flesh” (336). It leaves me unsatisfied to read that subduing their homosexual desires is the moral thing for inverts to do and that they may live on as children of spirit by denying something that is still intrinsically part of them as individuals. The origin of the moral versus immoral aspect of homosexuality and how people’s perception of this issue has changed throughout history interests me greatly and is something I would like to explore in the future.


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Queerness, Reclining and Upright

After reading Oscar Wilde, approaching a text like Havelock Ellis’ requires a change of mindset. Its philosophy of writing opposes almost directly the Aestheticism of Wilde: it does not generate text as art for art’s sake but instead channels writing towards a social purpose. Finding the queerness within both of these texts—taking into consideration their very different purposes, their distinct styles, and their authors’ (purported) divergent sexual behaviors—I hope to consider how literary queerness can differ and for what reasons we recognize different texts as queer in different ways.

In our discussion of Dorian Gray I always found myself linking Dorian and Henry’s constant reclining position with their queerness, my impression being that at the fin-de-siècle, this kind of queer body lies down on a divan with perfumed cushions instead of sitting upright at a desk with pen and paper. Decadence seems to encapsulate this reclining position, whereas the upright, hardworking position tends toward a text like Ellis’: a work written in technical language and with a quite specific purpose in mind. Both works contain their fair share of queerness (especially Ellis’ letters, breaks from his dryer, more utilitarian prose) but are most definitely queer in different ways and for different reasons.

These generalizations of course oversimplifies much about the texts we’ve read these last three weeks, but comparing Ellis and Wilde will help to complicate (and collapse) them especially well. For now, I will categorize the production of queer texts into two camps: decadent (idleness, art for art’s sake, laying down, Wilde) and productive (utility, writing for a moral purpose, sitting up, Ellis) existing in opposition.

Barthes be damned, authorship makes up a large part of the location of queerness within these texts. Wilde is considered a queer person, whereas Ellis is not: the decadent perspective here is written by an insider (a “queer” person) whereas the productive one is written by an outsider (a “straight” person). Ellis’ text still contains an insider perspective, however, in its letters from sexual inverts. The framing, then, of the insider perspective is crucial. In a decadent novel, that queer perspective is, as we discussed, both everywhere and nowhere. In a productive text, it is more openly identified as queer, yet that identification serves to twist it into evidence for the outsider’s analysis instead of allowing it to speak for itself. The closeted queer text underneath Wilde’s decadence is somehow more dangerous for its author, even though its references to queerness are better hidden. The productive text, wielding the power of definition to separate its author from his subject, has lower stakes for the author because of its openness and the appearance of objectivity.

Both texts permit varied readings, queer and not. Wilde’s novel could be read as homoerotic (or not) and as approving of queerness (or not) because of its ambiguities. Similarly, Ellis’ text can be read as either condemning or liberating homosexuals and is written using the jargon of medicine, psychology, and sociology. Thus the first, the decadent, relies on masks and codes to allow for multiple, even contradictory, interpretations of its own stance on queerness. Much is left up to a reader in determining whether the novel contains homoeroticism and whether it approves. The second, the productive, utilizes technical and explicit language, but still manages to allow for similarly varied interpretations concerning to what extent the author is accepting or intolerant of homosexual behavior.

Wilde’s preface to Dorian Gray assigns his text a grand artistic purpose that underscore’s that decadent art, even while opposing productivity and utility, still finds its motivation in its creators’ intentions and goals. The preface’s ornate (and self-praising) style seems in direct opposition to Ellis’ text, which appears no-nonsense in comparison. That a text like Ellis’, despite its own lofty projects of solving the “social problem” of homosexuality and its inclusion of quite dramatic first-person accounts, appears more realistic, more grounded, and simpler than Wilde’s is quite notable. Both texts’ meanings face similar contestation, contain similar complications, and originate from goals of similar magnitude. Yet Dorian Gray’s queerness and Ellis text’s queerness are unmistakably different, owing to their different locations on a spectrum of decadence and productivity.


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Ellis and his Studies in the Psychology of Sex

Havelock Ellis’s “Studies in the Psychology of Sex” really touches upon the hypocritical behaviors performed by society on those that are considered ‘sexually inverted’ to those that have ‘normal’ sexual orientation. Ellis additionally pinpoints the idea that no matter the restrictive policies and punishments that the law attempts to drive into society regarding homosexuality, the existence of homosexuality will still be present. Ellis, however, goes about driving these opinions in a very guarded manner that seems to be one that will still let him be ‘accepted’ within the societal eye and therefore writes with language and content that still undermines homosexuality.

Ellis’s piece really shines light on the hypocrisies within this time period highlighting the differing behaviors towards those that are ‘sexually introverted’ compared to those that are ‘normal’. He uses examples of the innate sexual drive that human beings posses and how, although we all encompass such a drive, society feels that they can place restrictions and punishments on how such inborn drives can be acted upon. He also states how, “Within certain limits, the gratification of the normal sexual impulse, even outside marriage, arouses no general or profound indignation; and is regarded as a private matter; rightly or wrongly, the gratification of the homosexual impulse is regarded as a public matter” (332). Such hypocrisies, although are obviously not as radical as put forth within Ellis’s time, seem to draw parallels within the modern day United States. Huge movements have obviously been made in the progressive direction concerning the acceptance of homosexuality, however society still seems to place such hypocrisy in its beliefs about rules that abide to the heterosexual over the homosexual i.e. homosexual relationships within the military and gay marriage.

Ellis’s technique of systematically arguing for the rights of the homosexual whilst attempting to ‘cover his tracks’ and ‘saving face’ by insisting views that would’ve been accepted by those within high-ranking society is quite evident within the document. Ellis starts his piece by addressing the notion of being ‘sexually inverted’, and how it is something that could be compared to as a sickness in the fact that it could be cured and the individual may be able to rid themselves of their ‘abnormalities’, “The sexual invert is specially liable to suffer from a high degree of neurasthenia, often involving much nervous weakness and irritability, loss of self-control, and genital hyperesthesia” (328). However, it is followed with an insightful argument of how those that are ‘sexually introverted’ cannot just rid themselves of their homosexuality by methods believed by other physicians at the time to alleviate sexual introversion, such as marriage. Ellis additionally seems to ‘hide’ behind a shield when he introduces a letter that was sent to him by a man that sought to confide in Ellis regarding his homosexual urges and difficulties. The man, who was not named, described how his urges “made his life a hell” and how the “horror” of such an “abnormality” “has been an enemy” to his religious faith (330). Through this letter, the readers of Ellis’s piece, would’ve understood how homosexual tendencies were not ones that were chosen consciously and additionally were out of the individual’s control. Whether this letter was actually written by an unknown man, or by Ellis himself, who knows. Either way, it was an effective technique of squeezing some kind of empathetic view from the reader in regards to a foreign homosexual standpoint. The letter also demonstrates how it is someone else’s opinion and thus sheds any blame Ellis could have received for publishing the content that was within the letter.

Havelock Ellis’s style of writing within the “Studies in the Psychology of Sex” could be regarded as frustrating to some as his opinions seemed more like a tennis match than a document that had a cemented message. However, I feel that for this time period and for this subject especially, Ellis had to be wary of society and its viewpoints. By documenting all views, Ellis would’ve, in my opinion, furthered the documents opinions with added credibility as the public would view it has something that was not just one sided, but provided an overall scope on the ‘sexually inverted’ and how their predicaments were, at the end of the day, out of their control.


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The “Social” Question of Homosexual Love

 In Edward Carpenter’s “Homogenic Love,” Carpenter makes an impassioned argument for the decriminalization of homosexual love. The main body of his argument is an argument for homosexual love as a force for “social good.” On the one hand, this serves the purposes of asking readers to move beyond a purely “aesthetic” and personal judgment of homosexuality–whether or not one regards such acts as disgusting is less important under Carpenter’s framework than the social impacts of such love. However, turning homosexual love into a “social” question also serves to diminish and contradict the moral force of his piece by allowing for the treatment of  heterosexual and homosexual love differently under the law depending on their respective social utilities.


Carpenter opens  by writing that “if on the side of science much is obscure, there is no obscurity in the principles of healthy morality involved” (336) and closes by arguing that “in the case of persons of opposite sex: the law limits itself on the whole to the maintenance of public order, the protection of the weak from violence and insult, and of the young from their experience: so it should be here…if the dedication of love were a matter of mere choice or whim, it still would not be the business of the State to compel that choice” (340-341). These are arguments that quite clearly stand the test of the time and make it unambiguous that the law has no moral justification in interfering with consensual love between two persons of the same sex.


In the body of his essay, however, Carpenter breaks from this clear-cut question, and argues instead for the social “benefits” of homosexual love. He argues that “the other love should have its special function in social and heroic work, and in the generation–not of bodily children–but of those children of the mind, the philosophical conceptions and ideals which transform our lives and those of society” (337), that “it is difficult to believe that anything except that kind of comrade-union which satisfies and invigorates the two lovers and yet leaves them free from the responsibilities and impedimenta of family life can supply the force and liberate the energies required for social and mental activities of the most necessary kind” (338), and that “it is hardly needful in these days when social questions loom so large upon us to emphasize the importance of a bond which by the most passionate and lasting compulsion may draw members of the different classes together (339). The fact that these reasons are clearly less persuasive today–as the nature of homosexual couples have changed so that in many ways, such as in their ability to have families, they have come to resemble heterosexual couples–demonstrates the dangers of adopting this sort of social argument. These are the same dangers Carpenter hinted at of relying on “science” to answer the “question”: on these types of utilitarian or objective grounds where “evidence” rather than morals are weighed, there is room for ambiguity and obscurity whereas on moral grounds there ought to be clarity.


That said, it is no doubt possible that there may have been rhetorical advantages for Carpenter to argue the social question. In Studies of the Psychology of Sex, Ellis writes that “rightly or wrongly, the gratification of the homosexual impulse is regarded as a public matter” (332). Indeed, a major component of both Ellis’s and Carpenter’s arguments is showing their readers that homosexual love is prevalent throughout their society and cannot be eliminated by law. Because Carpenter was writing with the goal of creating a tangible and immediate change in the law rather than a more abstract change of opinion, it might be argued that even though some of his arguments are less persuasive today, that engaging with the social rather than moral question of  homosexuality may have been the easiest type of argument for readers at the time to digest and relate to.


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