History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Science and Sentiment

Sexuality

Sexuality says as much about cultural norms as art, music, fashion or any other aspect of the humanities. Plus I find the topic fascinating!

Condoms

Condoms were invented back in the 17th century in response to an epidemic of syphilis (a sexually-transmitted disease that causes insanity, sterility, and death). By the 18th century they were popularized for birth control. Condoms were made of sheep gut or fish skin, and were sold in brothels and by specialists who supplied apothecaries (druggists), ship captains, and gentlemen. Condoms were expensive and thus not disposable; they were highly durable and were washed with soap in between uses. They were usually soaked in water before use. Men of means sometimes "kept" mistresses, housed in homes purchased for them (I'm sure some of these women ran salons too). Condoms were a good way to protect that relationship as well.

Non-mainstream sexuality

Gay history is its own field now, but the history of how mainstream society treats gays says a lot about its level of openness and tolerance.

During the 1730s, the Netherlands experienced a mass persecution of people we would today call gays. There were numerous trials for sodomy. Since sodomy was the formal charge, those persecuted were all men (lesbians didn't fit the charge, so to speak). If one confessed to sodomy (as did about 10% of those put on trial), the punishment was death. Those who didn't confess were subject to 30-50 years in prison or were banished. Death or banishment meant all your property was confiscated. The Dutch blamed the "effeminate French influence". Since sodomites were not considered to be sexually different from others (in other words, they weren't homosexuals, but rather men who had engaged in the act of sodomy), historians suspect other causes of the persecution. Certain judges made their careers this way, playing on local fears encouraged by Calvinist churches. I'd like to see some research on the 600 or so men who were convicted, because I suspect political motivations as well.

Another element of 18th century sexuality was the advent of an image related to fashion: the "Queen". Before 1700, as you've seen, fancy dress for men was the norm, at least for elites. Effeminacy, nice manners, makeup were not considered related to ones sexual orientation. In fact, it is generally considered that before 1700, many men were probably what we would call "bisexual", but not in the sense of being sexually attracted to both men and women at the same time of life. Rather, since ancient Greek times, and again since the Renaissance, it was common for a mentoring relationship to exist between older men and boys, which were also sexual in their educational content. In addition, there were "rakes", super-virile men who lived libertine lifestyles which included fine food, fine wine, loose women, and boys.

Leslie Howard as The Scarlet Pimpernel, the ultimate fop, with female friend

At the beginning of the 18th century, there were also men known as "fops", who dressed a bit over-the-top and acted slinky. Marginalized from the mainstream society, where men wore sword canes and were ready for violence on a moment's notice, fops spent much of their time with women. They were seen as having better insight into women's emotional lives than men, and husbands considered them non-threatening companions. But their sexuality was seen as being mainstream.

By 1750, society began to see such fops as being gay. True homosexuality, the orientation exclusively toward others of the same sex, was not considered normal. As the revolution came closer, men in fancy dress were seen as suspect, politically and sexually. Gay men might have kept to the fashion to identify partners, even in this dangerous time. Such men in Britain were called "mollies", slang for prostitute.

Why such a shift in perceptions? One theory is that the Enlightenment led to "too much" individuality and gender equality. This made things insecure for men, so society found a way to separate men into distinct types, in ways connected to sex. Whatever the cause, our current definitions of gay, straight, and bi date from this era.

 

7. Literature ->

Top