Monday, August 16, 2004

Sex in the eighteenth century -- and later

Saturday's Times carried a review of a book about sex in the eighteenth century - Lascivious Bodies by Julie Peakman. The review was accompanied by illustrations of lesbian nuns and information about flagellant brothels and the like. Nothing new in the book, as far as I could see, but of course I have to remember that not everyone is as old as I am. That being the case, I thought I would mention a few other famous books on sex. Somebody will no doubt be hearing about them for the first time.

First – not that they are in any particular order – I should mention a book called Tea Room Trade, by Laud Humphries. It is, apparently, over thirty years since this famous work was first published, but it seems like only yesterday.

A tea room, it appears, is what the Americans used to call a public lavatory. Or at least that was what gay men used to call it. Maybe they still do. In England the term was ‘cottage’, and hanging about in them for the purposes of homosexual liaison was known as cottaging.

Tea Room Trade, I hasten to point out, is a serious work of sociology. The author, Laud Humphries, was apparently an Episcopalian minister before he became a sociologist (other inernet sources describe him as a Catholic priest). His research methodology, so far as I can make out, involved nothing more complicated than hanging about in public lavatories (of the male variety), and seeing what happened. He posed, in short, as a participant, sometimes acting as the lookout while two other men got it on. This was, to put it politely, a method open to misinterpretation, and was seriously risky. But, after a considerable amount of said hanging about, Humphries accumulated enough material to write a book.

I never read Tea Room Trade from cover to cover, but I did take a look at it in an academic library some twenty years ago, and the story that sticks in my mind is that of a respectable hospital doctor. For years – years, mind you – this doctor had been in the habit of stopping off at a particular tea room on his way home from work. Virtually every day he would go in there, and virtually every day he found someone who was willing, to put it crudely, to suck his cock for him.

I found this story absolutely amazing when I read it, but I never doubted for one moment that it was true. The risks involved were so enormous, as George Michael has amply demonstrated to us. The story simply illustrates, should you need it illustrating, that you and I know very little of what goes on in other people’s minds and lives.

Another interesting book on sex – and I haven’t read this one, either – is The Technology of Orgasm, by Rachel Maines (1998). This book reveals that, until the 1920s, women who were diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ were treated by having their genitals massaged – by male doctors, if you please – until they achieved orgasm, and were thus released from the tension which was causing their ‘hysteria’. Well, nice work if you can get it, is all I can say.

Once we approached the end of the nineteenth century, it began to be possible to create electric ‘massage machines’ which relieved the doctors of this tedious task, or at any rate enabled them to complete the treatment within ten minutes instead of, perhaps, an hour.

This is the story which Rachel Maines tells us in The Technology of Orgasm. And apparently, if internet reports are to be believed, the university at which she then worked promptly sacked her for publishing the book. There you go, see. I was under the impression that it was the duty of all universities to support research into difficult and controversial subjects, despite opposition from the forces of darkness. I was also under the impression that there was something in the American constitution about freedom of speech. But obviously I was wrong, on both counts.

Finally, a few books which I remember from even further back. In the 1950s, when poking about in secondhand book shops, it was not uncommon to come across two books on the classical world: Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, by Hans Licht, and Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, by Otto Kiefer. Both of these are still readily available secondhand: try abebooks.

I never read either of those books all the way though, either, and all I remember from dipping into them is that fashionable ladies in the ancient world were in the habit of getting rid of pubic hair by singeing it off. A hazardous enterprise, I feel, but then the ladies have always been prepared to suffer to look beautiful.

Finally, I must mention Sex Variants, by George W. Henry (1941). This was another serious academic book, a study of what are now referred to as gay men and lesbians, but it seems to have been read more by general readers than specialists. In any event, there are, once again, masses of copies available on the secondhand market.

It is forty years since I last saw Dr Henry’s book, but I seem to remember that it consisted, at least to some extent, of first-person accounts of the gay or lesbian life. One of the fascinating case histories which it included was that of a black woman who had somehow or other ended up in the court of the Tsar of Russia. She had been in much demand as a sexual partner, and had many affairs with both men and women, but preferred women on the whole.

Of books about sex there is absolutely no end, but that will do for the moment.


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