Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform

Synopsis

This book examines changing perceptions of sex between men in early Victorian Britain, a significant yet surprisingly little explored period in the history of Western sexuality. Looking at the dramatic transformations of the era--changes in the family and in the law, the emergence of the world's first police force, the growth of a national media, and more--Charles Upchurch asks how perceptions of same-sex desire changed between men, in families, and in the larger society. To illuminate these questions, he mines a rich trove of previously unexamined sources, including hundreds of articles pertaining to sex between men that appeared in mainstream newspapers. The first book to relate this topic to broader economic, social, and political changes in the early nineteenth century, Before Wilde sheds new light on the central question of how and when sex acts became identities.

Excerpt

This book explores how sex between men was understood within British society in the first half of the nineteenth century. It does so by examining hundreds of public reports, many from newspaper and courtroom accounts, of sex between men in the years 1820 to 1870. Analysis of these narratives calls into question key elements of earlier scholarship on how these acts (real or alleged) were understood and discussed in early-nineteenth-century Britain.

It has long been assumed that the discussion of sex between men in the public sphere in mid-nineteenth-century Britain was minimal. A shift in public morals beginning in the late eighteenth century had severely limited official documentation of this behavior and its legal repercussions, as the state curtailed its record-keeping of trials involving sexual crimes. Overt and even oblique references to sex between men also disappeared from literature and popular writing. The silence on this issue began in the late Georgian period and is generally thought to have continued with only limited interruptions until the late nineteenth century.

In the late Victorian period, public anxiety over sex between men was fueled by fears of declining middle-class values and perceived threats to Britain’s place in the world. A series of sensational trials— including those related to middle-class cross-dressers in 1870, upperclass men paying for sex with telegraph delivery boys in 1889–90, and an internationally known playwright defending his honor against . . .

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