Thursday, 2 February 2012

Victorian homosexuality series: Havelock Ellis

Following up on Symonds' theory of homosexuality as being an inborn characteristic of a person, in 1897 Havelock Ellis published the second volume of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Sexual Inversion, in which he attempted to trace the origins of homosexuality back to childhood through the aid of individual case histories. The collaboration of Ellis with Symonds on Sexual Inversion makes the book the first anthropologically sound publication on homosexuality in British science.

Sexual Inversion was promoted in the offices of the Legitimation League, a society dedicated to sexual reform. This public display of a book on a controversial topic such as homosexuality led to the Secretary of the League, George Bedborough, to be prosecuted and fined in 1898 for selling the book. However, the intellectuals of the day, such as G.B. Shaw and W.T. Stead, agreed that the book was an important landmark in British writing, and that it served as a good example of pointing out exactly what was wrong with the current legislation regarding sodomy.

The attempt to suppress Sexual Inversion and the ideas and theories it dealt with backfired significantly. The trial served as excellent publicity for the book, and hundreds of homosexual men and women wrote to Ellis with their problems, their life histories, information and views , giving him more material for further study. Ellis' work was monumental in the sense that it paved the way for a queer discourse that was something other than negative, and opened up the gay community in Britain of the time, making people aware that they were not alone in their predicament, and that what they were experiencing was not something that could be written off and condemned as a debilitating vice.

Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), date unknown
Havelock Ellis himself was an incredibly interesting Victorian figure whose importance in sexology and gender studies is these days sometimes unjustly overlooked. His findings and his work were certainly as relevant as Freud's in their time. He was a radical thinker, joining The Fellowship of the New Life, an organisation of intellectuals dedicated to 'the cultivation of perfect character in each and all' and 'the subordination of material things to spiritual things' when he was only twenty-four years old. He was one of the founding members of the Fabian Society only a year after, and as such he was an advocate of advancing the principles of democratic socialism through debate rather than open conflict and revolution.

When it comes to sexuality, Ellis was what today would be described as queer – he had strong emotional relationships with two women, Olive Schreiner and Edith Lees, and he married the latter in 1891. Schreiner had left Ellis because of his lack of sexual desire, and his marriage to Edith Lees was highly unconventional – she openly pursued romantic friendships with women, which Ellis chose to interpret as a manifestation of her lesbian tendencies, and they maintained separate incomes and, for the better part of the year, separate dwellings.  In his autobiography, My Life, Ellis refers to their marriage: 

It was certainly not a union of unrestrainable passion; I, though I failed yet clearly to realise why, was conscious of no inevitably passionate sexual attraction to her, and she, also without yet clearly realising why, had never felt genuinely passionate sexual attraction for any man... Whatever passionate attractions she had experienced were for women. 

It could be argued that Ellis was mostly asexual: what few sexual desires he had were chiefly related to urolagnia.

With Sexual Inversion, Ellis had attempted to bring dignity and understanding back to homosexuals, and to explain that their 'condition' was not anything which should set them apart from the rest of society. This attempt was not exactly successful, since the study, as a matter of course, deliberately distinguished homosexuals from heterosexuals based on physical and psychological traits ranging from hereditary, neuropathic illnesses in the family to (not) being able to whistle and preferring the colour green. Here's an example of one of the case histories presented in Sexual Inversion:

HISTORY XII.—Aged 24. Father and mother both living; the latter is of a better social standing than the father. He is much attached to his mother, and she gives him some sympathy. He has a brother who is normally attracted to women. He himself has never been attracted to women, and takes no interest in them nor in their society.
 At the age of 4 he first became conscious of an attraction for older males. From the ages of 11 and 19, at a large grammar-school, he had relationships with about one hundred boys. Needless to add, he considers homosexuality extremely common in schools. It was, however, the Oscar Wilde case which first opened his eyes to the wide prevalence of homosexuality, and he considers that the publicity of that case has done much, if not to increase homosexuality, at all events to make it more conspicuous and outspoken.
 He is now attracted to youths about 5 or 6 years younger than himself; they must be good-looking. He has never perverted a boy not already inclined to homosexuality. In his relationship he does not feel exclusively like a male or a female: sometimes one, sometimes the other. He is often liked, he says, because of his masculine character.
 He is fully developed and healthy, well over middle height, inclined to be plump, with full face and small moustache. He smokes many cigarettes and cannot get on without them. Though his manners are very slightly if at all feminine, he acknowledges many feminine ways. He is fond of jewellery, until lately always wore a bangle, and likes women's rings; he is very particular about fine ties, and uses very delicate women's handkerchiefs. He has always had a taste for music, and sings. He has a special predilection for green; it is the predominant colour in the decoration of his room, and everything green appeals to him. He finds that the love of green (and also of violet and purple) is very widespread among his inverted friends.

John Addington Symonds had contributed his own case history, anonymously, and it's numbered as History XX. in the book. The problematic thing about Sexual Inversion is that by being studied in a cold, analytical and strictly scientific way, the figure of the homosexual man becomes a passive object, unlike the figure of the heterosexual, which retains the active, progressive role. Instead of giving homosexuals a voice, Ellis reduces them to test subjects and does not try to suggest that, although congenital, homosexuality is not a disease – he even goes as far as to enumerate certain suggested 'cures', although he does write that he does not advocate their use.

Ellis echoes the same opinion on legislation concerning sexuality that Symonds expressed in A Problem in Modern Ethics. He writes:

If two persons of either or both sexes, having reached years of discretion, privately consent to practise some perverted mode of sexual relationship, the law cannot be called upon to interfere. It should be the function of the law in this matter to prevent violence, to protect the young, and to preserve public order and decency. Whatever laws are laid down beyond this must be left to the individuals themselves, to the moralists, and to social opinion.

In many ways, Sexual Inversion was a double-edged sword. It perpetuated what it attempted to deconstruct, but in spite of this it is still a monumental work in sexology and writing on homosexual behaviour and practices. 

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