A Problem in Modern Ethics/Chapter II



Gibbon's remarks upon the legislation of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian supply a fair example of the way in which men of learning and open mind have hitherto regarded what, after all, is a phenomenon worthy of cold and calm consideration. "I touch," he says, "with reluctance, and despatch with impatience, a more odious vice, of which modesty rejects the name, and nature abominates the idea." After briefly alluding to the morals of Etruria, Greece, and Rome, he proceeds to the enactments of Constantine: "Adultery was first declared to be a capital offence … the same penalties were inflicted on the passive and active guilt of pæderasty; and all criminals, of free or servile condition, were either drowned, or beheaded, or cast alive into the avenging flames."[1] Then, without further comment, he observes: "The adulterers were spared by the common sympathy of mankind; but the lovers of their own sex were pursued by general and pious indignation." "Justinian relaxed the punishment at least of female infidelity: the guilty spouse was only condemned to solitude and penance, and at the end of two years she might be recalled to the arms of a forgiving husband. But the same Emperor declared himself the implacable enemy of unmanly lust, and the cruelty of his persecution can scarcely be excused by the purity of his motives. In defiance of every principle of justice he stretched to past as well as future offences the operations of his edicts, with the previous allowance of a short respite for confession and pardon. A painful death was inflicted by the amputation of the sinful instrument, or the insertion of sharp reeds into the pores and tubes of most exquisite sensibility." One consequence of such legislation may be easily foreseen. "A sentence of death and infamy was often founded on the slight and suspicious evidence of a child or a servant: the guilt of the green faction, of the rich, and of the enemies of Theodora, was presumed by the judges, and pæderasty became the crime of those to whom no crime could be imputed."

This state of things has prevailed wherever the edicts of Justinian have been adopted into the laws of nations. The Cathari, the Paterini, the heretics of Provence, the Templars, the Fraticelli, were all accused of unnatural crimes, tortured into confession, and put to death. Where nothing else could be adduced against an unpopular sect, a political antagonist, a wealthy corporation, a rival in literature, a powerful party-leader, unnatural crime was insinuated, and a cry of "Down with the pests of society" prepared the populace for a crusade.

It is the common belief that all subjects of sexual inversion have originally loved women, but that, through monstrous debauchery and superfluity of naughtiness, tiring of normal pleasure, they have wilfully turned their appetites into other channels. This is true about a certain number. But the sequel of this Essay will prove that it does not meet by far the larger proportion of cases, in whom such instincts are inborn, and a considerable percentage in whom they are also inconvertible. Medical jurists and physicians have recently agreed to accept this as a fact.

It is the common belief that a male who loves his own sex must be despicable, degraded, depraved, vicious, and incapable of humane or generous sentiments. If Greek history did not contradict this supposition, a little patient enquiry into contemporary manners would suffice to remove it. But people will not take this trouble about a matter, which, like Gibbon, they "touch with reluctance and despatch with impatience." Those who are obliged to do so find to their surprise that "among the men who are subject to this deplorable vice there are even quite intelligent, talented, and highly-placed persons, of excellent and even noble character."[2] The vulgar expect to discover the objects of their outraged animosity in the scum of humanity. But these may be met with every day in drawing-rooms, law-courts, banks, universities, mess-rooms; on the bench, the throne, the chair of the professor; under the blouse of the workman, the cassock of the priest, the epaulettes of the officer, the smock-frock of the ploughman, the wig of the barrister, the mantle of the peer, the costume of the actor, the tights of the athlete, the gown of the academician.

It is the common belief that one, and only one, unmentionable act is what the lovers seek as the source of their unnatural gratification, and that this produces spinal disease, epilepsy, consumption, dropsy, and the like.[3] Nothing can be more mistaken, as the

scientifically reported cases of avowed and adult sinners amply demonstrate. Neither do they invariably or even usually prefer the aversa Venus; nor, when this happens, do they exhibit peculiar signs of suffering in health.[4] Excess in any venereal pleasure will produce diseases of nervous exhaustion and imperfect nutrition. But the indulgence of inverted sexual instincts within due limits, cannot be proved to be especially pernicious. Were it so, the Dorians and Athenians, including Sophocles, Pindar, Æschines, Epaminondas, all the Spartan kings and generals, the Theban legion, Pheidias, Plato, would have been one nation of rickety, phthisical, dropsical paralytics. The grain of truth contained in this vulgar error is that, under the prevalent laws and hostilities of modern society, the inverted passion has to be indulged furtively, spasmodically, hysterically; that the repression of it through fear and shame frequently leads to habits of self-abuse; and that its unconquerable solicitations sometimes convert it from a healthy outlet of the sexual nature into a morbid monomania.[5] It is also true that professional male prostitutes, like their female counterparts, suffer from local and constitutional disorders, as is only natural.[6]

It is the common belief that boys under age are specially liable to corruption. This error need not be confuted here. Anyone who chooses to read the cases recorded by Casper-Liman, Casper in his Novellen, Krafft-Ebing, and Ulrichs, or to follow the developments of the present treatise, or to watch the manners of London after dark, will be convicted of its absurdity. Young boys are less exposed to dangers from abnormal than young girls from normal voluptuaries.

It is the common belief that all subjects from inverted instinct carry their lusts written in their faces; that they

are pale, languid, scented, effeminate, painted, timid, oblique in expression. This vulgar error rests upon imperfect observation. A certain class of such people are undoubtedly feminine. From their earliest youth they have shown marked inclination for the habits and the dress of women; and when they are adult, they do everything in their power to obliterate their manhood. It is equally true that such unsexed males possess a strong attraction for some abnormal individuals. But it is a gross mistake to suppose that all the tribe betray these attributes. The majority differ in no detail of their outward appearance, their physique, or their dress from normal men. They are athletic, masculine in habits, frank in manner, passing through society year after year without arousing a suspicion of their inner temperament. Were it not so, society would long ago have had its eyes opened to the amount of perverted sexuality it harbours.

The upshot of this discourse on vulgar errors is that popular opinion is made up of a number of contradictory misconceptions and confusions. Moreover, it has been taken for granted that "to investigate the depraved instincts of humanity is unprofitable and disgusting." Consequently the subject has been imperfectly studied; and individuals belonging to radically different species are confounded in one vague sentiment of reprobation. Assuming that they are all abominable, society is content to punish them indiscriminately. The depraved debauchee who abuses boys receives the same treatment as the young man who loves a comrade. The male prostitute who earns his money by extortion is scarcely more contemned than a man of birth and breeding who has been seen walking with soldiers.

  1. Vindices Flammæ.
  2. Stieber, "Practisches Lehrbuch der Criminal-Polizei," 1860, cap. 19, quoted by Ulrichs, "Araxes," p. 9. It is not necessary to multiply evidences upon a point so patent to every man of the world. But I will nevertheless translate a striking passage from Mantegazza (op. cit., p. 148). "Nor is this infamous abomination confined to the vilest classes of our society. It soars into the highest spheres of wealth and intelligence. Within the narrow range of my own experience I have known among the most scandalous sodomites a French journalist, a German poet, an Italian statesman, and a Spanish jurist; all of these men of exquisite taste and profound culture!" It would not be difficult to draw up a list of English kings, bishops, deans, nobles of the highest rank, poets, historians, dramatists, officers in the army and navy, civil servants, schoolmasters in the most fashionable schools, physicians, members of Parliament, journalists, barristers, who in their lifetime were, as Dante says, "d'un medesmo peccato al mondo lerci." Many belonging to the past are notorious; and no good could come of mentioning the names of the living.
  3. This accusation against men who feel a sexual inclination for males loses some of its significance when we consider how common the practice of Venus aversa is among libertines who love women. Parent-Duchatelet asserts that no prostitute after a certain age has escaped it. Coffignon, in his book on, "La Corruption à Paris" (p. 324), says: "Chaque année, il passe en traîtement à l'hôpital de Lourcine une centaine de femmes sodomistes … Je suis persuadé qu'à l'hôpital de St. Lazare la proportion des sodomistes est encore beaucoup plus grande … Les maîtresses de maison, professant cet odieux principe que la clientèle doit être satisfaite, ne permettent pas à une fille de se refuser à une acte de sodomie." Tardieu (Attentats, &c., p. 198) observes: "Chose singulière! c'est principalement des rapports conjugaux que se sont produits les faits de cette nature."
  4. See Casper-Liman, vol. i., p. 182, at the end of Case 71.
  5. While studying what Germans call the Casuistik of this question in medical, forensic, and anthropological works, we often meet with cases where inverted sexuality exhibits extraordinary symptoms of apparent craziness—strange partialities for particular kinds of dress, occupations in the beloved object, nastinesses, and so forth. But it must be remarked first that the same symptoms are exhibited by sexually normal natures (Krafft-Ebing, Observations 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, and the cases recorded in footnote to page 90); and, secondly, that if they should appear to be more frequent in the abnormal, this can in a great measure be ascribed to the fact that these latter cases only come under the observation of medical men and judges when the patients have already for many years been suffering from all the pangs of a coerced and defrauded instinct. There is nothing in the copious history of Greece and Rome upon this subject to lead us to suppose that in a society which tolerated sexual inversion, its subjects were more conspicuous for filthy and degrading or insane proclivities than ordinary men and women were. Those who can bring themselves to enquire into such matters may convince themselves by reading Forberg's annotations to "Hermaphroditus," Rosenbaum's "Lustseuche," the pseudo-Meursius, and the pornographical dialogues of Aretino. It will appear conclusively that both in ancient and in modern times the normal sexual instinct has been subject to the wildest freaks and aberrations; not in actually diseased persons, but simply in lustful wantons and the epicures of new sensations. The curious things we know about flagellation and cruelty in connection with the ordinary appetite should also be remembered. As a final note on this topic, I will refer to a passage quoted by Tarnowsky from a work of Taxil, describing a peculiarly repulsive class of fashionable libertines in Paris called "les stercoraires" (op. cit., p. 70). Compare what Mantegazza reports of a "gentile ufficiale francese" (Gli amore degli uomini, vol. i. p. 117).
  6. See upon this point Tardieu, "Attentats aux Mœurs," Rosenbaum, "Die Lustseuche."