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

Charles Upchurch
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Before Wilde
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94358-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    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...


    • CHAPTER 1 Families and Sex between Men
      (pp. 21-49)

      The anonymity of urban space has long been viewed as important to the history of sex between men in modern European history, but such anonymity was always limited.¹ Moments of standing alone in a park at night, in front of a picture-shop window, or in a particular kind of public house in anticipation of a sexual encounter with another man were stolen from lives that were lived within family and community networks. Although there was a continuous homosexual subculture from the eighteenth through the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the evidence for sex between men preserved for the...

    • CHAPTER 2 Class, Masculinity, and Spaces
      (pp. 50-80)

      Circumstances played a large role in how men understood their sexual activities with other men. The class backgrounds of the participants, the relative ages of the individuals involved, and the spaces in which those sexual acts occurred were all important. How men felt about their male sexual partners differed if the other man was met in a public school, known as a family friend, or encountered in Hyde Park at night. Sexual pickups in front of shop windows, lingering in certain sections of city parks, and suggestive stares in and around public urinals were recurring themes from the early eighteenth...


    • CHAPTER 3 Law and Reform in the 1820s
      (pp. 83-104)

      The most significant British law reforms of the nineteenth century happened in the 1820s and 1830s. These reforms were begun by the Tories before the Great Reform Act of 1832, completed under the Whigs in the years after 1832, and imposed on a majority that had no hand in shaping them. They set a new pattern for imposing order by the use of criminal law, shifting away from the use of rare but brutal displays of state power on the body of the convict and toward a system where less severe punishments were implemented with much greater frequency and consistency....

    • CHAPTER 4 Public Men: The Metropolitan Police
      (pp. 105-128)

      Police Sergeant David Cooper was fairly well known around the Uxbridge region of Middlesex in 1838. During his rounds one evening, he came across a local married householder by the name of Pearce in his stable with a prostitute. Although Sergeant Cooper apparently did not feel that any infraction had occurred, Pearce was of a different mind. He did not acknowledge Sergeant Cooper’s right to enter his stable, even while on patrol, and he confronted Cooper several days later, saying, “D—n you, what business did you have in my stable the other night?” Unsatisfied with Cooper’s response, he shouted,...

    • CHAPTER 5 Unnatural-Assault Reporting in the London Press
      (pp. 129-156)

      The above three statements were printed in 1842 in the Times, the Morning Post, and the Weekly Dispatch, the leading papers for the middle, upper, and working classes respectively, and each in continuous publication from the start of the 1820s through the end of the 1860s. The statements concerned the trial of Private William Youl of the Coldstream Guards, who accused William Thomas Elder, “a middle-aged man of gentlemanly appearance,” of making a sexual advance on him as he guarded the Tower of London. The defense attorney questioning Youl was trying to deflect suspicion away from Elder by implying that...


    • CHAPTER 6 Patterns within the Changes
      (pp. 159-185)

      In the 1820s and early 1830s, as previous chapters discuss, a series of state reforms altered and intensified policing of sexual acts between men. This outcome was not the main motivation of the reforms, and the men making them largely avoided the public discussion of such practices. For this reason, the historical records are fewer in this area than for other categories of legislated change, such as the Poor Law reform of 1834, the regulation of prostitution, or the extension of the franchise. Nevertheless, the policing of sex between men was brought into line with nineteenth-century patterns of law enforcement,...

    • CHAPTER 7 Conclusion: Character and Medicine
      (pp. 186-206)

      Michel Foucault famously argued that the late nineteenth century saw a discernible shift in the state’s regulation of sexual acts between men. Previously the law had punished individuals for specific acts, but increasingly the medical and state authorities on the continent focused on “the homosexual” as “a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology.”¹ According to many scholars, this new identity category was later appropriated by the individuals who felt same-sex desire, who used it...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 207-246)
  10. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 247-264)
  11. Index
    (pp. 265-276)