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Sex!... in the nineteenth century

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 24 juni 2006

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

The nineteenth century is also known as the Victorian age. After the British queen Victoria who didn’t like sex. Great Britain was a world dominating empire at that time. Though large empires are not necessarily sexually repressive (the Roman empire proves the opposite), Great Britain at the time most definitely was. It seemed the queen was not opposed to have sex with her husband though, as she gave birth to a whole series of children. There were also many whores roaming the streets of London as Judith Walkowitz notes in her historical studies of the British capital.

The boys at the boarding schools had fun together and the colonial regents explored the local beauties every which way. So the negative sexual reputation of the nineteenth century is not entirely justified. It goes without saying that Paris was a much more lively and horny city than London, however. It was no coincidence that “French” to the English people stood for lust, whether it be novels, condoms, gay sex or STDs. Spanking was considered the only genuine English vice.

Holland was not any different from its large neighbors. Debauchery flourished under a veneer of sexual decency. It was Nop Maas’ great virtue that he exposed the sexual underground from that time.

His book “Seks!... in de negentiende eeuw” (Sex!... in the nineteenth century) offers entire catalogues of “dirty” and prohibited books.

There was more “dirty” than forbidden in Holland before the new criminal law of 1886 and the decency laws of 1911; the number of sexual criminal acts was small when you compare it with the current “liberal” times.

“Seks!” contains several brochures for sponges, syringes, tablets, enema appliances, douches, irrigators and “the finest fish bladder preservatives,” all aimed at birth control.

Sade’s boudoir philosophy appears to have been translated into Dutch in 1884 already. (A boudoir is a room in between the street and the bedroom; a room dedicated to sex, half public, half private. Exactly the way queens like De Sade want sex to be).

Other subjects are sexual hygiene and the battle against onanism, which would continue till at least half a century after 1900. The socialist press gloated over real and fabricated sex scandals around church and royalty.

The Left campaigns against “the market of white female slaves” in a way that makes you wonder whether the journalists were frothing at the mouth or somewhere else.

These left-wing rascals found themselves in suspect company of Christian “Midnight Evangelists” who took to the street to battle prostitution and other indecent behavior. Sometimes you get the impression that a number of politicians of today were born a good century too late! Nop Maas finds a great amount of sexual nonsense and hypocrite morality in provocative magazines such as “Asmodée” and “Roode Duivel” (Red Devil).

The first is his main source for finding products of the “Artistic Bureau,” Holland’s largest porn company in the second half of the nineteenth century, which in the 1890s and 1900s even published some pornographic works in English, such as the famous queer novel “The sins of the cities of the plain or the recollections of a Mary-Ann: Eight short essays on sodomy and tribadism” in 1896. It took until the end of the century for competition to emerge, like Van Klaveren en Graauw who published popular sexology, realistic novels and educative brochures on the human body and STDs as well as other great stuff.

Although the first 190 pages offer quite some material for the fans of gentlemen’s sex already, Nop Maas devotes the last chapter entirely to unnatural sex. All of a sudden high literature takes center stage, as if all gays were intellectuals. The first article is about a pedophile scandal around writer Johannes Kneppelhout who was a little bit too interested in talented boys and therefore was accused of being after more than just their artistic talent. After that there are homosexual excerpts from the correspondence between the French/Dutch writer Joris-Karel Huysmans and the Dutch writer/painter Arij Prins.

Unfortunately there is hardly any background information so you can only work out they had interest in pederasts and sodomy. The Dutch writers Louis Couperus, Jacob Israël de Haan and P.C. Boutens are disccussed in connection with the caricatures they were the victims of. The last article on Oscar Wilde seems to have lost the plot a bit, which characterizes the lack of direction of the book at large.

“Seks!” is full of interesting stuff but the historical context is missing. Who read these “dirty” books, how many of these were printed, how did this literature fit in with the cultural climate of that time, how was it that the lefties, the progressive liberals and the Christians joined in a fruitless alliance against sexual diversions? How erotic were these novels anyway? All these issues remain unanswered and Nop Maas simply refers to other studies in which the alert reader will have trouble finding the answers.

Let’s finish with the most exiting article about “devious Trappists.” A small part of the book is dedicated to the filthy minds and actions of Catholics, a highly cherished theme amongst Protestants, liberals and socialists. In an abbey at Forges (indeed, we’ve suddenly crossed the border to Belgium) monks had started an improvement clinic for petty criminals from the city. How these incidents from 1860 remind us of our current society! Now we hear of sexual activities amongst the boys, then the monks took the initiative: “The pupil who had broken the rules was bound to a pole on the sunny side; an iron band enclosed his neck in order to keep his head upright; his hands were similarly fixed, shackles connected the neck and wrist bands to the pole.”

All these juicy details reveal that the writer was working with more lust than indignation. He takes it even further and claims that the boys who “were willingly transformed into lascivious instruments,” received many presents and gifts from the monks instead of punishment. The accompanying picture shows a naughty boy, tied up but fully dressed, his face distorted in pain, being flogged by a fat monk. Another boy lies on the floor in swoon. “Free handed education” it was originally called; Maas turned it into “pole torture.”

How little has changed between 1859 and 2006, between Forges and Abu Graib, with this strange mixture of excitement, humiliation and indignation on behalf of the prosecutors. The only “progress” is that they used to be quite candid about the sexual aim of the exercise (lascivious instrument!), while nowadays everyone is aware but chooses to ignore. Shame that the nicest story had nothing to do with Holland!



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In the New Issue of Gay News, 326, October 2018

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