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Homostudies - Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden

by Gert Hekma , 15 november 2004

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

The major accomplishment of Jens Rydström in his study on Swedish bestiality and homosexuality is the confirmation of Michel Foucault’s theory of the change from a legal system of forbidden acts to a medical system of marginalized identities in the first volume of Histoire de la Sexualité (1976). Swedish courts routinely condemned “unnatural fornication” (as male and female homosexuality and bestiality were called since the law reform of 1864) as a criminal offense till the early twentieth century.

Since then, the focus became for male homosexual practices a sexual identity. Stimulated by medical experts, police officers and judges started more often to investigate the personal history of the inculpated. Although the acts remained relevant for the criminal prosecution, the erotic identity of gay men began to receive an attention that zoophiles never got. Bestiality remained a sin of scarcity that according to general opinion was largely committed by young men or old vagrants who had easier access to animals than to women. They rarely were object of medical research into their sexual biography.

The medicalization had one dramatic consequence for some homosexual men who could be put up in asylums for much longer periods than they would ever have to sit in prisons. A departure from Foucault’s theory is the time schedule. While Foucault saw such a change taking place very vaguely somewhere in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, Rydström only finds it in the beginning of the twentieth while a lesbian identity developed another thirty years later.

The changes in the legal approach towards homosexuality were mirrored by changes in the worlds of homosexuals who started to create their own subcultures and identities. Some of them got acquainted with the new sexological literature or visited Copenhagen and Berlin where they met like-minded men. Their new identification with homosexuality could take various directions. Some men said they were born this way and implied there was no reason to persecute them. Others felt ashamed of their desires and agreed to the different forms of social discipline they were subjected to, the most extreme being castration after 1930.

The first signs of gay cruising areas were found for the 1880s in Stockholm. Some decades later, the first bars started to cater to this special public. Networks of friends dated further back, for example around the well-known philosopher Pontus Wikner who defended in 1880 “borderline people” against the prejudices of society. This was the first, very covert defense of what later would be called homosexuals. Wikner himself admitted in his private journals, first published in 1971, that there are people who could love their own sex and continued: “I am such a man. In this confession lies a life of pain.” He set with his defense an example for other gay men who still referred to his article many decades later.

It is fascinating to see that Wikner’s apology was published in 1880, at a time when such texts were utterly rare in Europe, while the emergence of a homosexual subculture was so late, compared to other countries. Sweden was apparently more open to queer texts than to homosexual acts.

Nice parts of the book are the descriptions of rural sexualities, both the bestial and homosexual cases. There was a growing normalization of sex with animals. What was an abominable sin and a danger to the social and moral order in the era of unnatural fornications, became a minor crime in the 1940’s. In the past, bestiality resulted in stiff penalties while the abused animal had to be killed. So it also was a crime against property rights. But in later years, sex with animals was taken less serious.

Homosexual practices were most of the time not assiduously persecuted. Anal sex ranked prominently among the sexual acts being condemned. This was a remnant of a history that sodomy or unnatural fornication equaled anal sex. But in modern times, other acts came more to the foreground in the statistics of sexual crime that Rydström produces. With changing times, other acts were prosecuted and mutual masturbation, by some defendants ranked less evil than solitary sex, received more attention of police and court.

At the same time, it is clear from rural court cases that the lonely local queers needed little effort to convince the young men of their village to engage in gay sex. One young man, who had made a living as a male prostitute in Stockholm, bragged about his sexual exploits in the capital and so attracted the sexual curiosity of the local youth who repeated his urban experiences in their small village. A homosexual soldier had no problems to do his “lovely” things with his military comrades who perhaps maltreated him, also because he had no qualms to use lipstick and other feminine adornments in the barracks, but also pleased him sexually.

The difference between damnation and acceptance was small. Although “seducers” got stiffer penalties than the “abused”, the latter would not get away without prison sentences. Age was not a major issue in those years. With a new law in 1944, however, the homosexual act was not any longer a crime, but having homosex with minors became the major offense. The idea that young men could be seduced to homosexuality, largely absent in the new sexological literature of the early-twentieth century that often stressed an innate homosexuality, now received the status of criminological fact and would lead in the 1950s to major prosecutions of “pederasts”, at the same time that the red and homosexual scare of McCarthyism created panic in the United States.

Rydström has written a wonderful and readable study on Sweden‘s sexual varieties. He adds another set of arguments to the continuing debate when homosexual behavior became a subject position. He confirms the thesis of Michel Foucault of a change from the criminal act of sodomy to the sexual identity of first homosexuals and later lesbians. His time schedule confirms the work of Jeffrey Weeks and Alan Sinfield on England, of Harry Oosterhuis on Germany, and of myself on The Netherlands. But he departs from the conclusions of eighteenth-century scholars like Randolph Trumbach and Theo van der Meer who tend to place the making of the homosexual 150 years earlier.

At the other hand, George Chauncey has argued for New York that a new type of gay man, defined by an exclusive desire for men, came into being only in the 1950s. There are good arguments for all positions. The reason why Foucault remained so vague on specific dates, has probably to do with the different stages and forms of this invention of the homosexual. The creation of a subculture of “mollies” that catered to a minority of men interested in homosex, who often identified with the opposite sex, was the first stage in this development.

Theories on the nature of homosexuality as developed by homosexuals themselves and psychiatrists and the creation of a homosexual movement in the late nineteenth century were a second stage. This offered models homosexuals and other “perverts” could and did identify with. It produced a literature that was more or less openly homosexual such as the work of Pontus Wikner, Oscar Wilde, Louis Couperus, Marcel Proust, Herman Bang or Thomas Mann. But they were not yet the exclusive homosexuals who skipped straight marriages altogether. Chauncey and others discern this new type of gay men who remain unmarried for the 1950s when the sexual border traffic of gay and straight, of queen and trade, starts to disappear, and when homosexual men begin to find their partners among their own kind and stop to flaunt their feminine qualities.

The radical gay movements of the sexual revolution create again another type of homosexual that goes out of the closet into the streets. It is now the task of historians to research the contents and stages of this invention of homosexual men and women in closer detail. The work of Rydström offers an excellent starting point for such an endeavour.

Jens Rydström, Sinners and Citizens. Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden, 1880-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 416 blz., ill, $ 20,00



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