A review of Homosexuality and Civilization, by Louis Crompton

We are, as everyone knows, living in the, or a, “gay moment.” One of the consequences is that we have to put up with a great deal of homosexualist propaganda. (I favor the usage “homosexualist” for people who are activist about their sexual orientation, versus “homosexual” for people who are merely, and privately, homosexual. I admit, though, that my attempts to promote this—it seems to me, useful and non-insulting—usage have fallen mostly on stony ground.) Among homosexualists there are many whose devotion to what Christopher Isherwood famously called “my kind” is as intense as anything that can be shown by the followers of any religion or political ideology. 

One aspect of this devotion is the urge to recruit long-dead historical names to the Cause—to comb through history seeking out gayness. Since history is, much more often than not, a very ambiguous affair, an explorer of this inclination can return with many trophies, which he will then display triumphantly to us dull-witted, unimaginative breeders, revealing to us that the human race is, contrary to our narrow brutish prejudices, a very ocean of gayness. Julius Caesar? Gay! Jesus of Nazareth? Gay! Leonardo? Gay! Frederick the Great? Gay! All of them-gay, gay, gay! I do not recall having seen it argued that George Washington was gay, but I have not the slightest doubt that the argument has been made by somebody, somewhere. 

Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization belongs to this genre of homo-prop. It has, I should say here up front, many virtues. Crompton has done prodigies of literary and historical research across a wide range. His sources are for the most part secondary, but they could hardly be otherwise in a book of this scope. Nobody has real expertise on both ancient Greece and feudal Japan. He writes well for an academic (Crompton is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Nebraska), and the book is beautifully produced, with a high standard of copy editing and many fine plates to please the eye. 

Certainly Crompton has a bill of goods to sell, but there we come to matters of personal taste in reading. You either like didactic history, or you don’t. I myself like it very much, to the degree that I even like it when an author writes contrary to my own prejudices. We—the readers of this fine periodical, I mean—are not gaping rubes, to be lured from the straight and narrow by a silver-tongued swindler. We have powers of judgment, which we can apply to an author’s reasoning, and we have knowledge, which we can compare with the facts he presents. Crompton left me unconvinced on his main point, but he proved thoughtful, and entertained me along the way. As propaganda goes, this is a superior specimen. 

His topic is, of course, homosexuality, and this raises a number of problems right away. What is homosexuality? The term is currently used in reference to those who find erotic fulfillment only with coevals of their own sex. A great deal of Crompton’s book, however, deals with different matters. Much of it is about ephebophilia, or boy-love, a phenomenon whose connection to homosexuality is unclear. Indeed, many present-day homosexualist propagandists insist hotly that there is no connection at all. 

And the matter of what people are doing contains all kinds of knotty sub-problems of language and interpretation. When George Russell tells us that “My intercourse with Jowett was not intimate,” or when Dr. Johnson says: “I love Robertson, and I won’t talk of his book,” a person who had learned English as a second language might suppose—wrongly, of course—that these men are speaking about sexual enjoyment of the other party. How much more difficult to interpret recorded utterances from 2,500 years ago, in languages obscure, dead, or both. 

Similarly, researcher Michael J. Bailey, in his recent book about effeminate men (The Man Who Would Be Queen: the Science of Gender-Bending and Transexualism), notes the great difficulty of finding out about the sex lives of Americans today, even with our ability to conduct ambitious surveys costing millions of dollars and involving thousands of subjects. What proportion of the current U.S. population is homosexual? We do not know, even to an order of magnitude. (Bailey’s own estimate is from “less than 1 percent to more than 4 percent.”) What, then, can we hope to understand about the sex lives of the Byzantine emperors—let alone of their subjects? As Sir Kenneth Dover says of Athenian slanders on the Spartans:

If Spartans in the fourth century B.C. unanimously and firmly denied that their erastai and eromenoi [i.e., senior and junior partners in an ephebophilic bond] ever had any bodily contact beyond a clasping of right hands, it was not easy for an outsider even at the time to produce evidence to the contrary, and for us it is impossible.

So on the things we really want to know, we have not much of a clue. What did members of the Theban Band actually do with each other in their leisure hours? Human nature being what it is, it would be surprising if nothing at all went on, but beyond that there is little we can say. 

Reading Professor Crompton’s book, I found that the most useful way of thinking about his topic was as a sort of dance—a “dance to the music of time,” as it were. (Apologies to the late Anthony Powell.) The participants in this dance are not individual human beings but invariant components of the human personality, found in all times and places. Principal among those components I would list the following: 

  • Homosexual orientation. Some small proportion of people find erotic fulfillment only with members of their own sex. 
  • Ephebophilia. Some much larger proportion of adult men can be sexually aroused by contemplating the bodies of well-formed adolescent boys. Overt expression of this attraction has been approved in some societies (or among some social strata in some societies—this seems to be controversial), where it has led to open romantic bonding between adult men and boys. Some similar, but much less historically significant, phenomenon is found among women. 
  • Faute de mieux homosexuality. In societies, or institutions in societies—monasteries, prisons, etc. —where social custom or institutional imperative severely constrains access to the opposite sex, some large proportion of adults, perhaps a majority, will find erotic satisfaction, or at least release, with members of their own sex, when there are not strong institutional prejudices against this (as there are, for instance, in elite combat units of the U.S. military). 
  • Homophobia. (Note: This ugly and etymologically stupid word has entered general currency, so I use it here for convenience, though under protest.) The contemplation of homosexuality induces negative emotions—disgust and contempt, mostly, but also sometimes indignation, anger, and hatred—in many people.

The story told in Homosexuality and Civilization is in large part the story of a long dance among these four partners, with sometimes this one, sometimes that one taking the lead. The well-known proclivities of the ancient Greeks, for example, arose mainly from the union of the second and third of the factors I have listed. 

Louis Crompton’s position on some of these core topics is, I do not think it is unfair to say, controversial. On homosexual orientation, for example, consider the numbers again. So far as we understand the science of male homosexuality—which is further than most people realize, though nothing like far enough to make conclusive pronouncements—the orientation is congenital, with events in the mother’s womb as causative factors, together probably with some slight effects from genetic predisposition (a perplexing thing in itself, considering the consequences for inheritance) and life events in infancy. On Bailey’s estimate, from 1 to 4% of men are affected. Has this proportion been constant across other times and places? It is impossible to know. The science suggests, as a null hypothesis, that it has been. I am not aware of any evidence contradicting this.

Crompton’s narrative contradicts that null hypothesis mightily, though. He has, for example, three of the six Stuart monarchs of England as homosexual in orientation. The probability of this on a 4% basis is one in 855. On a 1% basis, it is one in 51,142. Even if you allow the possibility of that slight genetic factor, this is far out of range. Similarly with his catalogs of Chinese storytellers, Arab poets, and Elizabethan dramatists. Literary gents are not, to be sure, representative of the general population in their sexual preferences, but is Professor Crompton quite sure he has made all due allowance for flattery, stylistic fads, flights of fancy, and plain mischief? I once listened in on an e-list discussion among some Shakespeare experts, debating the question: Is there any character in the plays that can reasonably be taken as “gay” in the modern sense? The consensus was that there is not one. Considering the number of characters involved, this seems difficult to square with Crompton’s speculations on the Sonnets and their author.

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On homophobia, Crompton is emphatic: It is all the fault of “the Hebrew scriptures”—especially, of course, Leviticus. Those proscriptions infected Christianity via St. Paul and then to a lesser degree tainted Islam. I should make it clear here that I see no signs of any anti-Semitic intent in Crompton’s book, though I do think it is quite unpleasantly anti-Christian. 

Is homophobia really all the fault of Leviticus and St. Paul, though? I have said above that “many people” are repelled by homosexuality. How many? In present-day America, I would guess the answer to be: “A modest majority of men, a minority of women,” though the numbers cut differently according to age, religion, education, and social class. The situation in other times and places is even less clear. However, there seems to have been, at a minimum, a widespread general repugnance, in all times and places, toward the passive partner in male-male buggery—”the man who plays the part of a woman.” This repugnance may be sufficiently widespread to belong on anthropologist Donald E. Brown’s list of “human universals,” along with ethnocentrism, incest avoidance, jokes, and so on. It is not difficult to think of an explanation for it in terms of evolutionary biology, but so far as I am aware, the actual psychological status of homophobia is not known. It might be biologically “hard-wired.” Contrariwise, it might be socially conditioned—though if it is, there seems to have been no society that did not condition it to some degree. 

In short, there is much more to homophobia than blind prejudice ignited by Hebrew scriptures. One of the most violently homophobic societies that ever existed was Mao Tse-tung’s China. Bao Ruo-wang’s Prisoner of Mao, for instance, includes a grisly eye-witness account of the execution of a labor-camp inmate suspected of having made homosexual advances. Yet practically nobody in that society had heard of Leviticus or St. Paul. How does Crompton explain this? He doesn’t; though he says that the turn toward homophobia in Meiji Japan was a result of “Western influence.” Perhaps it was; perhaps Professor Crompton has misconstrued the openness of pre-Meiji times; perhaps the process of modernization anywhere excites homophobia for some reason; perhaps half a dozen other perhapses.

* * *

Crompton’s explanations sometimes fall below the unconvincing down to the preposterous. “Abuse of sodomites [in the mid-18th century] became a way for Englishmen to affirm their manhood and allay any suspicions about their own sexuality.” This is only a more highfalutin version of the sneering retort often given by homosexuals to anyone who criticizes their activities: “What’s your problem?” It has its roots in pop-Freudianism, which is to say, in a trivialized version of an exploded theory. Why did Englishmen at that particular time need to “affirm their manhood” in that particular way, rather than by, say, chasing women, fighting duels, or going to war? 

Crompton’s book also has odd omissions. Russia, for example, is left out altogether. Does he think that country not sufficiently civilized? Or just not sufficiently “gay”? (If the latter, he may be mistaken. One memoirist observed of the reign of Nicholas I that: “at that time buggery was widespread in high society.”) The narrative ends rather abruptly, and early—the latest figure discussed at length is Jeremy Bentham. “Our story concludes here,” says the author, “at the moment when executions finally cease in Europe.” Why? It did not begin when executions started. Perhaps Crompton just got tired. One could not blame him, for the amount of sheer hard work he has put into his book is plain to see. The results, for this reader, were not altogether as intended, but I am glad to have read Homosexuality and Civilization anyway, and recommend it to anyone who likes this sort of thing.