One point is often raised about male homosexuality: it has always been with us. True, but has it ever changed in its nature or prevalence?
Well, more gays have been ‘coming out of the closet.’ People are practicing openly what used to be done in secret. But have there also been more fundamental changes?
Such a change has been postulated by Michel Foucault and others who argue that European societies originally had plenty of male homosexuality but few male homosexuals (Foucault, 1976; Halsall, 1988; Trumbach, 1977). In the Middle Ages, this behavior was seen as a ‘vice’ of older heterosexual men, typically with young boys or men of a servile status. In contrast, far fewer men were exclusively homosexual in the sense of being uninterested in women and resembling women in their sexual orientation (i.e., having a woman’s search image and desired self-image). This relative rarity is implied by the astonishment that European explorers felt on encountering Amerindian berdaches during the 18th and early 19th centuries (Désy, 1978).
Towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, this facultative male homosexuality seems to have been overtaken by the exclusive kind throughout northern Europe and North America. Today, at least in these regions, most male homosexuals fall into the second category, as Greg Cochran notes when comparing male and female homosexuality:
Female homosexuality is less common and women who self-label as homosexuals are a lot more likely to have children than gay men. So the overall impact on fitness is less. The distributions are different too: you find a lot more men who are Kinsey 6s, who aren’t interested in women at all, than bisexual men: the distribution is J-shaped. It’s the other way around in women, more bisexuals than Simon-pure lesbians. (Cochran, 2005)
Thus, around the turn of the 20th century, a shift occurred in the search image of some men, making them homosexual and exclusively so. Interestingly, a similar shift took place among heterosexual men in general, though to a lesser degree. The feminine ideal became that of a woman with long legs, a flat chest, narrow hips, large shoulders, and tanned skin, like a young boy on the brink of puberty (Bard, 1998; Marchand, 1997, 1988). This sort of woman appears in a 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, where Miss Jordan Baker is described as “a slender, small-breasted girl with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet” (Fitzgerald, 1992, p. 15). Such androgyny is sometimes put down to the social impacts of World War I, either the wartime entry of women into previously male jobs or the postwar shortage of men. Yet the ‘boyish look’ was being mentioned as early as 1914, in the United States, three years before that country entered the war:
The new ideal in feminine figure, dress, and hair styles was all semi-masculine. The “1914 Girl” with her “slim hips and boy-carriage” was a “slim, boylike creature”. The “new figure is Amazonian, rather than Miloan. It is boyish rather than womanly. It is strong rather than soft.” Her dress styles, meanwhile, de-emphasized both hips and bust while they permitted the large waist. (McGovern, 1968)
It is as if something had been altering the male search image, thereby causing a preference for more boyish-looking women and, in a minority of cases, for men. But what could this ‘something’ have been?
From the perspective of Cochran’s germ theory, it may have been a pathogen that became more transmissible with the growth of towns and cities in the late 19th century. Its male hosts may have varied in their degree of susceptibility, being pushed over the threshold of male homosexuality in some cases. In most cases, the psychological change would have been less drastic.
An alternate candidate may be some kind of chemical agent, specifically an estrogen or estrogenic compound that would hinder the masculinization of male brains. There has been much talk about a long-term decline in sperm counts, allegedly because of synthetic compounds that mimic natural estrogens (e.g., contraceptive pills, DDT, PCBs). Most of these compounds, however, date back only to the 1940s. Is there reason to believe that an estrogenic agent began to enter the human environment in the late 19th century—and in large quantities?
(to be cont’d in my next post)
Bard, C. (1998). Les garçonnes. Modes et fantasmes des Années folles. Paris: Flammarion.
Cochran, G.M. (2005). Cause of Homosexuality: Gene or Virus? Cochran Interview. Thrasymachus Online.
Désy, P.P. (1978). L’homme-femme. (Les berdaches en Amérique du Nord), Libre — politique, anthropologie, philosophie, 78(3), 57-102.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1992). The Great Gatsby, New York: Collier Books.
Foucault, M. (1976) Histoire de la sexualité. Tome 1. La volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard.
Marchand, S. (1997). Rouge à lèvres et pantalon. Des pratiques esthétiques féminines controversées au Québec 1920-1939, Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise HMH.
Marchand, S. (1988). La « Garçonne », un nouveau modèle féminin (1920-1929), Cap-aux-Diamants, 4, 19-20.
McGovern, J.R. (1968). The American woman’s pre-World War I freedom in manners and morals, Journal of American History, 55, 315-333.
Trumbach, R. (1977). London’s sodomites: homosexual behaviour and Western culture in the eighteenth century, Journal of Social History, 11, 1-33 .