Sunday, February 8, 2009

Modern-Day Sodomites?

Yeah, I know "sodomite" is a loaded term. I'm not entirely sure it can be applied meaningfully in the twenty-first century. And yet, sodomite is the word that keeps popping into my head with all the new revelations of Ted Haggard's sexual adventures. Let me explain.

Up until the late 1800s, the category of "homosexual" didn't exist. Michel Foucault explores the genealogy of "homosexuality" in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, showing quite conclusively that "the homosexual" is a product of modern sexual science. (Brief crib notes can be found here, if you've always intended to read Foucault but never quite got around to it.) Only in the nineteenth-century did practitioners of the emerging discipline of sexology declare homosexuality to be a stable, life-long orientation that defined a person's entire sexuality. The most influential of them was Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who wrote in his Psychopathia Sexualis that homosexuality had its roots in congenital pathology. He regarded it as inborn and thus impossible to change.

Sexologists haven't always promoted a binary scheme in which people are either heterosexual or homosexual. Alfred Kinsey's famous 1948 report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, placed men along a 0 to 6 scale, with 0 exclusively heterosexual and 6 exclusively homosexual. All five intermediary scores represented various flavors of bisexuality. But by and large, ever since sexology invented "the homosexual," the popular imagination has categorized people dichotomously as either straight or gay.

Before the birth of the modern homosexual, however, we had "the sodomite." While it's certainly the case that some people repeatedly gravitated toward same-sex liaisons, the early modern Western world didn't pigeonhole them as having an exclusive orientation toward their own sex. It just declared sodomy a sin, and the state also made it a crime.

In early modern Europe, many same-sex-inclined people married and had a family. Some were never outed as sodomites, and so they "passed" their whole lives long.

Some of these folks did get busted for sodomy. They were then labeled as sodomites, but that didn't destroy their other identities as wives, husbands, etc. Even then, their sexuality didn't define their whole being, nor did homosexual acts define their sexuality.

However, sodomy - like rape - was typically a capital crime in early modern Europe. So, while the convicted sodomite wasn't labeled a homosexual, he or she was put to death like a murderer or a witch. (The law typically did not distinguish between male and female sodomites, though practically speaking, only penetrative acts counted as sex, and so men were far more likely to actually be charged with sodomy.)

We actually don't know much about the prevalence of same-sex erotic contacts in the early modern period. Nor were states necessarily very vigorous about prosecuting them - which accounts for the paucity of our knowledge, since historians rely heavily on court records for such information. For instance, during the 18th century the Southern German states were far more concerned with regulating heterosexuality, since pregnancy due to fornication or adultery was socially and fiscally disruptive. (For the preceding, I'm relying on Isabel Hull's Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815.)

None of this is intended to romanticize the sodomite. People died as a result of sodomy laws. Sodomy laws (minus the capital penalties) remained in force in over a quarter of U.S. states until Lawrence v. Texas invalidated them in 2003.

What does this all have to do with Ted Haggard? Well, I think viewing him as a sodomite provides a possible framework for understanding how his wife Gayle can claim that "99 percent of Ted's sexual experiences" were with her:

1. Ted Haggard has been married for most of his adult life and evidently functioned well enough heterosexually to father four children; his wife's claim suggests that they did it more than those four times.

2. According to Grant Haas, the man allegedly paid hush money by Haggard's former church, Haggard engaged in a wide variety of sexual practices, some of it decidedly non-vanilla - and some of it was with his wife.

3. Haggard and his ex-church regard same-sex eroticism as a sin.

Sure sounds like a sodomite to me! Even though nearly all of the reporting has (I think wrongly) suggested that Haggard is a closeted homosexual, all the available evidence suggests that "homosexual" is far too one-dimensional to describe Haggard's variegated and guilt-ridden sexuality. Okay, we could call Haggard a bisexual, or polymorphously perverse (if you want to go all Freudian), but that doesn't quite capture the self-imposed judgment of SIN.

None of this negates what I consider Haggard's only true and massive failing: his hypocrisy. But just possibly, seeing him as a sodomite helps illuminate his sexuality better than any of our usual modern frames. (Anyone want to re-think the Larry Craig scandal through this lens?)


hesperia said...

I wonder if modern laws don't actually force people into either/or positions by focussing on rights as a way of including various sexual practices and expressions in the body politic. In order to achieve full rights, you have to describe yourself as a minority that is discriminated against and you have to be a member of a group - a minority group - thus, you have to identify yourself in a certain way and group membership has a definition, often a rather rigid one. A bit ironic.

Brilliant post sungold!

Sungold said...

Hi Hesperia, and thanks for the kind words!

In my understanding, sexual science first created the either/or positions, which jurisprudence then enforced. The final step in the process was that members of these groups claimed the identity as a way to mobilize politically. These identities will remain necessary as long as discrimination persists.

You could say something similar about race: It's a social construction, but pretending to be color-blind in a still-racist world is an exercise in defeatism.