Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex
by Robert Deam Tobin
University of Pennsylvania Press
326 pages, $69.95
BACKGROUND IN A NUTSHELL: the dark ages for gay men began in the 4th century CE, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. A taboo carried forward from the Holiness Code of Leviticus imposed the death penalty for sex between males. Male love went underground, though men never ceased to love and have sex with each other. For centuries, male lovers suffered dishonor, imprisonment, torture, and death. With the Renaissance, the rebirth of classical antiquity, homoerotic themes began to reappear in art and literature. Then the philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment brought a secular approach to matters of morality, and extended free inquiry to the nameless sin.
The first known written arguments for abolishing sodomy statutes (a generic term for any laws that criminalize sex between males) were made in the late 18th century by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who argued—brilliantly and comprehensively—that all-male sexual acts were not harmful and should not be punished. However, these writings were not published until nearly two centuries later (“Offenses Against One’s Self: Paederasty,” written circa 1785, first published in 1978).
In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an essay, “A Discourse on the Manners of the Antient [sic]Greeks relative to the subject of Love,” to accompany his translation of Plato’s Symposium, which would have been the first in English to present the genders correctly. Unfortunately, Shelley’s widow Mary suppressed and bowdlerized both the translation and the essay, which were not published as written for well over a century.
Later in the 19th century, the first open polemics would be published, and in 1897 the first activist organization would be founded. This brings us to the recently published Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex, by Robert Deam Tobin, Professor of German at Clark University. This is by no means the first book to cover the early homosexual emancipation movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, I believe that honor falls to David Thorstad and me for our book, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), which was published in 1974.
But Tobin has a new approach. He describes his book as ultimately “about a history of ideas—ideas that would one day have a concrete force in people’s lives, although they may have been obscure at the time of their emergence.” In his Preface, Tobin describes two competing paradigms:
Much of the scientific research on sexual orientation continues to work on the assumption that homosexuals constitute a discrete minority, with biologically identifiable characteristics that often have something to do with gender inversion; this research typically claims to be part of a liberal political agenda. At the same time, a counter-discourse persists, according to which most people are bisexual and capable of strong erotic and emotional bonds with members of their own sex, even if they typically favor heterosexual liaisons.
Tobin indicates up front that Peripheral Desires will focus “almost entirely on men.” Although his book covers a lot of historical and political ground, I’ll concentrate on his primary thesis that sexual categories formulated in the 19th century have carried forward into the present.
First, a word about terminology: in order to avoid anachronism, Tobin chooses to use the nomenclature employed by the authors he studies—“urning,” “invert,” “homosexual,” or whatever. That’s fine, if occasionally awkward, but I myself will also use the word “gay” as sometimes the best and even least anachronistic term. (Rictor Norton in 1997’s Myth of the Modern Homosexual has demonstrated that by the time of Byron and Shelley “gay” was already used underground in its present sense.)