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Reviewed by:
  • Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century
  • Ross G. Forman (bio)
Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century, by H. G. Cocks; pp. xii + 258. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003, £39.50, $59.50.

Studies of queer culture in the late nineteenth century have often relied on the notion that the adoption of the Labouchere Amendment (1884) was a watershed in both the criminalization of homosexuality and its new visibility in British culture. Yet, as H. G. [End Page 602] Cocks shows in his impeccably researched Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century, the amendment was more accurately just one more point along the continuum of ways to regulate and disseminate ideas about normative and non-normative sexuality that had been developing since the 1780s (17).

Cocks's contention is that contemporary scholarship has focused too much on the late nineteenth century to the detriment of the period 1780–1850; Nameless Offences seeks to redress this imbalance. This earlier period, Cocks notes, saw the largest expansion in prosecutions for homosexual offences and "produced a corresponding shift in the status and representation of homosexual desire" (6). Cocks also rightly claims that a scholarly focus on scandals such as the Boulton and Park and Oscar Wilde cases has obscured the contribution made to the construction of homosexuality by the much greater number of ordinary cases.

Cocks's study charts how the "unspeakable" became so familiar. He begins by examining the structures governing the prosecution of sodomy and buggery, arguing that a variety of almost coincidental factors—rather than a specific intent on the part of police, the state, or "reforming moralists" (19)—led to increased regulation of sexuality during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cocks offers insights into the nature of evidence required for a prosecution, showing that distinctions between public and private arose primarily out of legal rules of evidence, rather than from increased vigilance over public spaces.

In his second chapter, "Policing Sodomy in the Nineteenth Century," Cocks links the development of policing in Britain (particularly London) with a developmental history of homosexuality. By making a history of the police and courts central to his argument, Cocks shows that far from seeking to use homosexual offences to generate moral lessons, law officers perceived their investigation and prosecution as an "unfortunate duty" (50). It was a duty that exposed the limits of their authority, opened them up to scandal, and promised no moral return. In order to give a geographical view of certain forms of same-sex interaction during this era, the chapter plots the sites in London that generated cases for the authorities.

Cocks's third and fourth chapters move into more discursive areas, probing the representation of effeminacy, the development and influence of the periodical press, and the operation of blackmail and extortion. The law is again the major pivot around which his interpretation revolves, and he convincingly argues that the prevalence of false accusations for purposes like blackmail was more important to the period than previously realized. This section persuasively analyzes the class structures that underpinned both accusations and prosecutions, and the changing structure of press intervention as exemplified in cases such as the Dublin Castle affair and the Cleveland Street scandal.

In many ways, Cocks's book is less theoretically ambitious than other recent works on queer identity in the nineteenth century, such as Matthew Cook's London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914 (2003) and Mark Turner's Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London (2003). Yet Nameless Offences does engage with theory in important ways. Cocks has amassed a remarkably thorough body of empirical evidence, and he puts it to good use in testing the accuracy of theoretical commonplaces.

Like many other recent works on Victorian sexuality, Cocks's study complicates what is often taken to be Michel Foucault's claim that sexual acts transmuted into identities during this era. Here, Cocks's contribution once again comes in the form of hard [End Page 603] evidence. In particular, he demonstrates that no single way of thinking about sexuality necessarily dominated the period. Instead, multiple systems—divided along axes of class, geography, age, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 602-604
Launched on MUSE
2006-02-06
Open Access
No
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