In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

ELT: Volume 34:3,1991 A History of English Sexuality Richard Davenport-Hines. Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance. London: Collins, 1990. 300 pp. £20.00 A SPECIALIST in business history and the author of an excellent biography of Dudley Docker, Davenport-Hines has undertaken "a history of English sexuality from the standpoint of the AIDS crisis." Yet this is not a work about AIDS, but "a book written in response to it" in which he endeavors to present "social and medical perceptions of venereal diseases, especially syphilis, together with political or administrative responses, since the fifteenth century, and relate these to perceptions and treatment of homosexuals and bisexuals over the same period, with both themes placed within the context of modern British sexuality." Davenport-Hines asserts that it is impossible to comprehend "the stigma attached to AIDS" without a historical perspective. Indeed, because HIV positive is largely sexually transmitted, public attitudes to the disease are today influenced "by primitive, inchoate or unconscious anxieties with long historical antecedents." Hence his themes are sex, fear, and punishment and to tell the story he has used an impressive array of published and unpublished sources which include the "working papers" (except oral testimony) of the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexuality and Prostitution previously withheld by the Home Office. Davenport-Hines is frankly partisan and flays the bigots, prudes, and homophobes who, in their demands for sexual conformity, have inflicted punitive punishment and even threatened genocide on prostitutes , "perverts," and especially homosexuals. He is also convinced that most of these enemies of sexual "sin" and sexual nonconformity are people who repress their "unnatural" desires and condemn those who practice what they really want to do themselves. To Davenport-Hines, the persecution and ruin of Oscar Wilde during 1895 resulted in "a higher number of individuals labelling themselves as exclusively homosexual than ever before" and he cites Laurence Housman's remark that the Wilde trial performed "a great service to humanity" by making the "unmentionable" mentionable. Equally significant is his conviction that the Wilde case occurred "at the moment of maximum impact on Britain of degenerationist psychiatry" with its concern for "the virility of the race" and that the Wilde affair 354 Book Reviews had some very serious implications for the political "Establishment." And, there was good reason for the suspicion that the government was attempting to "hush up" the Wilde case "to screen certain people of higher rank" in politics and society. In any case, says Davenport-Hines, the Wilde scandal led almost immediately "to an attempt to suppress all public mention of homosexuality, and compromise artistic individualism for a generation." But while the "Pharisees" succeeded in the latter, they failed in the former. Chapter 5—"Venus Decomposing"—is a survey and discussion of "Sex, Disease and Punishment in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." Here, Davenport-Hines illustrates how "Responses to venereal diseases were redelineated in the nineteenth century as threats to Christian faith and social order took a new and more menacing form." It was an acknowledgement of the fact, he declares, that diseases can be used as "weapons in the battle to enforce social order" and that "Dread of venereal disease was stimulated as a matter of public policy." Out of all this emerged the odious Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s which empowered the compulsory physical examination of any female suspected by the police of prostitution. But this was only one aspect of the view that people infected with venereal disease were a danger to the health of the nation and must be punished. The result was the condemnation of those afflicted with venereal disease as sinful creatures. However these strictures didn't hold during World War I when men, to escape the horror of the firing line, deliberately consorted with diseased prostitutes to become infected with a venereal disease and, in the absence of whores, tried to infect their genitals with gonorrheal discharge or with what they thought contained syphilis germs. In chapter 7—"The Eaten Heart: Syphilis since the 1920s"—which discusses the attitudes toward venereal disease during the past six decades, Davenport-Hines describes the period as one in which...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 354-356
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.