Sex Bombs: anticipating a free society

Cover of Anarchist Studies No.17 Vol.11.Review article discussing anarchism, homosexuality and sexual politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.This article was published in Anarchist Studies, 17:1, 2009, pp 106-112.

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Key Words: anarchism, gender, homosexuality, politics, queer, sexual identity, sexuality

Key People: Edward Carpenter, Edith Lees Ellis, Emma Goldman, Terence Kissack, Sheila Rowbotham, Oscar Wilde

Notes and References →

Sex bombs: anticipating a free society

Free Comrades book cover. book cover Edward Carpenter

Terence Kissack, 2008, Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917, AK Press, Edinburgh.
Sheila Rowbotham, 2008, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, Verso, London.

At first sight Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter make unlikely bedfellows. In their own lifetimes they were international celebrities renowned for their lifestyles as much as their writings, but while Wilde has remained so, Carpenter is now best known (if at all) as a forerunner of gay liberation. Both challenged the conventions of late-Victorian England, but they constructed their sexual, political, and artistic identities very differently. A characteristic photograph of Carpenter shows him outside his rural home, bearded and sandaled: in his rough-and-ready clothes he looks as if he has just been gardening.

'Edward Carpenter outside his home at Millthorpe, 1905. He is bearded and sandalled, and in an informal pose. The image is titled 'Self in Porch'.
Edward Carpenter, 1905
Wilde in velvet and furs reclining on a sofa in elaborate studio interior. Photograph by Sarony, circa 1882.
Oscar Wilde circa 1882.

Wilde’s carefully posed publicity photographs are taken in a studio, where he demonstrates his dandified elegance, his distance from everyday life. The images of the two men, like their writings, appear to epitomise the contrast between nature and artifice, simplicity and ornament, seriousness and wit, the direct and the elusive. These contrasts correspond to two persistent versions of sexual identity: as nature, authenticity, truth, bespeaking an innermost self — or as mask, pose, style, a playing with the idea of self.

In the 1970s, the Gay Liberation Movement claimed them as forerunners: Wilde the martyred hero, Carpenter the brave pioneer. Carpenter’s writings on sexuality were rediscovered and republished. However, as Terence Kissack points out in Free Comrades 1, the rediscovery of the work of nineteenth and early twentieth century sex radicals has too often ignored its wider political context. He argues that anarchists made a unique contribution to the development of a politics of homosexuality, incorporating it in a vision of social transformation. Speaking out when others were silent, they helped to spread new ideas about human nature and sex. Anglophone anarchists in the USA participated in a transatlantic debate about the moral, ethical and social place of homosexuality.

Carpenter was an important figure in this debate: an influential sex radical, he was, according to Sheila Rowbotham’s comprehensive biography, someone who ‘helped to prod the modern world into being … among the first to challenge capitalism as a social and economic system, linking external transformation with new forms of relating and desiring’, and developing ‘a flexible version of socialism with anarchist stripes which put the emphasis on changing everyday living and behaviour’. 2

Socialism with anarchist stripes can, looked at from another perspective, be anarchism with socialist stripes. Can Carpenter and Wilde be claimed as anarchists? In the early 1890s at the height of the ‘anarchist scare’ when anarchism, in the popular press, was nearly synonymous with dynamite, both men publicly said that they were. Neither supported violent ‘propaganda by deed’, but each gave practical as well as moral assistance to accused and imprisoned anarchists. At other times they described their beliefs differently, or refused categorisation; perhaps, as with the notion of sexual identity, what is important about a political identity is how it is used, what kind of politics it makes possible.

Kissack argues that for anarchist sex radicals, Wilde’s 1895 trial and imprisonment for homosexuality functioned as a powerful symbol of state enforcement of sexual norms. Anarchist feminist critiques of marriage, sexuality and gender relations had already opened up a space for the defence of same-sex love, and the dissident culture of anarchism encouraged challenges to social taboos. Anarchists were among the very few who spoke out publicly in Wilde’s defence. For Emma Goldman, among others, he was not just a victim, he was a revolutionary who used his art to attack bourgeois morality. In the ensuing years, anarchists published, republished, and quoted his work, making it part of their own history.

Not all anarchists thought that sexuality was important, and even those that did could be homophobic. But Kissack shows how anarchism enabled an approach to homosexuality far more open than anything coming from the conventional left or conservative feminism. One of the strengths of his book is his analysis of the different understandings of homosexuality among anarchists, and how their ideas changed over time and in different contexts.

Sexology, the new science of sex, promised a rational approach free from religious moralising, and Goldman adapted sexological ideas to discuss homosexuals as members of a persecuted minority, similar to other oppressed groups. Individualist anarchist Ben Tucker took a different approach, using a discourse of individual rights to argue for free sexual relationships between consenting individuals, regardless of gender. Opposing censorship, he claimed that ‘there is no desire … whose satisfaction is so fraught with evil consequences to mankind as the desire to rule’. The eclectic anarchist William Lloyd anticipated some of today’s Queer politics in his vision of an eroticised spectrum of human relations, a ‘larger love’ which allows for a diversity of desires, without limitations on the gender or number of partners. He looked forward to a future when ‘there will be strange love-groups and anomalous families different from any now seen or deemed possible’. As Carpenter said of the New Women of the 1890s: ‘Sometimes it seems possible that a new sex is on the make.’ 3

The subtitle of Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex, first published in 1908, is ‘A study of some transitional types of men and women’. Arguing that there is a natural continuum of gender and sexual characteristics, and that Intermediates often combine the most positive features of masculinity and femininity, he draws on Whitman’s notion of comradeship to envision a sexual democracy of equals, the basis of a transformed society. The transition is not just between Man and Woman, but between present and future. Rowbotham notes that his views on gender and sexuality were not always consistent, but the daring exploration of ideas, the giving voice to un-named desires, and above all his positive attitude, were far more important to most of his readers than theoretical consistency.

Increased public awareness and discussion of homosexuality were liberating, but also led to more vigorous policing of the boundaries between heterosexuality and homosexuality. It became harder to inhabit the safe spaces of ambiguity where censorship and prosecution might be avoided, and Lloyd was just one of those who ended up trying to dissociate himself from any possible imputation of homosexuality. Although Kissack does not develop the point, sex radicals who were gay had good reason to feel more vulnerable than others when speaking out publicly on the subject. (A fuller discussion of specific laws concerning sexual behaviour and obscenity, and their impact, would have been a useful addition to his book.)

Carpenter, though he struggled to get some of his work published in the aftermath of the Wilde trial, excelled in what Rowbotham calls a careful frankness. He lived openly with his male lover for over forty years, and wrote repeatedly and positively about same sex love in accessible language, gaining a wide readership. For Carpenter, love, including sexual love, inspires and energises the work that needs to be done to transform the world. ‘When a new desire has declared itself within the human heart … then the revolutions of nations are already decided, and histories unwritten are written’, he wrote in his bestselling prose-poem Towards Democracy. In a series of pamphlets later reworked as Love’s Coming of Age, he linked women’s emancipation, same sex relationships, sexual love and the creation of a free society. ‘Sex bombs’, commented his friend, feminist author Edith Ellis — who years later, on a lecture tour in the USA, not only spoke about homosexuality but came out as a lesbian — her own bombshell, exploding the barrier between public and private. 4

Portrait photo of Edith Lees Ellis as a young woman.
Edith Lees Ellis

‘You are always in my heart. Mx’ reads the inscription inside my copy of the 1911 edition of Love’s Coming of Age. That was its seventh edition: the book was another international success. By 1906 it included the chapter on the intermediate sex which had been refused by the publisher a decade earlier, in the aftermath of the Wilde trial. The original pamphlet had been ‘for private circulation’ only. But print runs, large or small, tell only part of the story. Sexual dissidents found ways to circulate restricted or banned materials. The reading and exchange of books is one of the cultural guerrilla tactics by which subversive ideas are disseminated. Given as gifts between friends and lovers, often with underlinings and asterisks beside significant passages, books connect their readers both literally and symbolically in an imagined community.

There was no overt lesbian or gay movement as such in Britain or the USA in this period, but Rowbotham suggests that as Carpenter became better known he played a covert organisational role through his extensive international correspondence with people from all over the world, many of whom wrote to ask for his advice and support in changing their lives. Pilgrims trekked to Millthorpe, the smallholding outside Sheffield where, with his companion George Merrill and others, Carpenter tried to exemplify co-operation, simple living and the free life. Rejecting asceticism and dogmatism, he aimed to inspire experimentation rather than laying down a blueprint.

In 1912, Emma Goldman’s magazine Mother Earth ran a special offer for its readers. Five dollars would get them, in one bargain bundle, Berkman’s Prison Memoirs, Proudhon’s What is Property?, Frank Harris’s The Bomb, Kropotkin’s Russian Literature and Carpenter’s Love’s Coming of Age. Berkman’s and Carpenter’s books both discuss same sex love and sexuality extensively and sympathetically, and whatever the practical considerations behind the particular selection of books, it suggests the potential for interconnections between different aspects of anarchist thought. As Lloyd wrote: ‘the “Democracy” of which [Carpenter] prophesies and chants is the “Anarchy” of Kropotkin, the “institution of the dear love of comrades” of Whitman, the “fellowship” which is the “life” of Morris — the world of emancipated men [sic], free and loving’. 5 Such synthesising approaches, combining anarchism as critique, as culture, as resistance and prefiguration, reflect the utopian spirit of the period, a desire that all of life should be changed.

If one man could embody all this, it was Carpenter. Rowbotham’s beautifully written biography skilfully creates a vivid picture of the complex intersecting milieux in which new ideas were emerging, new movements flourishing, new kinds of lives being lived. Carpenter’s writings may now be of mainly historical interest, but how he practised his politics has continuing relevance. He was a breaker or more precisely an ignorer of boundaries, an ‘epistemological rover’, in Rowbotham’s phrase, who drew on both science and mysticism to write about alternative ways of knowing as well as alternative ways of living. He thought revolutionaries should not sacrifice the present for the future, and that small changes were worthwhile. His ‘lifestyle’ politics emphasised nature, bodily freedom (after travelling to India, he added making and selling sandals to the activities at Millthorpe — freedom from the constraint of the Victorian boot!) — and the importance of the everyday. The startling radicalism of some of his ideas was camouflaged by the moderate tone in which they were expressed. He tried to avoid destructive arguments and sectarianism, building bridges, finding middle ground, opening up spaces for conversation and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Drawing on the utopian energies of his times, ‘he picked up shifts which were less explicit than concepts, called them desires, and somehow cleared space for them to come into being’. 6 Without being prescriptive, he tried to imagine and put into practice alternative ways of living. He was influential because of his ability to voice unspoken feelings, make connections, foster networks, across a wide range of cultural and political groupings.

Drawing on an impressive range of scholarly materials to produce accessible and thought-provoking analysis, both Kissack and Rowbotham aim to do more than acknowledge and honour these figures from the past. Both take pains to contextualise their subjects. In Kissack’s shorter book, context primarily means the American anarchist movement, with some interesting comparisons with the attitudes of other radicals and revolutionaries; his work provides a valuable foundation and inspiration for further research. Rowbotham places Carpenter more fully within a complex period of rapid social change, when the utopian ideas of one moment might become the commonsense or the lost cause of another.

Kissack uses his research to suggest that historians of anarchism, the left and gay movements all need to engage with the interaction between anarchism and the politics of homosexuality. Emphasising that an understanding of sexual politics is essential to any project of social transformation, he urges today’s sex radicals to aim not for integration but for a fundamental restructuring of society.

Rowbotham deploys her research to suggest that the best way to transmit revolutionary ideas is to concentrate on communication and inspiration rather than aiming for ideological correctness at all times: pragmatism is more useful than dogmatism. While Kissack concentrates on the public pronouncements rather than the private lives of the figures he discusses, Rowbotham, though always alert to the methodological problems involved, investigates both. She brings out the problems and tensions, the residual prejudices and blind spots, the painful muddles and disagreements which are inevitably part of transformatory projects — not to denigrate such projects, but to suggest the necessity of careful negotiation and self-awareness. As for contradictions, they can be seen not as indicators of an inadequate philosophy, but as signs of life, responses to changing conditions. To quote Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’ 7

Emma Goldman — who did as much as anyone to make it possible to speak publicly about homosexuality — could be strikingly contradictory. Denying that Louise Michel was a lesbian, she criticised what she saw as gay people’s misguided attempts to claim notable individuals for their ‘creed’. On the other hand, she was happy to claim Havelock Ellis as an anarchist, even after he denied it. But identifying oneself or someone else as an anarchist, or as gay, need not turn into a debate about the truth of some inner state of being. Such identifications (or disavowals) are political acts. Historical evidence is important, but raises as many questions as answers.

Whitman’s expansive notion of self anticipates Wilde’s and Carpenter’s enactments of identity, and the ways in which these have been interpreted. Rowbotham notes that Carpenter’s project of exemplifying his politics in his personal life disguises as well as reveals the ‘private self’. The photograph of Carpenter at Millthorpe is just as carefully posed as Wilde’s in the studio: neither are expressions of identity, but messages about possible ways of being — of acting — in the world.

Judy Greenway

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Notes and References


  1. Terence Kissack, 2008, Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917, AK Press, Edinburgh.
  2.  Sheila Rowbotham, 2008, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, Verso, London, p. 1.
  3. Kissack 74, 84; Rowbotham 215.
  4. Kissack mentions the lecture tour only to quote an unfavourable contemporary comparison with Emma Goldman. He describes Edith only as the wife of Havelock Ellis (and his discussion of the latter in the context of English anarchism is rather shaky). There are also a number of typos, and readers who want to track down Nechaev, Lord Douglas, Audre Lorde, or Radclyffe Hall should beware of the sound-alikes in the text. These are, though, small defects in an otherwise thorough, scholarly, and readable work.
  5. Kissack 80.
  6. Rowbotham 253; 105.
  7. Walt Whitman, (1855) ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass, 1940, Doubleday: New York.