Class-based Erotics

Copyright © 1999 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Cross-Class Relationships

E.M. Forster's novel Maurice is a popular novel for studying the problematics of class-based erotics among early twentieth-century homosexual men, particularly English men. The middle-class hero falls in love with a working-class lad and after some problems with homophobic society they manage to live happily ever after. Forster intended the novel to show the democratizing potential of men's love for men.

The best criticism of Maurice is by Lytton Strachey, which demonstrates that even Forster's queer contemporaries felt that his view of homosexual relations was very wide of the mark. After reading Maurice, Strachey wrote to Forster on 12 March 1915:

"The Maurice-Alec affair didn't strike me as so successful [as the Maurice-Clive relationship]. For one thing, the Class question is rather a red herring, I think. One suddenly learns that Maurice is exaggeratedly upper-classish — one wouldn't at all have expected it in the face of things — and then when the change comes, it seems to need more explanation . . . because the ground isn't enough prepared: and Alec's feelings don't quite seize. As you describe it, I should be inclined to diagnose Maurice's state as simply lust and sentiment — a very wobbly affair; I should have prophecied a rupture after 6 months — chiefly as a result of lack of common interests owing to class differences — I believe even such a simple-minded fellow as Maurice would have felt this — and your Sherwood Forest ending appears to me slightly mythical."

(Strachey gives a much fuller analysis of the novel, beyond the class question: see Michael Holyroyd, Lytton Strachey, New Edition, London: Chatto & Windus, 1994, p. 726).

Some readers perceive E. M. Forster as a kind of "aristocrat", but in fact he was thoroughly middle-class. Strachey himself was more upper class than Forster, though still not aristocratic. Genuine aristocrats often did festishize the working-class body, but it never became problematic for them: they simply seized (or paid for) their pleasures from lower class youth (usually in their employment), and seldom sentimalized the "meaning" or "noble virtue" of such relationships.

Stephen Donaldson has a whole article on the "Eroticization of the Working Class" in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ed. Wayne R. Dynes, 1990, pp. 1405-6. He says, among other things, that:

"The psychological roots of the aristocracy's atteraction to the working class have not been systematically examined, but are undoubtedly related to a sense that the upper class (in particular its intellectuals) has lost some of its masculine vitality, has become `effete', refined, sophisticated, removed from the exercise of physical power, while the (young) males of the lower class are more robust, earthy, grounded, more in touch with their sexuality, more physically aggressive, in short, more macho."

Donaldson goes on to talk about guilt and a masochistic need for punishment, which I think is a fruitless line of enquiry. And he talks about "the eroticization of such working-class occupations as construction workers, truck driver, cowboy, farmhand, enlisted serviceman, stock clerk, as reflected in gay-oriented art, pornography, and the like. It is also a factor in many if not most interracial relationships." Unfortunately Donaldson doesn't cite any sources for further reading.

For aristocrats the key feature of such relationships may be the excitement of "slumming it" — in which "democratization" played no part. The middle-class idealization of cross-class relationships and the sentimentalizing of working-class persons goes beyond the mere fetishization of their bodies (though that is important too, at least in the pursuit of "rough trade"). This is a thoroughly middle-class (rather than aristocratic) ideology. The interesting thing about it is that such cross-class relationships were often successful (e.g. long- term): between Forster and his policeman Bob Buckingham, between Edward Carpenter and his farmer George Merrill, between John Addington Symonds and his gondolier Angelo Fusato, between Walt Whitman and his bus conductor Peter Doyle, between J. R. Ackerley and his sailor Freddie Doyle (though no one quite lived up to Ackerley's notion of the "Ideal Friend"), between Montague Charles Glover and his East End lad Ralph Hall (they lived together for some fifty years), and (non-genitally) between Edward Fitzgerald and his fisherman Joseph "Posh" Fletcher. I include love-letters between such cross-class pairs in my anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (Gay Sunshine Press, 1998).

Some theorists characterize this phenomenon as part and parcel of "the exploitation of the lower classes by the upper classes", i.e. as cynicism at worst or self-delusion at best, but I do think it is more complex than that. At any rate, a good place to start is Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (1977).

Heterosexual Cross-Class Relationships

Class-erotics is of course relevant to heterosexuality as well, as is well illustrated by the Victorian case of Arthur Munby. Arthur J. Munby (1828-1910), a middle-class barrister and "social worker", was obsessed with working women and secretly married Hannah, a maidservant whom he "kept" in a separate house, and who herself apparently insisted on maintaining the strict class division and always dressed as a maid and enjoyed polishing her master's boots etc. Munby took many photographs of her in her working wear, as well as numerous photos of colliery women — obviously he was festishizing the female working-class image. See his complete diary account of the affair in Derek Hudson, Munby: Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby (London: John Murray, 1972; but there are several paperback editions by other publishers).

Munby was fascinated by the discovery of semi-secret fancy-dress parties held regularly among working- class people, groups of artisans and work-girls, the women dressed as sailors and soldiers and the men dressed as pretty girls. He concluded, I think correctly, that the women were "more or less immoral" though not professional sex-workers, but he thought, I think incorrectly, that the boys were doing this simply "for a lark." Unfortunately no one has studied these "Drag Balls" in enough details for us to draw conclusions about exactly what function they served, or even exactly what went on at them or how male transvestites may have exploited them to make sexual contact with men. Did they, perhaps, serve as "safety valves" for a sharply gender-oriented society?

My own view is that these are part of the cultural tradition of the Carnival that can be tracked along the historical routes of migration of working people from southern Europe (mainly Italy and Spain). That is, they are part of working-class culture, for whatever reasons, and derive from specific geographical cultures rather than arise independently within sharply gender-oriented societies or as a result of individual personal psychology. (In any case, virtually all societies have more or less "sharp" gender orientations.) Though they may also be part of "the carnivalesque" that some postmodernists theorize about.

In any event, Munby's case exactly parallels the case of middle-class gay men fetishizing the male working-class image, and it is good to remind ourselves that this kind of thing is not limited to the queer world. Indeed heterosexual prostitution — including long-term kept mistresses from the theatrical profession — may consist largely of such cross-class relationships.

Can we therefore conclude that cross-class relationships are a social phenomenon rather than a sexual phenomenon, despite the importance of fetishization (which is sexual), and are not specifically a queer issue? However, why is it that heterosexuals do not seem to have developed the egalitarian ideology of comradeship to legitimate it, as have gay men? Is it because heterosexual relationships are already inherently cross-class in the sense that they involve two distinct sexes; whereas homosexual relationships are inherently egalitarian, i.e. involving two members of the same sex, and any marked differences (such as classes) calls for some sort of justification?

Masculinity and Power Relations

It is sometimes suggested that cross-class relationships simply reinforce the link between masculinity and power, and that gay men in particular justify their own masculinity by forming cross-class relationships with working-class men. But this explanation doesn't cover all the realities of cross-class relationships. For one thing, throughout much of history it was effeminate men who eroticized the working-class male, and they desired to be fucked by him or even brutalized by him in order to reinforce their own queer rather than masculine identity. It is true that since perhaps the late 1970s gay men began identifying with the working-class macho image, but this is a very recent (and perhaps short-lived) phenomenon. For most of history gay men have simply desired rather than identified with the macho male. This phenomenon can be overtheorized: such desire often rises for the rather simple reason that macho men are cute and sexy. :)

We should also remind ourselves that status in cross-class relationships is often of paramount importance to the less powerful member of that relationship. In the Munby case it was especially Hannah who insisted on maintaining her servile status. And men such as Carpenter's George Merrill or Montague Glover's Ralph Hall absolutely thrived upon their working-class status; that is, they really were not exploited by middle- class men who needed to validate their authority or masculinity. What I'm suggesting is that we need to shift the focus away from the alleged "exploiter" towards the alleged "exploited" if we want to understand better the nature of such relationships.

Ulrichs, who began classifying the different types of homosexual men in the 1860s, came up with "Urning" for homosexual male, "Dioning" for heterosexual male, "Urningin" for lesbian and "Dioningin" for heterosexual female, and "Uranodioning" for male bisexual. He further subdivided Urnings (i.e. homosexual men) into "Mannlinge" (homosexual men attracted to effeminate men) and "Weibling" (homosexual men attracted to manly men). There was an increasing tendency in modern times to reduce this to shorthand and claim that all homosexual men were attracted only to heterosexual men.

It in fact seems to be a common phenomenon for gay men (to revert to our modern terms) to be attracted to straight men. This was quite common practice even in long-term relationships during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and into quite modern times. Jean Genet's closest lovers were married to women; by the early 1980s all of Genet's royalties were being spent to support the wife and children of his three male lovers, only one of whom self-identified as homosexual and eventually separated from his wife. Presumably this is a case of gay men being attracted to men because they are manly, and being married (or heterosexual) is considered to be a mark of manliness. To judge by contemporary male homoerotica, the "woman-trapped-in-a-male-body" concept (which Genet partly felt) has virtually disappeared, but the love for a heterosexual jock is still pretty common.

However, I think it's a complex issue. My theory is that class is the important part of the equation. If you look at the long-term relationships involving gay men and straight/married men — for example John Addington Symonds and his goldolier Angelo Fusato, or E. M. Forster and his policeman Bob Buckingham, and a host of others — you will notice that the married man is the working-class man and the self-identified gay man (whether married or not) is the upper-middle-class man. In other words, the key feature about the relationship is not the difference between the sexual orientation of the two men, but the difference between the classes of the two men. Symonds didn't love Fusato because Fusato was heterosexual, but (partly) because Fusato was a working-class man without sexual hang-ups. Conversely, Fusato was married not entirely because he was heterosexual but because working-class men got married as a matter of course: it would be part of their social identity and hardly affects their sexual identity. Marriage has been a foregone conclusion among working-class men, just as marriage is the expected goal for all women regardless of orientation or class.

And of course a certain degree of economic power comes into the equation: the man with the money can overcome the scruples of the man with none. This is not an especially terrible thing: many young men and their families have got a decent start in life through the benevolence of their wealthy gay patrons, through an arrangement that was quite satisfactory to all concerned, and which really did not involve "self-hatred" etc.

The phenomenon of the unmarried (or self-identified) gay man supporting his lover and his lover's wife has, I think, more or less disappeared in contemporary America and Northern Europe, but still exists in Southern Europe and the Third World. This phenomenon seems to be far less common among women, where, when it does occur, is usually reversed: the married woman supports the unmarried working-class lesbian. But perhaps I'm not attentive enough to the lesbian side of the coin. (The phenomenon of the "cover marriage" has also declined, but that's a different phenomenon from what I'm discussing here.)

The stereotype consolidated by Proust — that homosexuals are by their very nature forever doomed to love only heterosexuals who by their very nature will never return their love — can of course be somewhat silly and sometimes destructive (in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy adopted, for example, by Quentin Crisp and effeminate gay men of his generation), but perhaps we are too ready to pass judgement upon it rather than try to prise out its meanings. I have never seen a full-scale analysis of it, other than a two-paragraph dismissal of "the bad old days".

Dominant/Subordinate Paradigms

Some theorists have argued that cross-class relationships are part of a dominant/submissive paradigm typical of sadomasochistic relationships, and that sex with men was not seen as "queer" until the trials of Oscar Wilde (which pointed up his exploitation of working-class boys) encouraged a homophobic attitude against cross-class relationships among the working-class masses.

Let me respond to two aspects of this argument. First, I really don't think the Oscar Wilde trials marked any sort of threshhold in this matter. Men who have sex with men (whether top or bottom) have been marked as queer for centuries, and the terms used to stigmatize them have not really been class-related. Just to take England as an example, in 1811 William Beckford (a self- identified boy-lover) characterized a working-class circus performer he was pursuing as a "patapouf"; this French term for "butterfly" is the origin of the term "pouf", which was applied to gay men, whether upper class or lower class, whether active or passive, though usually to lads, probably since the 1780s.

Active gay men were certainly labelled as queer even by queers themselves such as Beckford, who, for example, in 1816 commented upon the hanging of the waiter Thomas Eglerton who had had sex with a stable boy: "Tomorrow (according to the papers) they are going to hang a poor honest sodomite. I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices." And gay men of every class, but especially the working classes, were branded as "mollies" back to at least 1703. "Molly" was a very common word known to nearly everybody for about 150 years, and applied across the board to every queer type including active sodomites hanged on the gallows.

Furthermore, the most virulent homophobia comes from "the lower classes". When six men were put in the pillory in 1811 following the raid on the White Swan molly house, according to a contemporary newspaper account, "The disgust felt by all ranks in Society at the detestable conduct of these wretches occasioned many thousands to become spectators of their punishment." Sixty policy officers were not enough to control the largely lower-class mob, who greeted the mollies in the carts with "a volley of mud, and a serenade of hisses, hooting, and execration, which compelled them to fall flat on their faces in the caravan. The mob, and particularly the women, had piled up balls of mud to afford the objects of their indignation a warm reception. ... Upwards of fifty women were permitted to stand in the ring [in front of the pillory], who assailed them incessantly with mud, dead cats, rotten eggs, potatoes, and buckets filled with blood, offal, and dung." This kind of thing was repeated quite often before the pillory was abolished, and the most homophobic spectators were working-class women, and particularly prostitutes. There is a pillory broadside (an illustrated leaflet in color) of 1763, showing such women standing before a molly in the pillory, shouting "Cut it off!" (i.e. castrate him). There really is no evidence at all that homophobia is something that the middle class or upper class somehow "teach" or transmit to the working class.

My second response is this: I am not sure that the dominant/subordinate model or paradigm is sufficiently precise enough to explain cross-class relationships. Certainly it can be used to describe them in a very general sort of way, but I'm not sure it is sufficient to account for them. For example, I don't think I would characterize cross-class relationships as master/slave relationships. I would characterize them more as patron/protege or uncle/nephew relationships. In other words, I would tend to align them with the pederastic paradigm rather than the S/M paradigm in which naked power is the crucial factor.

I think that a major attraction in such relationships is the pleasure the upper-class or middle-class man derives from "educating" and "raising up" his working-class partner — which is quite the opposite from "dominating" him. Social advancement is often a feature of cross-class relationships, for example Symonds enabled many gondoliers to buy boats and go into business for themselves, and helped his Swiss boyfriend establish a hotel; Jean Genet helped his high-wire artist lover set up his own act and circus; many a tutor has provided educational and career opportunities for his pupil (I'm not being facetious). Many cross-class relationships really do seem to strive towards a lessening of the differences between the partners (in a genuinely democratic idealistic fashion).

In contrast, S/M relationships (even mild son/daddy relationships) thrive upon sharpening the differences between the dominant and subordinate roles. But at the same time, ironically, in most long-term sadomasochistic relationships both partners are from the same class. Usually they are both from the lower middle class, and both of them adopt roles and images based upon the working class. One-night stands involving a bit of rough do involve cross-class sex, but leathermen who live together tend to be in the same class. That's my personal unscientific impression, but it seems to be supported by a lot of leathersex sites on the internet (where S/M partners have sites covering other topics such as their work), and by photos and articles in gay magazines and newspapers about the club scene. In other words, I think that cross-class relationships and dominant/subordinate relationships only superficially resemble one another, but are really quite different, and construct themselves upon different sorts of desires.

Lesbians and Cross-Class Relationships

Nearly every discussion about cross- class relationships deals specifically with masculine sexuality (whether queer or heterosexual), and any lesbian aspect to this type of relationship is seldom discussed.

My own impression is that cross-class relationships are not a very common feature among lesbians, i.e. that most long-term lesbian pairs consist of persons of the same class (even if they are sharply differentiated as a butch/femme pair). I'm sure there are exceptions (there must be some professional middle-class lesbians who go home after a hard day in the courtroom, to a meal cooked for them by their working-class partner), but it's hard to document them in either "the literature" or among my personal acquaintances. Radclyffe Hall and Lady Una Troubridge were a cross-class couple (upper-middle-class and aristocrat) and in Paris in the 1920s there was a fair amount of mixing between the middle-class and the upper-class — but they more or less belong to a single class we could call "upper-middle-class bohemians", e.g. Renee Vivien and Natalie Barney.

Working-class lesbians were (are) of course picked up by middle-class or upper-class lesbians for the occasional fling, but not, I think, for longer-term relationships. The butch image is of course working-class, but so is the femme image, and the butch/femme community seems to be a well-integrated working-class community. In any case nearly all of the pairs of women in Joan Nestle's The Persistent Desire belong both to either the working class or the (lower) middle class. There really doesn't seem to be much crossing of the class barriers, or even much theorizing about cross-class relationships among lesbians, but perhaps I have not been attentive enough in my reading.

The "great lesbian lovers in history" are almost all composed of lovers from the same classes, e.g. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas were both upper middle class. Lady Eleanor Butler was aristocratic and Sarah Ponsonby was upper middle class, so I guess that was a cross-class relationship (but there wasn't really much of a class gap between them). Most of Anne Lister's lovers in the 1820s were slightly lower middle-class, while she was a solid member of the petit-bourgeous; she had a long relationship with Mrs Barlow in Paris who was low middle class and financially dependent on others, and Mrs Barlow's uneasiness at their social inequality eventually broke up their relationship (she felt like a kept mistress); for the last eight years of her life Anne lived with a young rich heiress who was upper class.

Although this does illustrate varieties of class relationship, it nevertheless doesn't seem to be an equivalent to the decidedly cross-class relationships one finds among gay men. Virtually all of the romantic friendships between women (as documented by Lillian Faderman in Surpassing the Love of Men) take place between women of the same (respectable) class. And the crushes between girls in boarding schools up through the 1940s were, again, between members of the same class (by definition, as private schools are usually patronized by the middle classes). In the late eighteenth-century lesbian subcultures in Paris and Dublin there were cross-class relationships between aristocrats and (working class) actresses, but there has been no theorization about the nature of such cross-class relationships.

Edward Carpenter observed that the growth in the number of "comrade-alliances" between women in the late nineteenth century (including "Boston marriages" among American feminists) occurred primarily "among the more cultured classes of women who are working out the great cause of their own sex's liberation," i.e. the suffragettes etc., mostly middle class ladies. And unlike middle-class philanthropic men who all too readily formed alliances with working-class "fallen women" or "ragged boys", these philanthropic ladies seldom mated with the lower class women they lifted up. Perhaps the only markedly cross-class relationship among lesbians are those which are simultaneously cross-race relationships (white middle class with black working class, hardly ever the other way around).

We sometimes draw theoretical conclusions about class relationships as if they apply universally to men and women and to gay men and lesbians, but I'm not sure that "generalizations" based on this assumption are valid. If it is true that cross- class relationships do not figure significantly among lesbians — as they certainly do among many gay men — and if lesbians have not idealized or sentimentalized or theorized cross-class relations — as gay men certainly have — then the question is: Why not? What social or psychological (or essentialist?) factors contribute to this marked difference between men and women?

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), Class-based Erotics. 21 Dec. 1999; updated 19 June 2008 <>.

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