Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

A Homosexual in Colonial New England

A review of "'The cry of Sodom': Discourse, intercourse, and desire in Colonial New England", by Richard Godbeer, in Thomas A. Forster (ed.), Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York University Press, 2007), pp. 81–113. (Godbeer's essay originally published in 1995)

In 1677 a man named Nicholas Sension appeared before the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut on charges of sodomy. He was convicted of attempted sodomy and sentenced to be whipped and publicly shamed. It transpired that Sension had made sexual advances to many men, some amounting to assault, over the previous 30 years. He had been investigated and reprimanded by town elders in the late 1640s, and again in the late 1660s. it was clear that he was especially fond of a young man-servant in his household, and though the servant rejected his master's attempts to sodomize him, he nevertheless chose to remain in his household when offered the chance to be released from his indenture. Sension had sex with, or tried to have sex with, many young men. He admitted that he had "long" practiced "this trade" of what were called "sodomitical actings". One witness said he had overheard Sension praying to God "to turn him from this sin he had so long lived in". Sension's predilections were well known to other people in the town of Windsor. One man who pushed Sension away as he tried to mount him, said "You'll never leave this devilish sin till you are hanged." However, no-one brought formal charges until 1677. Though Sension was married, he had no children, and it seems clear that he was a confirmed and self-aware homosexual, and that his community recognized him as such.

This case of Nicholas Sension, which is very detailed, has been studied extensively by Richard Godbeer, together with several other similar sodomitical cases in mid-seventeenth-century New England. Godbeer's article was first published in 1995, and he is very reticent to go against the dogma of the time which claims that "if we are to understand past people's experience of sex, we need to jettison our own notions of sexuality in favor of the catagories they used" (p. 82). Nevertheless, and despite an unwarranted caution, Godbeer reaches the following conclusions: contrary to the clerical view that sodomy was simply an act rather than an orientation, some ordinary lay people "recognized a specific inclination toward sodomitical behavior in certain individuals" (p. 83); further, their understanding or discourse "posited an ongoing erotic predilection that transcended the acts themselves" (p. 83). Godbeer recognizes a more nuanced appreciation of how the popular understanding differs from the official understanding: "while religious and legal statements match scholarly impressions of premodern sexual discourse as focused on acts rather than identity, popular perceptions of sodomy sometimes appear closer to the latter, though we should take care not to invest them with a modern sensibility" (p. 83).

Although Godbeer's excellent study is overcautious about avoiding "essentialist" conclusions, these nevertheless are the conclusions he rightly comes to: Sensions enjoyed sex with men not simply as an expression of power relations, but as a distinct desire arising from within. He regarded his "trade" as nearly "a specific calling or way of life" (p. 93). He had a sense that his long-practiced sodomitical behavior was something of "significance, distinctiveness, and permanence in his life" (p. 93), going "well beyond the act-oriented view of sodomy propounded by official discourse" (p. 93).

In a very similar case, a man named Stephen Gorton, also of connecticut, was investigated for having sex with men in 1726, and again in 1752 – another 30-year period of habitual homosexual behavior by a married man. The General Meeting of Baptist Churches in 1757 judged that his "offensive and unchaste behavior, frequently repeated for a long space of time", indicated "an inward disposition . . . towards the actual commission of a sin of so black and dark a dye" (p. 96), and he was given an opportunity to reform. The authorities used the term "deprativy" rather than "sexual orientation", but they clearly "depict[ed] Gorton's depravity as expressing itself in a particular and consistent form. The plain facts of Gorton's sexual history prompted the meeting to recognize attraction to men as an ongoing facet of hius life."

Although there is no evidence of a clear subculture such as the molly subculture of early eighteenth-century London, the New England evidence nevertheless suggests that it is problematic to make a clear-cut distinction between a premodern sodomy as an act and a modern homosexual identity: "exposure to the recurrent impulses of men like Nicholas Sension does seem to have led neighbors and acquaintances to treat sodomy as a specific and persistent impulse; it became in their minds a habitual course of action that characterized some men throughout their lives" (p. 100). Even from this very limited amount of evidence available to us, it is clear that in Colonial New England certain individuals were recognized – and recognized in themselves – "an ongoing predilection for members of the same sex" (p. 101). There is really no justification for modern historians of sexualitiy to refrain from calling this a "homosexual orientation".

I think that Godbeer's methodology is correct to focus upon the expression of an individual's sexual desire, and how that is perceived by the individual and his or her society – rather than focusing upon the collective official discourse of homophobia – and that this sexual desire should be treated as the central focus of inquiry into the history of homosexual relations.

Copyright 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

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