These two chapters form part of a project on the unacknowledgment of the personal in politics. They concern men’s support for movements for male sexual purity in the decade before the First World War.
Whenever personal questions supplement the political, I argue, the personal of the political becomes significant. I explain the the personal of the political more fully elsewhere, but in short it refers to the person of the political activist – i.e. who she is: her identity, emotions, embodiedness, close relationships, etc – considered independently of the views she campaigns for. ‘Supplementation’ means the attempt to ‘add in’ a question to political consideration without otherwise altering anything else, such as political processes and structures.
The more intimate the question, the harder it is for this supplementation to be done without full acknowledgment of the personal of the political. Sexual desire is both the most intimate and idiosyncratic aspect of human personality. It deeply affects people, how they feel, and what they believe, often for reasons that they do not fully understand. Even more work therefore has to be done to render it impersonal again, when that is what people wish to do. The effort needed to keep the personal and the political apart will therefore be more visible. And, for the same reason, the work will also to be more likely to fail, and thus more visible when it does so. Despite the difficulties in researching it, it is therefore a good case to consider.
The male purity campaigns were directed primarily against fornication (sex before marriage or adultery within it) although they also found other targets, such as prostitution, sexual deviance, and artistic indecency. They arose in the late nineteenth century from a number of different sources: evangelical religion, public health concerns about the extent and effects of venereal disease, public order concerns about the prevalence of prostitution in cities and ports, but above all the sharper critique of male sexuality made by articulate, middle class women, seen first in the campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Act in the 1880s and later in parts of the women’s suffrage movement.
In Other People’s Struggles, I contrasted three different types of work that can go on in social movements:
(1) disjoint work (what we do to or for others),
(2) conjoint work (what we do to or for each other), and
(3) reflexive work (what we each do to or for ourselves).
I suggested that each type of work has distinct implications concerning questions of solidarity and belonging: how far the work can be shared, and with whom.
My claim here is that this set of distinctions helps to explain the pattern of alliances and coalitions that formed over male purity, especially between men and women. The issue required the personal of the political to be acknowledged, and this was done in quite different ways in each type of work.
My example of disjoint campaigning is the ‘white slave’ legislation of 1912. This aimed to tighten up the law against sex trafficking, by targeting ‘white slavers’ who, it was claimed, were abducting unsuspecting women and taking them out of the country to foreign brothels. Its other targets included procurers (who recruited women into prostitution) and ‘bullies’ (who lived off their earnings, directed, and ‘protected’ them). The 1912 legislation made it easier to arrest suspects without a warrant and to evict prostitutes from rented flats, and obliged suspected procurers and bullies to show that they were not ‘living on immoral earnings’. It also increasing the penalties on conviction, reinstituting flogging, which had more or less died out as a punishment.
Legislation of this sort had long been favoured by a small number of Conservative backbencher MPs, but was usually blocked by the Home Office. So the first thing that is intriguing is the unexpectedly vehement campaign that, in 1912, obliged the New Liberals to take it up as a government measure. I explore the campaigning organisations – especially the ‘Pass the Bill’ committee, the Men’s Society for Women’s Rights – and their newspapers, The Awakener and The Eye Opener.
It is also important to note that the campaign enjoyed support from both men and women. The ‘Pass the Bill’ Committee had both sexes on it. And despite its name, the Men’s Society for Women’s Rights received at least as many donations from women as from men, and established its own league of supporters, the Order of the White Rose, which was open to men and women alike. It was also unfailingly pro-suffrage, and continued to endorse suffragette militancy long after other supportive newspapers had abandoned it. Somehow then, on this issue, men and women worked together in ways they often struggled to do concerning other questions.
The disjointness of the campaigning – the degree to which it targeted others – is also very striking. It is visible both at the points at which it is challenged, and in the reactions to those challenges. These, I argue, were four in number. The first concerned the motivations for men to pay for sex. The campaigners were determined to keep the focus tightly on the deviancy of the demand for ‘white slaves’. Normal sexual behaviour, which might include prostitution at certain stages of a man’s life, was not the issue. The second concerned the identities of the clients. In the campaign, the client was an elusive, unnamed figure. But this was disputed by those who pointed out that the clients were men everyone knew, often otherwise respectable figures. The third challenge concerned the motivations of the women. For the campaigners, the women were sexually innocent victims of evil men, who needed to be protected in their own interests. Other motivations and identities were obscured. The fourth question concerned the failure to acknowledge the complicity of the campaigners themselves in the vice they denounced, which was the subject of a typically contrarian contribution by George Bernard Shaw.
The disjointness, and the accompanying unacknowledging – the work of not acknowledging more complex or personal complicities – was what permitted the coalition of men and women. Unacknowledgment was essential to the survival of the coalition of support. Men were able to work alongside – rather than in parallel with – women in the white slave campaign because it was understood not to be addressing any general problem with male sexuality, but only with its deviant forms. Whether in denying complicity, or obscuring the male client and the nature of his sexual demands, or in refusing to allow its issue to broaden to address prostitution as a whole, the white slave campaigners sought to maintain a tight focus upon a small number of offenders. Indeed, they narrowed the target so much that it proved impossible to find one. Once the legislation was passed, and a special branch of the Metropolitan Police established to find and arrest the white slavers, it failed to do so.
Men who campaigned for sexual purity, however, were not always unwilling to engage personally. Some made personal pledges of purity and joined men’s purity leagues to help other men to do the same. This was conjoint work (‘on or for each other’), although there was also a partial disjointness in the work, when older men took it upon themselves to guide younger ones. My examples are the unstudied Alliance of Honour, a league of young men who pledged to respect the ‘sacredness of womanhood’, and the purity efforts made at an earlier stage in the public (i.e. private) schools, as they ceased to try and distract boys from impurity with discipline and hearty games, in favour of modern, engaged personal guidance.
The Alliance was founded in 1904 as an inter-denominational organization. Its membership was only open to boys over 15 and men over 18, and all its affairs were conducted by men alone. Its motto was ‘Man to man – each just where he is’ and it engaged in ‘ambulance work’ for ‘fallen’ men who had ‘lost themselves’ to vice, and preventative ‘fencing work’, to advise schoolboys, schoolmasters and youth workers before it was too late. Another Alliance motto was that ‘a fence round the precipice at the top is better than an ambulance at the bottom’.
The Alliance had some success in recruiting men and boys to its cause. By 1914, 43,000 young men in over a thousand branches had made the pledge, almost a quarter of a million had attended its meetings, and over a million booklets had been issued. In 1911, its congress – the ‘largest purity meeting in the world’ – received a message of support from the King.
In certain ways, the Alliance of Honour modernised Victorian purity work. It deployed scientific evidence in support of its beliefs, and it accepted that sex was not a ‘beast’ to be tamed, but a healthy ‘race-enhancing’ instinct, which should be guided rather than condemned. In a similar way, the work in the public schools also altered in the Edwardian period. Rather than threaten and warn, or simply refuse to discuss sex at all, the modern approach was softer in tone, and was concerned to establish an understanding between men and boys, through one-to-one discussion. Although the confession was overwhelmingly one-way, it had become possible, and sometimes desirable, to acknowledge that everyone had felt temptation. Rather than preaching from a position of distant authority, the modern guide came to the edge of the precipice. One would not be a man if one were not tempted, but one would not become a man if one gave in. Conjoint male purity was becoming less a matter of distraction and discipline, as of good manly example. This had a number of consequences, principally that the exemplars had themselves to be beyond temptation themselves.
They also still had to be men, for none of this work involved any greater role for women. The patron saint of the Alliance was Sir Galahad, the virgin knight of the grail, who kept his distance from women in order to keep himself pure. Indeed, the chivalrous hero was still the dominant motif of conjoint male purity. Its variant of manliness demanded internal self-restraint, but also accepted fewer external constraints upon its will. Its principal characteristic was a moral and physical toughness, purified in youth among other men, and then imposed with authority on the outside world. Such a purified man had obvious weaknesses as an ally of women concerned about the forcefulness of male power.
The depiction of women in Alliance literature was almost entirely unchanged from the Victorian period. Mothers and, especially, the unmarried sister were repeatedly invoked. The mother, her own sexuality extinguished as procreation and childbearing ended, was the imagined as a figure of absolute, incorruptible purity. The sister was a sweet, passive and innocent creature, who needed men’s protection for her own good. The stated purpose of the Alliance, indeed, was to promote among young men ‘brotherly concern and jealousy for the welfare of all young women which they cherish on behalf of their own sisters’. ‘You would not allow your own sister to be dishonoured’, one contributor wrote, ‘so why another man’s sister?’
Whether pushing women away as dangerous sexual temptresses, pitying the ‘fallen women’ from above, honouring the ‘sacredness of womanhood’ from below, or protecting them as sweet virgin sisters, the men placed women firmly apart. There was no sense that women might be allies to men in the fight. The dates of the Alliance (1904 – 1914) coincide almost exactly with the years of militant suffragism. Yet there was no mention whatsoever of the suffragettes, not even when, after 1911, they developed their own campaign against male sexual aggression.
When the women suffrage campaigners addressed assemblies of men on male purity, they stepped outside the restricted roles that male purity allotted to them. The resulting tensions were acutely painful, sometimes reducing the men to tears. Judgment in such matters is hard, but the speech of a woman seems to have left the men feeling smaller and less heroic than they did when fighting for purity on their own. For conjoint purity work to function well, this could not be allowed to happen often. Campaigning had to be done separately, by men, for men, enabling them to maintain identities of which they could be proud, acknowledging their sexuality and its problems in their own way.
Conjoint purity politics was hard for men and women to share. It was not that purity could only be pursued disjointly: rather that if pursued conjointly it had to be pursued separately. Conjoint work only worked well either where men targeted each other with the obligation to honour women, or when women bound themselves together to abjure men.
Reflexive purity work is work that individuals do to and for themselves. No matter how much external discipline was applied, or how much mutual support men gave to each other, the battle against impurity was ultimately a solitary one. It was a struggle within the individual but involving two elements, whether these were defined in religious terms as moral conscience and fleshly desire fighting over the human soul, between Mill’s ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ instincts, between Darwinian evolution and animal nature, or between civilizational advance and degeneration. To struggle for personal purity was not to seek a single undivided state, but the dominance of the lower element by the higher one.
I have chosen to examine the case of an individual who was also engaged in conjoint and disjoint work. He was Charles Masterman, a New Liberal writer and government minister whom I have also studied in other work. Masterman’s life intersected, personally and politically, with purity work of each type so far described. He was at the Home Office at its first consideration of the white slave trafficking legislation, which he helped to encourage, and was also involved in the work of the department on prostitution and the reform of delinquent youth.
He also spent a good deal of his own time involved in welfare work with boys and young men, guiding boys through the difficult years of adolescence. As a university graduate ‘slumming’ in the settlement houses and tenement blocks of south London, he helped working-class boys. But his deeper involvement was with boys of his own class, to whom he became a friend, correspondent and guide. He befriended younger boys from his own boarding school, with whom he remained in close contact long after he had himself left. Later they included the boys at Horsmonden, a failing school which he took over and ran himself, and later still holidays and camps at Bembridge, a progressive boarding school on the Isle of Wight run by his close friend J. Howard Whitehouse, where he spent many weeks of each year, living apart from his family, trying to recapture the physical and emotional closeness of boarding school life.
In many ways, Masterman never left boarding school. He told his wife that it had been the only happy time in his life, and he was a lifelong reader of boys’ stories, in which the boys never grow up. Some of Masterman’s correspondence with the boys he guided survives. The largest collection of letters is with a boy, Frank Du Wilson (known to Masterman as ‘Peter’). They met in 1918 at the Bembridge school camp, the summer before Peter, aged 14, was about to go away to boarding school for the first time. Masterman was in his forties, and over the next three years he wrote over seventy letters to Peter.
To a contemporary reader, the correspondence seems startlingly intimate. Masterman signed his letters ‘much love’ and used pet names for Peter. He frequently gave him presents, trips and treats. They met alone, at Masterman’s repeated urging, during the school holidays, and Peter frequently slept over at Masterman’s house in London, at his lodgings at Bembridge, and a beachside cabin at Selsey. There were trips to the beach, naked bathing and rough games, recorded in correspondence and photographs. Masterman also applied his own devised ‘system of kindness and ferocity’, alternately rewarding Peter with ‘tips’ and physically punishing him. There were similar ‘contracts’ with other teenage boys.
Masterman also advised Peter on sexual purity. In several letters, often confused in tone, he urged him to resist the ruinous sexual temptations and dangers of boarding-school life, and especially the unexpected threat of ‘a quite nice elder fellow … you will sort of not like to offend’, someone ‘of who you could never have expected anything wrong’ until it is ‘too late’ and you find out how ‘utterly rotten it all was’. Interpretation of this sort of evidence is not straightforward. But consciously or unconsciously, Masterman seemed almost to be warning Peter against himself.
By the end of his life – he died at the early age of 54 – Masterman was living alone near Bembridge School, isolated from his family. Due to this isolation, we have a remarkably full account of his symptoms in letters to his wife. They seem to indicate a deep somatization of his unhappiness. He had become over-weight and unkempt, drug- and alcohol-dependent, sleepless, but when sleeping tormented by unbearable dreams, unable to work, and gaining what happiness he could from the life of the camp with his favoured boys. Despite severe money problems, Masterman travelled to Freiburg to seek advice from Dr Karl-Bernhard Marten, a psychoanalyst who claimed to be able to cure homosexuality.
There is almost no other evidence that Masterman thought of himself as homosexual or sexually ‘inverted’, nor that his relationships with his boys were sexually exploitative. It is, for familiar reasons, misleading to apply ahistorical labels. It is probably better to think of him as being thrown into uncertainty by the sharp turn of opinion in and after the late Victorian period regarding the purity of intimate relationships between men and boys.
Modern conjoint guidance rested on two presumptions: first, that the older man had himself conquered his temptations, and secondly that he felt no sexual desire – only affectionate concern – for the boys he was guiding. The example of Masterman suggests that matters were more complicated. The homosocial settings in which Masterman worked all his life – the boarding school, the youth camp, the church boys’ club – were meant to keep the boys pure through the exclusion of female temptation. But they were haunted by the anxiety that unacknowledged impurity – the ‘rottenness’ – lay within the men and not the boys. They illustrate how the campaign for purity is not merely a campaign over the body (with the body as its object – to be disciplined, distracted, or purified by one means or another), but one in which the body (with its unacknowledged demands, needs and desires) is the means by which the campaign (the politics) is carried out.
Masterman’s example also suggests there were limits to acknowledgment in reflexive work. In theory, reflexive work, done properly, obliged acknowledgment. Since we know ourselves better than anyone else does, we cannot easily deceive ourselves. We can therefore excavate our true desires, and hold them up to the light. But unconscious desire raises deep problems for this approach. What we desire is at least partly unconscious, because it is unbearable to acknowledge it. It has been repressed deep beyond excavation. The self therefore does not know where to dig in order to purify itself.
Moreover, effortful will – the injunction of the purity campaigners – is part of the problem, since the more valuable the find, the harder we work to bury it again, or throw it away. The more we try to purify ourselves, the more guilty we feel, and the more we repress. Thus far from excavating, Freud advised, the patient must stay ‘on the surface of his consciousness’, free-associating, so that a trained analyst can listen and help open up the blockages that prevent us from speaking our unconscious desires.
It is, of course, possible to explain the seemingly contradictory elements in Masterman’s work in terms of separation (public and private worlds kept apart), or hypocrisy (conscious deceit). However, in my view, the better description is neither of these, but inhibition. Masterman was an inhibited man. His regression to school, his acting out of the part of the protector, were, like the sublimation of impure desire into purifying work – ways of retaining a desire which could neither be accepted nor rejected, as an illicit source of pleasure or excitement. They were ways to refrain from acting on the desire, but keep its intensity.
Masterman’s inhibitions were a consequence of the breakdown of these ways (regression, sublimation, acting-out) he had found to cope with forbidden desire. They were, in other words, forms of acknowledgment and unacknowledgment of the personal. They were the equivalent (in reflexive work) of sublimation or projection (in the work of purifying others). Such terms provide a way to reconnect the three areas of purity work I have described. All are different ways of acknowledging (or unacknowledging) questions which can no longer be addressed impersonally, (the women will not allow it) nor confronted directly, because it is too painful to do so. Disjoint work, put in these terms, a matter of expelling, or projecting the unacknowledged feelings on to others (the white slavers, the ‘rotten’ boys at Peter’s school). Conjoint work is a means of sublimating what is difficult to acknowledge, by redescribing it in an acceptable way, as a campaign of chivalrous inter-generational purification. Reflexive work can be either of these too, but also includes many other methods of working around what is otherwise hard to bear.
To explain purity work only in terms of ego defences would be simplistic. But it explain some aspects which are otherwise hard to see, notably what work can be shared and what cannot. An impersonal politics can be chosen freely and uncomplicatedly, in the way imagined by liberals, on the basis of interest and opinion. But when it comes to the personal, we do entirely not have a free choice, and we do not choose from an open set of possible desires. The motivations, the participation, and the choices of stances and alliances are not just a consequence of rational, reflective choice, but are inflected by the personal of the political.
The main effect of this pattern of acknowledgment and unacknowledgment was on the possibilities for men and women to work together, and hence the nature of the coalitions and alliance that were possible. When campaigning could be separated from the personal, it could be conducted by both sexes, even though only one would be the principal beneficiary. This was broadly true, for example, of campaigns for women’s suffrage. When a personal question – men’s sexual purity – was pursued with little acknowledgment, it was possible for men to share the pursuit with women (it was the pursuit of stigmatised third parties). When it was necessary to make greater acknowledgment, men and women had to work apart, or alone.
IMAGE CREDITS: RICHARD MÜLLER (1874-1930) RITTER UND MÄDCHEN (OIL ON BOARD, 1919) / LOUISE R. JACOBS, THE APPEAL OF WOMANHOOD (POSTCARD, SUFFRAGE ATELIER, 1912) / BOOK COVER OF H.M.LYTLE, THE TRAGEDIES OF THE WHITE SLAVES (NEW YORK, c.1910) / THEATRE PROGRAMME FOR FREDERICK BAUGH AND FRED MOULE’S PRODUCTION OF THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC BY REV. A MYDDLETON-MYLES (THE PALACE, EAST HAM, 1913) EAST LONDON THEATRE ARCHIVE / PROGRAMME FOR THE ALLIANCE OF HONOUR 11TH ANNIVERSARY THANKSGIVING MEETING, THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (1914) ROYAL ALBERT HALL PROGRAMME AND HANDBILL COLLECTION / THE ALLIANCE OF HONOUR RECORD (1909 – 1914) COVER PAGE SHOWING SIR GALAHAD AND THE FENCED PRECIPICE / GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS, KNIGHT AND MAIDEN (OIL ON PANEL, c.1864) / ANONYMOUS PHOTOGRAPHER, CHARLES MASTERMAN (1923) / PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES MASTERMAN WITH FRANK DU WILSON (‘PETER’) HOLDING SQUASH RACQUETS, WITH LAWRENCE ROBSON (‘DOLLY’) AND ARTHUR AND WITH ARTHUR AND LAWRENCE ROBSON (‘DOLLY’) HOLDING FOOTBALL, WHITE SANDS BOYS CAMP, BEMBRIDGE, ISLE OF WIGHT, 1919, CFGM 69/3, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CADBURY RESEARCH LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM / JULIA MARGARET CAMERON (1815-1879), SIR GALAHAD AND THE PALE NUN (ALBUMEN SILVER PRINT FROM GLASS NEGATIVE, 1874), METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK. FROM HER PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN TO ILLUSTRATE TENNYSON’S IDYLLS OF THE KING. THE PHOTOGRAPH WAS COINCIDENTALLY TAKEN ON THE ISLE OF WIGHT. / GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS, SIR GALAHAD (1860-62), LEADED GLASS DESIGN BY LOUIS C. TIFFANY, THE CRYDER MEMORIAL WINDOW IN MEMORY OF OGDEN CRYDER, A SCHOOLBOY WHO DIED IN A STREETCAR ACCIDENT IN 1902, ST. ANDREW’S DUNE CHURCH, SOUTHAMPTON, NEW YORK.