three pairs of lovers with space

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The following is the last chapter of English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.

The text is taken from pp. 217-237 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which, in the case of this chapter, differs from the earlier British edition only in a few small cuts and spelling changes.


Some Notes on the Effects of  “Purdah” on Boys

I HAVE borrowed the word purdah from the Indians because it seems to fit what's wanted better than "segregation," which doesn't have quite the right meaning (and now has acquired a new meaning); or "monasticism," which would be right only in some contexts; or "separation of the sexes," which isn't really what happens or what's intended to happen. But the "screening from view" implicit in the word purdah, the mental veiling from the idea of intimate contact with the female sex, is what's at the back, I believe (though in quite different ways, and with quite different purposes), of both the British public school system and, say, the strict social taboo in southern Italy on any contact between boys and girls from the age of puberty till, almost, the moment of marriage. What is interesting here, I think, is not the reasons for these customs, nor even their educational merits or demerits—what's interesting is the effect of purdah on the adolescent boy's sexual evolution and sexual habit.

The following notes on this matter come from nothing but my own experience: I try to present facts as I've seen them, or what I've been persuaded are facts, and the consequences that common sense seems able to deduce from them. But I try not to proffer any theories, being incompetent to theorize. All I can do is submit evidence—much no doubt circumstantial—which both sides to the argument may make what they can of.

    Davidson's old school, Lancing College in Sussex, by Sid Munday

I have read publications from the United States which reflect the oddest notions of British public schools and what goes on in them: one learns that these boarding schools are, at one and the same time, seminaries for the promotion of a taste for sodomy among Britain's middle-class boyhood, and places where brutal pedagogues, obsessed by sadistic desires, may obtain their sexual satisfaction upon the backsides of pupils whose parents pay about fifteen hundred dollars a year to give them the chance.

I spent, myself, five years in an English public school: in five years one gets some idea of what goes on. I have also, through a number of years after leaving that public school, learned a great deal about the sexual habits of adolescent boys of the British lower class—boys who've never been near a public school and have never been in purdah.

At a British public school, which is a private school, the boy spends some eight or nine months of each of four or five years in purdah: the only females he sees during the three terms, or semesters, are the matron of his "house," the wives of those sadistic schoolmasters, and perhaps some maids—their status at my school is described in our name for them: "skivvies." During the three months of holidays, the boy has all the contact with girls his parents allow him—or what he can snatch despite them.

At a British day school, which generally is a "public" school—that is, a State School—the boys may usually share the buildings with girls and today often share classes too. The boys (and girls) at these schools belong chiefly to the "lower" classes; out of school these boys can have all the contact with girls that home disciplines, which of course vary enormously, and opportunity allow them.

Now what, according to the facts which I've observed during five years at a public school and twice as many years among boys of the working class, are the sexual addictions of these boys; and how, so far as one can judge, have the different systems influenced them?

                            Having a Good Time, a postcard from 1905

Let's start with the public school—but sticking to facts, things seen, without trying to explain with the help of theory. At my school, as I believe at most public schools, nakedness was encouraged—I mean we were made to see each other naked, we bathed together naked, swimming in the pool and river was naked: this was a part of the "muscular Christian" theory—a healthy mind in a healthy body (educationists go in a lot for theories)—that if you are accustomed to the sight of the body unashamed you too will be unashamed, and you won't have any dirty thoughts. (There is, of course, some truth in this theory; but only some.) In the dormitory, too, there was an emphasis on "non-shame," if one can call it that; under each boy's bed was a pisspot which, according with school custom, was used unashamedly in full view of everybody. There were no doors, throughout the school, on the bogs: the most timid and sensitive mother's darling, almost straight from the nursery, was compelled to crap in inelegant dejection in front of a mob of his mocking fellows.

                  School dinner at Lancing

All this was part of the authorities' technique for keeping the boys uninterested in their own or other people's bodies. They might just as successfully have thought up ways of keeping boys uninterested in food. The boys were permanently interested in their own bodies; quite a number of them were interested in other boys' bodies. Masturbation was done as naturally as it always has been and always will be—it was done in bed in the dorm or in the lavatory or—especially when it was part of a love affair—in the woods and over the downs. The school authorities liked to think that masturbation was "bad form" in the school; now and then they gave little cosy talks about "self-pollution" and even hinted, shame on them, that if we did it a lot we might lose, not merely Christian salvation, but even the sight of our eyes. But beyond masturbation ("rubbing up" it was called at my school), done alone or à deux or, now and then in the dorm, in a sort of olympic competition—with laurels for the first or the most; beyond this ordinary schoolboy pleasure, which nobody (except the schoolmasters) thought of much importance, there was a great deal of emotional homosexuality—bigger boys "in love" (yet why put it in inverted commas? It was love!) with the unapproachable younger. In these schools there are unscalable barriers between boys of seventeen and boys of sixteen or fifteen, boys in one House and boys of another: the whole social structure of the school is designed to prevent emotional "contacts" ever contacting. And yet, some impudently logical objectors might say, you put these boys in purdah from the female sex and yet ferociously try to suppress (or, conveniently, evade) any emotional—let alone physical—sexuality with their own sex. So love affairs are the natural rule throughout the term; masturbation as ordinary a thing as going to bed. What I never heard of in all the five years I spent at my public school was buggery. There was plenty of opportunity: although the boys at my school slept together, ten or more in a dormitory, the bigger boys had their "studies" which gave them privacy and had power over "underschool" fags whom they could summon. Yet I never heard of a go at buggery. I've been told that at Eton, Britain's most expensive public school, where each boy has a room of his own, even the small boys, sodomy was a practice which new arrivals were told by their knowing betters to expect. I don't know; I wasn't at Eton.

But I do know from experience that schools of all social sorts, like urban districts, move, in the adolescent world, from one phase or fashion or vogue to another—and I mean by this, too, sexual vogues and fashions. For I've known a London district—just a circle of a few streets—where within the space of five years any boy would be ready to be picked up; and in the next five years that vogue would somehow have died out.

     Lancing boys in their tuck-shop, 1948

As for the sadistic schoolmasters some American authors have written about, I didn't know any at my school. I was "beaten" once, by a prefect (that is, a senior boy placed in some House authority), for some small offence; it didn't hurt much and I didn't once hear of anybody's being badly hurt by master or prefect. The masters I was taught by, mainly badly taught but pleasantly, were a gentle lot who, I think, can never have heard of "sadism," even if they felt within themselves a flicker of that uncharacteristic desire.

And in the holidays, when we went home, we met and "mixed with" the girls in our families' social circle and, those of us who wanted to, flirted with them; most of us—and I mean adolescents from the public schools between fourteen and seventeen—didn't want to flirt; we were more bored by girls than shy of them after our purdah at school; but purdah hadn't in the least made us anti-girl: the big boys of eighteen or so, the "bloods" at school who were on the point of leaving, were—when they were so inclined—as eager as anybody to flirt and make love—purdah hadn't affected their sexual orientation.

The idea of the public schools, I think, sprang from the charity school endowed in past centuries by princes or religious orders, in which foundling boys and the like were held captive, meagrely fed, clad in a "charity" livery, and straight-jacketed into law-abiding Christians. From this early "establishment" mode of "catching them young" and turning out docile proles, there developed the subtler idea of adapting this same training method to the other side of the picture: instead of inculcating the habit of submission, the boarding-school idea was turned to the teaching of the art of subjection—the public school came into being as the only recognized nursery of "leadership." It became the school where the sons of the governing class learned how to retain their governance, and the heirs to social privilege how to preserve their heritage. In the last couple of hundred years a kind of mystique, like an odor of sanctity, accumulated round these schools (whose fees have kept going up and up, in order to preserve them for the class that could afford to pay them). Headmasters of the leading public schools began to receive, as saints do, a halo, the attribute of "great," which gave them rather more cachet than a mere knighthood: newspaper obituaries fawned on the memory of men like "the great Dr. Arnold." And then these "great" men, most of them either crusading Christians or bigoted Hellenists, began to mould the schools they ruled into, on the one hand, a monastic pattern, and on the other, some imitation of what they believed to be a Spartan ideal. Hence the British public schools: places with a bastard ancestry and a prejudiced purpose; places where boys of the ruling class (the class, that is, with enough money to pay the fees) are required to spend five years of their adolescence in a moral regimentation which denies them their sexuality and which while it can't deprive them of their sexual organs, pretends that boys are equipped with these things only for eliminant purposes (when I was at school it was difficult to believe that people like headmasters possessed them at all).

                            A house party at Lancing, 1948

That, roughly is the origin and design of the British public school—though today, in 1968, and for some years back already, its nature is inevitably being modified under the pressure of social change.

These schools, conceived in the minds of the "great" headmasters, are run on a foundation of harsh discipline (partly imposed by rules and the sanctions of physical punishment, but much more cleverly by the hypnotic force of "good form" and "tradition" and "in this House we don't do that"). In the interests of "leadership" some selected big boys (designated "prefects," "monitors," "house-captains" and so on; and raised to a rank of school aristocracy) are given powers, if not of life and death then of body and soul, over certain of the little boys: they can whip small boys accused of some tiny offence—they can almost order small boys to wipe their arses. This, the theory goes, leads to "leadership." But the "great" headmasters, sincerely inspired by their Greco-Christian fallacies, cannot understand that, imprisoned behind the screen of the purdah that is the public school for three months at a time, great hulking hairy lads of eighteen, to say nothing of the less hairy ones of fifteen upwards, have romantic and sexual feelings like anybody else ("great" headmasters often have wives, but they never have sexual feelings—that's part of the great tradition). So when a bigger boy is convicted of having formed a romantic attachment with a younger boy he is, at the worst "expelled," and at the best made wretched for the rest of time at the school. "Expelled," when I was a boy, meant social ruin—there were no plum jobs in the Establishment for a boy who'd been expelled.

In these schools boys—in ages varying from twelve or thirteen to eighteen or sometimes more, and in numbers from some three hundred to five hundred—are kept in purdah, isolated from the rest of the world, for three months at a time. And yet the "great" headmasters, and their pedagogic lieutenants, always seem taken aback—and above all hurt—when any of their pupils are discovered to be sexually alive people. The public-school system places its boys in purdah—but it is itself in purdah: it keeps a rigid screen of academic aloofness between itself and the obvious result of the purdah. The whole system provides opportunity and inspiration for precisely what all its "great" men are dedicated to preventing—any kind of sexual contact, even if only romantic, between an older and a younger boy.

It's very odd. And perhaps it seems odder when one thinks that, until perhaps very recently, out of the entrails of this system came Britain's rulers—not merely in politics but wherever "leadership" mattered. And it's amusing to reflect that the sexual heterodoxies which today would be condemned as outrageous by many of our rulers were, in their youth, among their chief delights.

Bas-relief in the school chapel of Abbotsholme, a boarding-school that was "progressive", but for boys only

The British public school system is thus a house divided against itself—it is devoted to principles which its very structure was designed to deny. On the one hand, the boys it trains to "leadership" are taught that any form of sexuality is at best "bad form" and at worst an unforgiveable evil that must be gouged out of the school's life, whenever it is found, like a weed out of a rose-garden; and on the other, it ensures, by enclosing its pupils in a kind of emotional harem, that a great number of boys around puberty are introduced to some form of homosexual experience—romantic or physical—long before they would have found out about it if they'd been kept in their sheltered homes. On the one hand, it proclaims that a certain plant is poisonous and must never be grown; on the other, its own soil is of such a nature that it inevitably becomes the seedbed of that same plant. A boy arriving at a public school is presented with opportunities for homosexual relationships which he'd never have dreamed of at his home—and probably, because of the purdah he's held behind, makes the most of them while he remains there. But that doesn't mean that he'll be homosexual after he leaves his school, no matter how much experience he may've had. If he isn't a homosexual by nature, who will remain predominantly homosexual through life, he will after emerging from purdah become respectably "normal" and, like so many leaders of the British establishment, look back upon the unlawful lecheries of his public school as mere boyish pranks.

It's a very odd system which, like so many British institutions, blundered into existence and then found itself the consecrated nursery of privilege and "leadership" in Britain's imperialist century. Today, with the perquisites of empire vanished, privilege open to anybody who can afford to pay a lot for it, and "leadership" becoming more and more a politician's label, the public school doesn't quite know where it's going. It is still, of course, true to type, trying to have things both ways; trying to stay stuck where it was and at the same time move ahead with "progress." The public schools are scratching their heads over the problem of how to mix an educational cocktail of the fee-paying sons of the rich and the State-supported "scholarship boys" of the working class. They have even, in 1968, been presented with the proposal that girls should share the benches and desks of the Sixth Form: where then will purdah be?

Gardening at Bedales in 1899, the year after it became Britain's first co-educational boarding-school

There have, of course, for many decades existed some renowned co-educational schools in Britain: fee-paying, expensive, and very "progressive." Dartington Hall is a famous one; Bertrand Russell's experiments are well-known; and Bedales School is perhaps the oldest and most conventional of them all. One of the principal theories behind these schools is that the free and comradely mingling of the sexes will nurture an emotional normality among their adolescent pupils. Most certainly, and most obviously, this system is more "normal" than the purdah-system of the boys' public school and must avoid much of the sexual vicariousness which such a multitude of public-school boys are required to enact; but it can have little effect—I believe none—upon the ultimate sexual bifurcation of adolescence—each individual somewhere between the ages of fifteen and eighteen moves in the direction which nature has mapped out; and what experiences boys and girls may have had during those years can't alter the destined choice of direction, though they may hasten it.

When I was a boy of seventeen or so, my most pertinaciously homosexual acquaintance of about my own age was a boy at the co-ed school of Bedales—and homosexual he remained, I know, well into his maturity.

But comparatively few boys in Britain spend their five years or so of purdah in the public schools. The huge majority of British boys belong to the working class and the "lower middle class" as it's called; and they go to the State schools, elementary and secondary. Some of the "lower middle-class" boys are sent by the parents, who want to pay to be "posh," to privately owned or subsidized schools—the fact of paying fees, though small ones, confers status. But all these schools, State or fee-paying "private" schools, are day schools: that's the point—there's no purdah there: the boys live at home and their association with girls is just as free as they themselves wish and their parents endorse. They live in a world utterly different from the purdah world of the public school boys: they're not enclosed in any monastical exclusiveness, cut off from females for three months at a time: they're at home with all their sisters and cousins and aunts and under the daily care of their mothers and, besides, they've got the run of the streets and of all the girls in the neighborhood. And what is the sex life of the average London boy of fourteen or fifteen or sixteen?

There was a time, many years ago, when I saw a good deal of it. At that time—say thirty years ago—the ordinary London working class kid's sex life wasn't much different from that of the public school boy's sex life in purdah—although the London street boys played and joked and daily associated with the girls of the neighborhood. But these boys, whenever they were together in twos or threes or fours in playgrounds or bathing places or, when available, each other's houses, instantly and perhaps even more impetuously, started the same masturbatory games as are played in the public schools. Among working-class schoolboys, homosexual acts are commonplace in their daily lives and have little of the portentousness which similar behaviour seems to have in the public schools: free of the mystique of purdah, working-class boys aren't subject to the same taboos. But the homosexual games of working-class boys are less emotional; not being in purdah their romanticism can find ample outlet in the girls they daily see around them—most adolescent kids, probably, enjoy a romantic dream about some girl they come into contact with, while their physical sex they enjoy in the company of their "mates." The romantic need is perhaps felt later in working-class adolescence than in the cloistral life of a public school, which is itself romantic—the whole ambience of the place, with its "gothic" buildings and traditions, artificially promotes a precocious emotionalism and hunger for romantic attachments. Yet there's one kind of emotional attachment very common among working-class boys of the middle teens: a deep unquestioning friendship between two boys, founded on unshakable loyalty and interdependence which neither would recognize as "love" and which is summed up in the phrase "me and me mate." These friendships mean an absolute partnership and concurrence in everything, including sex: one of such a pair wouldn't think of masturbating "without me mate."

So there it is: in Britain, for the last century or two, two different social classes of boys have been growing through their adolescence in utterly different sexual and emotional atmospheres, among utterly different sexual and emotional ideas. Yet, from what I've seen of both systems, I believe that the liberalism in which the working-class adolescent grows up no more shapes his final sexual character than does purdah the upper-class boy's: both are fixed long before these contrasting environments are reached; but one can't doubt, I suppose, that the "natural" environment of the working-class adolescence must be emotionally healthier of the two.

*             *             *

        A Sicilian, by Wilhelm von Gloeden

There's another kind of adolescent purdah, the Italian. This separates the boys from the girls solely by a barrier of social punctilio, an inherited convention of "untouchability' which has acquired almost the force of the universal incest-taboo. It's a prohibition that's still rigidly observed in villages and small towns, though with the increasing liberalization of manners in the big cities, evasion of it is easy there. But in a village in southern Italy, boys and girls from puberty onwards may hardly look at each other, let alone stop for a chat, when they meet in the piazza, unless they are related by blood—even if they've been playing together since infancy. Throughout his adolescence a boy may not ever be alone with a girl; and even when, through the proper channels, he's proposed to and been accepted by the girl of his choice (or his parents'), he seldom can be alone with her unchaperoned, until the marriage. This archaic custom, which in a small town receives far more respect than any mere law of the land, preserves the virgo intacta rule: it's a measure of the fantastic value popularly attached to virginity in a bride—a broken maidenhead means no husband for the girl and social humiliation for her family. Also, in a south Italian community, parental watchfulness over their progeny's public behaviour, male or female, is that of a lynx; mainly to avoid reason for social disgrace, and partly to escape, should a son get some girl into trouble, the inevitable shotgun wedding with all the ignominy and disagreeable expense that this would bring. So what is the effect of this rigid convention on the adolescent boys?

The southern Italian boy has an abundant appetite for sexual pleasure, rarely for long assuaged. At some age between six and eight he begins to masturbate—anywhere along the seashore in summer one can see schools of such children working away at their infantile genitals: the act starts by being imitative—the latest six-year-old to join the group of course does what the others are doing—and instantly and naturally becomes a habit. Anywhere along the seashore in summer one will come upon the busy generation of sexual energy, and often its expenditure: a solitary boy, two or three together, a cluster—of all ages from near-infancy to late adolescence: the process goes on continually and follows every form one can think of —or rather, every form the boys can think of. Italian boys are sexually ingenious; and they are generally ready, provided they're given the active role, to do anything with almost anybody. They delight in sexual pleasure, for its own sake; and, because of the social taboo which governs their behaviour, the pleasure most of them yearn for stays inaccessibly and mysteriously out of their reach.

         Sicilians, by Wilhelm von Gloeden

In nearly every village, and in nearly every palazzo, as any large block of dwellings is called in a small town, there's generally at least one teen-age girl who's lost her virginity and is ready to oblige any of the local adolescents for a consideration. A good many of the boys take advantage of this; but the job’s not so simple as it sounds. There's the parental menace; and, also, a police menace—local police are always eager to watch the morals of the youngsters on their beat and supporting them are the laws protecting minors: a sixteen-year-old making love with a sixteen-year-old—both can be arraigned for under-age-corruption. And then there's money to be raised for the ten-minute assignation in some smelly doorway or other retreat; there's the competition of other boys of the palazzo; and, while one was waiting for her at some out-of-the-way spot, a film one wanted to see might be showing at the local cinema. Altogether, having the local tart was an expensive and tiresome and risky operation: masturbation was much simpler and safer; and masturbation, or other things, in the emotional company of one's friends gave one, really, just as much pleasure and none of the worry. In this way, almost every boy in southern Italy takes as a matter of course to homosexual activities in his adolescence, chiefly with his contemporaries in age but often with anybody else who offers not just money, but kindness and sympathy. Few Italians are wholly homosexual; but few aren't without at least a streak of it. Therefore, through the long purdah of their adolescence, most southern Italian boys get along contentedly with almost daily masturbation and a good deal of homosexual amusement with their friends—but homosexual only in deed: romantically, their eyes are forever roving over the girls of what's bureaucratically called their "age-group."

These boys, therefore, are cut off throughout their adolescence from girl-companionship, although they see girls every day—and girls whom they've known all their lives. But they mayn't look at them or speak to them; and so emotionally largely, and physically entirely, they're limited to the pleasures of their solitary erotic fantasies or the pleasures of physical experiment with their friends. And these are the things they do, and without stint. Yet nearly every southern Italian boy—I've hardly known one who didn't—when he gets into his twenties, marries a girl and begets a number of children; and continues generally to be a decent husband and a splendid father—there are no more doting fathers in the world.

*             *             *

       Arab boys, by Lehnert and Landrock

And then there's the Arab brand of purdah, which inflexibly demarcates the entire human world into two distinct parts, the male and the female: two halves of living that meet only in the arcana of the family. But this is a very different purdah, being accompanied by an almost total sexual permissiveness which draws the line only at the deflowering of virgin girls. Otherwise the Arab boy or man may do what he likes, or what he can. The rich may keep a variety of women at home; for the poor there are generally brothels at hand, to which boys of quite tender age have access if they have enough money to pay. A man who is away from his own women and finds no others available will resort to boys—or even, in extremity, to animals (legend says that the pulpy interiors of melons are also used). The fact is that the average Arab—I'm speaking of the North African Arabs who are those I've lived amongst—needs any suitable orifice, uncomplicated by emotion; he wants sensation not romantic attachment, and he will use almost any means of obtaining that straightforward orgastic sensation. Among Arabs one finds an immense amount of homosexual behaviour but very little true homosexuality: the active partner wants a plain screw, not somebody to love; the passive, some benefit—money or other material advantage; some, no doubt, have to submit out of fear. This is the sexual attitude into which boys grow up: the routine of family-building lies ahead—two or three wives, perhaps, if one's lucky enough to be able to afford them, plus even a handful of concubines; meanwhile there's the brothel when one has the money, and any of one's friends or smaller boys whom one can induce or seduce. Myth too plays its part in the sexual mores of the Arabs: in Morocco, for instance, pupils in the Koranic schools (so I’ve been told by Moroccans) will allow their teachers—who, being learned in the holy book, are themselves holy—to bugger them because it's believed that an injection of the holy semen quickens the ability to memorize the Koran by heart (I'm writing of thirty years ago: I don't know if this belief is still held). Again, in Morocco, small boys in rural villages will copulate with the female donkeys they look after because, legend says, this encourages the growth of the penis.

So the Arab boy, almost still in infancy, quickly leans to take practically any form of sexual activity as a matter of course and to accept anybody—and even anything—as a partner; and almost invariably he wants, as he grows up, to perform the simple male role. He will, if required, simulate an emotional interest and join in other modes of obtaining pleasure—but what he really wants is the masterful thrust from the haunches, getting his orgasm in the most male way he can.

The Arab heart, I think, is lyrical rather than passionate; he feels elegantly poetical about those who excite his amorousness rather than profoundly emotional; his deepest feelings are for his younger children. If in his household there's to be found some beardless boy, he will be there as catamite, not as beloved.

*             *             *

And what of those societies, which surely are in the majority, in which no sort of purdah holds their adolescent boys apart from their girls? What about, say, Japan? Or Germany?

I suppose Japan is as permissive as any other country today; I can recall no restrictions on the association of boys with girls—certainly not in Tokyo, though I cannot speak about rural communities where, perhaps, more squeamish conventions may persist. But I believe that nobody who knows the Japanese will demur when I say that homosexuality among them is noticeably frequent; and that, within that homosexuality, the love of men for boys and of boys for men exists on a wider front, perhaps, even than in Europe. It's true, certainly, that the Japanese, as a nation, are "neurotic"—a highly nervous, sensitive, overwrought people: a condition perhaps produced by their having packed into a few decades the mastering of technical skills and ingenuities which it had taken the West a couple of centuries to develop.

Nivea advertisement from Davidson's time in Germany

And Germany? I myself can say nothing about the Germany of today—I haven't been there since 1933. But in five years before that, when I lived there, boys were launched in early adolescence into a lushness of moral laxity which can't have been equalled since the "decadence" of the Roman Empire; "permissive" was indeed the word for German society in the 'twenties. Again, as in Japan much later, paidophilia was almost an accepted branch of social life, so widespread was it among boys as well as among men. Again, too, this was a period in Germany of acute "neurosis"—the aftermath of defeat in the war, of deprivations, of a riotous inflation and fearful unemployment. But who can say that a prevalence of paidophilia and a nation's period of neurosis are in the least casually connected? Were the Greeks of the age of Pericles and Socrates neurotic?

Let's try another font of "permissive" society, and one that certainly wasn't neurotic at all: the Zulu nation as it was nearly fifty years ago, when I spent many months there, far "up country," among people still almost totally untouched by Western manners or morals, or even by the West at all. In these tribal, and kraal, societies, an absolute sexual permissiveness existed for adolescents of both sexes provided they stopped before penetration—here again the old, universal, primitive sanctity of the maidenhead was the rule, But, short of full copulation, anything was allowed girls and boys just past puberty could go together into the bush—the woodlands surrounding their kraal or village—and do all the tricks they could think up. But penetration was taboo: a boy proved to have penetrated was banished from his kraal and tribe—and messengers sent to the neighbouring tribes asked that the guilty boy be rejected by them too. He became an outcast.

These people were pagans: they had their own strict moral codes (one could leave one's hut open and everything in it, and nothing would be touched) which, once abrogated, left a vacuum. Young men in the kraals who felt it was time they had a bit of "penetration" too, would say to each other "Let's go down to the mission station": and they'd set off over the bush tracks, brandishing their assegais, naked except for a figleaf of monkey's tails, and walk twenty miles to the nearest mission school, where Christianized girls, having lost their tribal taboos, were ready to accept "penetration."

But in the year or so that I lived among the Zulus, high on the uplands of Zululand northeast of Natal in South Africa, I never saw a sign of any kind of homosexual behavior or understanding: not even among the boys—I never came across the slightest evidence of sexual play even among the smaller boys. Was this because these people were "primitive"? Because they were unaffected by Western neuroses?

But I've already described earlier in these pages another "primitive" African people—certainly, in Dakar, less "primitive" and for much longer and more closely susceptible to Western influence: I mean, of course, the people of Senegal, where society is as permissive as one can possible conceive it to be—I imagine there's nothing that any adolescent can't do, if he has a mind to do it (provided, of course, that he can obey the unalterable law, and pay for it). I don't think there's anything specially neurotic about the Senegalese; and Dakar, after all, has had two or three centuries of urban "civilization." And yet, though all is permitted to them, the Senegalese appear to be the queerest people in Africa—not excepting the Arab peoples of North Africa, where queerness is a pastime not an emotion.

*             *             *

I've put down here some of my observations, made in various parts of the globe. What can one make of them? I myself don't know. Trying to add them up doesn't seem to give a result.

My own conclusions, drawn from long decades of experience over a vast area of behavior in a lot of countries, won’t, of course, be confirmed by the psychiatrists—their profession depends largely on theories untested by experience "in the field," and is mystified by phraseology which nobody else wants to understand.

I believe it's true to say that most boys, during the two or three years after puberty, don't want to have girls, even if the girls are there to be had; and I believe that this is generally the rule whether they are kept in purdah or whether they're free to follow any sexual whim. Generally, I've observed, boys in their early adolescence prefer the companionship of other boys—they may boast among themselves about what they'd do to a girl if they got one, although getting one is the last thing they want. Not until towards the age of seventeen (the age obviously isn't constant, just as the onset of adolescence itself varies with each individual) does a boy begin to need at least the companionship of a girl; at seventeen, generally, his emotional nature has reached the point of dichotomy and his inclinations have made themselves felt—his behavior shows whether he is predominantly heterosexual or homosexual. I've recently—in the late 1960's—found additional evidence of this in London, where a great deal was being published about the new "permissiveness," innumerable "social surveys" revealing sensational details of sexual license among the young. But, I noticed, the boys one saw in the streets walking hand-in-hand with their "birds" were boys of eighteen or over, or perhaps of seventeen—but rarely of sixteen and almost never below that. The boys of fourteen and fifteen seemed to be amusing themselves in groups of their own kind, exactly as I'd always known them to do in the past; and weren't showing the slightest desire to have a "bird" in the tow of a sticky handclasp.

I believe it's true that adolescents of both sexes, before the sexual direction which their mature lives are going to take becomes differentiated—whether hetero or homo, or remarkably often both—tend to be homosexual during the year or two after puberty; there's evidence galore that lesbian behaviour is rife in girls' boarding schools—my own sister told me about her experiences. Boys in early adolescence most certainly become emotionally involved with their "mates," with or without sexual play together even though, partly to seem à la mode, they allow themselves romantic fantasies about idealized girls—a little in the manner, perhaps, of the medieval troubadours.

I believe that somewhere between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, say, the ultimate sexual and emotional shape of the boy's nature becomes set: after that his loves and his lusts will be "normal," or he will remain the homosexual he has mainly been so far. This rule, like so many others, is more often broken than not—simply because an amazingly high proportion of growing adolescents don't at all accomplish a true differentiation of their sexual natures and become hard-and-fast homosexuals or heterosexuals—they go into adulthood endowed with a very handy sexual ambivalence, able to have the best of both worlds. One cannot make a guess at the likely number of bisexuals in any community; but one's knowledge of friends and acquaintances shows that the percentage would astonish people unfamiliar with these matters.

I believe, again founding my belief on a lifetime of observation and experience, that the sexual differentiation that occurs about mid-adolescence or later and determines a person's emotional course through his life, isn't influenced by various environments of upbringing like purdah or the absence of it. And, I believe too, it isn't influenced in the slightest by sexual experiences in childhood or later, What, for instance, a homosexual environment (such as the purdah of the British public school, or initiation by "mates" or some fortuitous adult) obviously does is to provide opportunity, example, and experience which might never have come some particular youngster's way if he hadn't been introduced into that environment. But what surely it doesn't do, and I'm convinced cannot do, is alter the course of that differentiation when it occurs. Which branch the sexual nature takes at the bifurcation of adolescence has been fixed in infancy or, for all we know, before that; and I don't believe that any experience or environment or model can deflect, like switching the points on a railroad, from one branch to the other. Opportunity, a homosexual environment provides; and sometimes understanding—surely it's a good thing that a person should understand a puzzling nature? But what it can never create is appetite, when no appetite is there: nothing will give a taste for garlic in a mouth that dislikes garlic—certainly not shoving garlic into it. Nothing will make a homosexual of a nature that isn't already homosexual—certainly not inherently distasteful experience. And when a boy whose sexual course will later differentiate into perfect normality does have homosexual experience during his post-pubic "homo" years—the experience will run off him like water off a duck's back.

I have no theories; I have only experience. Experience tells me that education and example can change manners and attitudes but that nothing can change the nature, the personality, which makes every human being an individual.


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Tiago   04 December 2020

It’s very interesting. I like the author’s fine irony but also his rigorous—and prudent—knowledge of the matter. Really, Michael Davidson was a great discovery to me. Thank you very much!


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