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three pairs of lovers with space


The law in modern Denmark with respect to Greek love followed a similar repressive trajectory to the rest of northern Europe, but in Denmark’s case its bark was mostly worse than its bite and the country was at times among the least intolerant.

Thus, as in every Christian country, sodomy was a crime in early modern Denmark, as once proclaimed by canon law and enforced by ecclesiastical courts, but these courts disappeared and canon law was no longer applicable following the Reformation in 1526. It remained a crime in theory, as shown by continued burnings at the stake for bestiality, considered a form of sodomy, and possibly the burning of a Scottish lieutenant-colonel and a Scottish “lad” in the square in front of the Castle of Copenhagen in 1628.[1] However, it was not until 1683 that Denmark got its first secular or statutory prohibition of sodomy, when The Danish Lawbook, a compilation of old laws issued that year, proclaimed that “Intercourse which is against nature shall be punished with death by burning.”[2]

Remarkably, however, between then and 1820, not a single person is known to have been prosecuted or punished for sodomy between humans, though continued fairly frequent burnings alive[3]  of man and animal for bestiality together show that the law was no dead letter, and the explanation given for thus punishing them, that it was “according to the Law of God” should have applied as much to sodomy between people. There were only two known cases of anyone getting into trouble for any homosexual behaviour, both involving a man with a boy. The first involved Jacob, married soldier, and Peter Jessen, an apprentice, who confessed to fellatio as well as masturbation in Åbenrå, Schleswig in 1742. They denied pedication and it was ruled that accordingly they could not be punished according to the statute in the Lawbook, thus confirming that pedication was the only statutory homosexual crime.[4] Jacob was therefore punished under martial law with running the gauntlet sixteen times and two years’ imprisonment.[5]

Map of Denmark by Herman Moll, ca. 1726

The other case is described in the article “Softness” in a Boring Field, 1744, and had a similar outcome for the same reason. The much more detailed record of it shows that the objections to homosexuality were still essentially religious and the authorities were most concerned by what they saw as the possible dangerous effects of publicity, which they asserted the priest who reported the case should have averted by dealing with through private admonishment, as indeed was ordained by another statute.[6]

The reasons why sodomy between humans was overlooked in Denmark in a century when it was becoming much more brutally repressed in other Protestant countries like Great Britain and the Netherlands are not obvious, but are probably because the population of Denmark remained three-quarters rural in the 18th century and even the capital had not reached the size where it could sustain a molly sub-culture such as thrived in London and Amsterdam. Both this consideration and all the known cases suggest that Greek love remained overwhelmingly the predominant form of homosexuality in Denmark until well into the 19th century. As the psychological historian Thorkil Vanggaard pointed out,[7] it is most unlikely that sex between young males did not occur in an era when the unmarried shared beds, so the lack of prosecuted cases surely reflects a determination to turn a blind eye to the inevitable rather than cause terrible trouble.

One may therefore surmise that Denmark took a century longer to undergo the general European transformation from the old kind of culture where sexual attraction to boys was taken for granted and was often to some degree overlooked, into the new type where men seen as were divided between a small gender-transgressive minority of homosexuals and a majority increasingly antagonistic to them.

Boy Fishing by Wilhelm Hermann Bissen, 1888

In conformity with practice in the two 18th-century cases, in 1814  a pederastic circle formed by French and German immigrants together with local actors and ballet dancers was secretly dissolved by the police by the simple expedient of warning the suspected “to leave the town, a so-called consilium abeundi. This was an expedient without legal foundation (except in absolutist rule) and its use can only have been exceptional.”[8] By the mid-1830s, however, the emergence of a visible “molly” or androphile sub-culture in Copen-hagen combined with recurring pederastic scandals (such as an outbreak of boy prostitution within Copenhagen’s large central prison at that date) to provoke enough outrage that the authorities gave up on their discreet approach to repression and a series of regular court cases began.

These prosecutions became increasingly frequent, and Greek love was singled out for special repression. By the end of the century, sodomy with boys was punishable by up to four years in prison, while sodomy between men was punishable by only one. The repression sharpened after the legalisation of sex between men in the new criminal code of 1933. The law became more stringently enforced and men caught with even teenage boys were often punished with castration or aversion “therapy”, while women were free to have sex with them and sex with girls over 15 remained legal.[9] The post-war atmosphere of repression and fear surrounding Greek love was captured towards its end in the novel Kim, My Beloved by Jens Eisenhardt, set in 1962 (and reviewed here).

Thereafter, the situation brightened considerably, as Denmark emerged at the forefront of the European sexual liberation of the 1960s, which included dropping the old antagonisms to homosexuality and overtly pro-sexual expression and having much greater respect for the rights to self-determination of the young. The most obvious fruits of these were the legalisation of pornography in 1969 and the reduction of the age of homosexual consent to 15 in 1976. However, neither of these legal changes quite conveys the extent to which Greek love was in fact tolerated in the late 1970s and 1980s. The legalisation of pornography, for example, led to Denmark becoming the sole producer of pornography that was officially sanctioned and, though generally lighter in tone than adult pornography, featured boys well below the age of consent, occasionally shown having full sexual intercourse with men.[10]

In 1978, Danish director Lasse Nielsen produced a film, You are Not Alone, centred on boys of 12 and 15 not only having a love affair, but defiantly showing the fact off to the staff and other boys at their boarding-school. Given the funding required to produce quality feature-length films, this demonstrates a degree of public receptiveness to a message of strong affirmation of the pubescent boy’s self-agency and, most controversially, sexual self-determination, that was unmatched elsewhere, before or since, and goes some way to convey how toleration of Greek love in this era went well beyond simple legal toleration of sex with boys over 15.

Boy, one of several boy pornography magazines legally made and sold in Denmark in the 1970s

With hindsight, one might say it was unthinkable that such positive attitudes to Greek love could have survived when public hysteria against it was already rising fast in the Anglophone powers. One early sign of the incipient reaction, mild by the standards of what was to come, was a law which from 1 April 1980 banned the use of models under 14 in pornography, with the presence of pubic hair as the test.[11]

Crime Without Victims, a study of those involved in child/adult sex in general, but mostly in fact about Greek love affairs, put together from interviews by a group of Danish psychologists in 1986, is remarkable, both as a rare product of that age when there was in a few European countries the will and the freedom to produce such an objective study, and as a poignant reminder of how things stood at that delicate moment in time when twenty years of remarkable progress were only approaching the cusp of obvious reversal: a judge interviewed, who strongly advocated continuance of the laws against consensual man/boy sex, called one year’s imprisonment for it “very harsh punishment”, while the editor exuded faint optimism for still greater tolerance and understanding.

[1] Their offence is unrecorded. The fact that they were burned makes sodomy most likely, but it could have been sorcery, which was similarly punished.

[2] Book 6, Chapter 13, Article 15 in Kong Christian den Femtis Danske Lov, 2nd edition, edited by V. A. Secher (Copenhagen, 1911) 942.

[3] A decree of 1711 said the humans convicted should be strangled first. After 1751, death sentences for sodomy (ie. bestiality) were commuted to imprisonment.

[4] This interpretation was only first given public expression in Christian Brorson’s Essay on the Interpretation of the Sixth Book that the crime described as ‘conduct which is against (Copenhagen, 1791) p. 379, which explained the death penalty could only be imposed, ‘without exception,’ when the crime had been consummated which presupposed, ‘the thing inside the thing and the effusion of semen’ (res in re et effusion seminis). Lesser crimes of this sort were to be punished arbitrarily, rather than according to statute, which indeed is what had happened in the 1742 and 1744 cases.

[5] Tyge Krogh, Oplysningstiden og det magiske. Henrettelser og korporlige straffe i 1700-tallets første halvdel (Copenhagen: Samleren, 2000), 159, 482.

[6] Book 2, Chapter 9, Article 8 of the Danish Lawbook ordained such handling of cases by the clergy for vices hard to prove in a court of law, including “abuse of intercourse”.

[7] Phallós. A Symbol and its History in the Male World (London, 1972).

[8] Wilhelm von Rosen, “Almost Nothing: Male–Male Sex in Denmark, 1550–1800” in Queer Masculinities, 1550-1800, edited by Katherine O’Dnnell and Michael O’Rourke (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) p. 85.

[9] The same criminal code was, however, also more repressive of sex with girls, raising their age of consent from the traditional 12.

[10] The magazines and films produced, largely by a company called COQ International, were legally and openly sold in other liberal countries such as the Netherlands, but in no other country were they legally made.

[11] Pan Magazine, IV (February 1980) 8.




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