Jens Rydstrm. Sinners and Citizens: Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden, 1880-1950. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. xiv + 416 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-73256-5; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-73257-2.
Reviewed by Clayton Whisnant (Department of History, Wofford College)
Published on H-German (September, 2005)
From Sodomy to Homosexuality: Changing Paradigms in Sweden, 1880-1950
Jens Rydstrm's Sinners and Citizens is of major interest for three reasons. First, it provides a detailed account of the shift from an understanding of same-sex acts based on the ancient notion of sodomy to one organized around the more modern concept of homosexuality; moreover, it compares how this shift happened in both rural and urban areas, giving much evidence that the more modern understanding began in the cities and penetrated slowly afterwards into the countryside. Second, it does this for Sweden, a country about which there is amazingly little English-language literature with regards to homosexuality, despite the country's reputation for sexual tolerance. Third, in the book's discussion of the paradigm of sodomy, the author explores in tremendous detail the other major component of the paradigm, sex acts with animals. As Rydstrm notes, "Most authors who have written about sodomy have mentioned in passing that this concept could include a number of practices, among them bestiality, but they stop at that" (p. 7). And yet, the author argues, in order to fully understand the modern discourse on homosexuality, it is necessary to root out "the factors that lay behind the disappearance of this connection from the collective mind in the middle of the twentieth century" (p. 9).
Rydstrm takes 1880 as a starting point for his investigation since it is in this decade that there was an explosion of discussion about all sorts of sexual matters in Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia. As one might suspect, it was in the urban areas where one sees the most rapid and thorough changes as an effect of modern sexual discourses. These discourses, combined with the growth of urban homosexual subcultures in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, clearly created a greater tendency over time for individuals who committed sexual acts with other men to claim that they had an inborn disposition towards doing so. This was also apparently related--in a way that can not be entirely explained with Rydstrm's evidence--to the increasing tendency of such men to take on a feminine persona.
Some of the stories that come out of the urban context present a clear contrast with stories from rural areas. Here, even though there were men who clearly exhibited a long-standing inclination towards having sex with men, they generally insisted that they resorted to sex with other men because they had no other outlet or because their wives weren't responsive enough. The manner in which men justified their sexual activity is just one sign the author finds that modern discourses of sexuality had only slight impact on the countryside. Outside of large urban areas, the older sodomy paradigm continued to govern most people's perceptions of sexual acts with animals and between members of the same sex up until at least 1920.
In the countryside, Rydstrm comes across a phenomenon that others have noted about sexual attitudes in the pre-modern era. There is indisputable evidence of negative attitudes towards sexual acts that happen outside of the marriage union. Yet, in a way that seems nearly paradoxical to our modern mind, numerous opportunities for these very same sexual acts were afforded by a life not so thoroughly saturated by mechanisms of social control and discourses about sexuality as ours is today. This coexistence of ideological intolerance and tolerance in practice has been suggested by many who follow in the steps of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but never have I seen a work in which this co-existence is so well documented. Rydstrm presents numerous stories in which acts of bestiality and same-sex contact seem to arise almost inevitably out of a rural way of life. Society in the countryside, the author suggests, put most of its energy into controlling premarital sex between men and women. Other sexual activities were sometimes punished, but only when they could not be ignored. There was certainly no real effort made to prevent such activities. In this context, given the fact that men had to share beds frequently, it is not surprising that physical closeness and emotional intimacy would lead men sometimes to sexual contact. Similarly, it is also not hard to believe that men would turn to animals on occasion to vent sexual energies, and sometimes even seeking feelings of intimacy that were denied elsewhere. After all, many of these men had close, physical (and sometimes emotional) contact with animals on a daily basis, were regularly exposed to animals copulating, and indeed often had limited knowledge of sexuality outside of watching animals and listening to what older peers said on the subject.
Rural areas were not unaffected, though, by modern discourses of sexuality. Even though well into the twentieth century, bestiality cases continued to represent the majority of court cases involving sodomy in rural areas, the number of cases involving same-sex acts that came before the court grew dramatically just over the four decades between 1880 and 1920. This is largely explained by a gradual widening of the legal definition of sodomy used by courts to include acts beyond anal penetration (above all, mutual masturbation). Rydstrm does try to argue though (a little weakly perhaps, given limitations of evidence, but not in an entirely unconvincing manner) that this was the result of a rising tendency among the rural population itself to categorize homosexuality as a criminal matter, and not just as an eccentricity.
In the second part of the book, we find a story that is familiar to anyone who knows something about the general history of homosexuality in the twentieth-century. Gradually, the legal treatments of bestiality and homosexuality diverged: whereas bestiality was handled more and more leniently in the years leading up to its full decriminalization in Sweden in 1944, homosexuality became more vigorously policed and increasingly fell under the domain of psychiatry in the 1920s and 1930s. From the end of the 1930s on, there was a rapid shift towards basing the legal prosecution of homosexuality on the alleged dangers posed to young boys; this continued to be a deep concern for many even after the Swedish government decriminalized homosexual acts between adults in 1944. In the cities and larger towns, the homosexual subculture expanded, and extensive social networks of gay men crystallized. Increasingly, both developments also affected rural areas, as the once vast gulf between the village and city began to narrow, and better methods of transportation and communication allowed for more social contact between these areas.
The majority of the book deals with male sexuality. Even though female homosexuality was also technically criminalized, for most of the period the paradigm of sodomy (based originally on penetration) made it difficult to apply to lesbian sexuality. Rydstrm does take the final chapter of the book, though, to look at evidence of female homosexuality across the entire period of the book. Like gay men, he finds, women who desired other women had their lives radically affected by the modern literature on the subject and the rise of the sexual reform movement.
Rydstrm's book is a valuable addition to our knowledge about sodomy, male homosexuality, and the impact of modern discourses about sexuality on people's lives. His biggest accomplishment is laying out the many ways that bestiality and same-sex contact were linked not only in people's minds, but also sometimes in practice. One great story relates how two teenage friends had developed a relationship based around sexual experimentation and play, which involved both sex with animals and with each other. I have some small reservations about the author's theoretical discussion in the introduction. Is it really necessary, I wonder, to make a distinction between paradigms--by which he means underlying patterns that set "limits to the possible interpretations of an empirical observation"--and discourses--which he defines as "a flow of talk and actions determining the boundaries for licit and illicit behavior" (pp. 14-15)? Most scholars who use either of these two concepts would no doubt contend that both kinds of activity must be related in a way that is difficult to explore by using two distinct concepts. This being said, I do not think this theoretical problem really impacts his study. Above all, it is the combination of fascinating, often moving, stories and sophisticated analysis that makes this book a must-read for anyone interested in homosexuality or male sexuality in general between 1880 and 1950.
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Clayton Whisnant. Review of Rydstrm, Jens, Sinners and Citizens: Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden, 1880-1950.
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