Homosexuality in the ‘Enlightenment’?

By Nailya Shamgunova

Nailya is working on European conceptualisations of sexual diversity in South East Asia and Japan in the 17th century.

France was the first European state to repeal its sodomy laws as far back as 1791. The event, which is now hailed by LGBTQ+ groups as a landmark, at first glance seems like a culmination of a century of Enlightenment and reason in the midst of a Revolution proclaiming liberty. Is that the case? How enlightened was the Enlightenment on the issues of non-heteronormative sexuality?

Although there is a case to be made for greater social acceptance of various sexualities than one might imagine, actual defences of sodomy were few and far between. Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d, written in 1749 by Thomas Cannon, is thought to be the first polemical work in defence of sodomy in the English language.  Cannon conceptualised the act he was defending in pederastic terms, as desire of an older male for a younger one. He cites examples from classical history to support his point. Cannon was arrested and prosecuted for the book, and even John Cleland, a notorious author of pornographic novels, referred to Cannon’s work as ‘that filthy book’.

Despite the classical references, it is difficult to call Cannon’s work wholly a product of an ‘enlightenment’ culture. Jeremy Bentham’s unpublished 1780s essay Offences Against One’s Self, the only other major systematic defence of sodomy written in English in the 18th century, owes much more to the spirit of reason. Bentham (see image above) considered publishing his writings on sodomy under the title ‘Not Paul, but Jesus’, but if he ever had, he, in the words of a historian, ‘would have had no future in England’.[1]  Bentham argued for full decriminalization of homosexual acts on the basis of common sense, as the contemporary law was ‘as if a man made no distinction between concubinage and rape’.[2]

Classical references and reason were employed for defending sodomy before the Enlightenment as well. Although there were very few works of that kind, most of them do use classical examples to justify their position. A good example is Antonio Vignali’s La Cazzaria, sometimes anachronistically referred to as ‘the first gay novel’. Written in 1525 and circulated in manuscript in a limited form, it was composed in the form of a Platonic dialogue. It makes the case that ‘if nature had wanted men not to engage in buggery, she would not have made the experience so enjoyable; or she would have made it physiologically impossible’.[3] The dialogue ends with the main characters having sex, which is remarkable, as the real identities of the characters were well known in their social circles at the time.

Both earlier authors and Bentham invoked the notion of nature to defend sodomy. However, very few, if any, Enlightenment thinkers fell into this pattern. Despite the rationalism and anti-clericalism often associated with the leading Enlightenment thinkers, none of them embraced those principles in relation to sodomy. Voltaire argued that sodomy would lead to the extinction of the human race. He also did not acknowledge that classical societies endorsed same sex practices. Bentham’s response to that latter point was laconic: ‘if he does not believe it, it is because he likes not to believe it’.[4]

Conceptualisation of sodomy in classical terms and its defence on the basis of reason has much earlier roots than the 18th century, and in the 18th century itself the environment of the Enlightenment did not make those arguments any more socially acceptable.

Further Reading:

  • Hal Gladfelder, ’In Search of Lost Texts: Thomas Cannon’s Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d’, Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol 31, Number 1 (Winter, 2007).
  • N. S. Davidson, ‘Sodomy in Early Modern Venice’, in Sodomy in Early Modern Europe, edited by Tom Betteridge (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002), p 73; see the whole chapter for a discussion of pre-18th century Italian defences of sodomy.
  • Jeremy Bentham and Louis Crompton, ‘Offences Against One’s Self’, Journal of Homosexuality, 3:4 (1978).


[1] Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex. A History of the First Sexual Revolution (London, Penguin Books, 2012), p 136.

[2] Jeremy Bentham and Louis Crompton, ‘Offences Against One’s Self’, Journal of Homosexuality, 3:4 (1978), p 391.

[3] N. S. Davidson, Sodomy in Early Modern Venice, in Sodomy in early modern Europe, edited by Tom Betteridge (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002), p 73; see the whole chapter for a discussion of Rocco and Vignali.

[4] Ibid., p 393.

2 thoughts on “Homosexuality in the ‘Enlightenment’?

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost
  2. I’m amazed, I must say. Seldom do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy I came across this during my hunt for something regarding this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close