Ariticles on the subject of diverstiy.

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Note by HealthWrights staff

A number of important points are made in this fine review of Ethan Watters' book: That our simplistic, reductionist ideas about “mental health” are perhaps disease producing. That when big multinationals get into the act, profit trumps all other concerns and values. That diversity is connected to health. The number of people in prisons plus the number of people in mental hospitals provides a good indication of the general health of a society. By this criteria we should not be exporting our culture. Rather we should be learning from those who have a more holistic and humanistic understanding of mental health.

From Karen Franklin's Blog on forensic psychology and criminology, In The News.

A successful virus is adaptive. It evolves as needed to survive and colonize new hosts. By this definition, contemporary American psychiatry is a very successful virus. Exploiting cracks that emerge in times of cultural transition, it exports DSM depression to Japan and posttraumatic stress disorder to Sri Lanka.

Journalist Ethan Watters masterfully evokes the heady admixture of moral certainty and profit motive that drives U.S. clinicians and pharmaceutical companies as they evangelically push Western psychiatry around the globe. On the ground in Sri Lanka following the tsunami, for example, hordes of Western counselors hit the ground running, aggressively competing for access to a native population "clearly in denial" about the extent of their trauma. Backing up the foot soldiers are corporations like Pfizer, eager to market the antidepressant Zoloft to a virgin population.

Watters has done his homework. Each of his four examples of DSM-style disorders being introduced around the world is rich in historical and cultural context. Despite their divergences, each successful expansion hinges on the mutual faith of both the colonizers and the colonized that Western approaches represent the pillar of scientific progress.

It is ironic that Americans are so smugly assured of the superiority of our cultural beliefs and practices, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Do we really want others to emulate a country with skyrocketing levels of emotional distress, where jails and prisons are the primary sites of mental health care? Does our simplistic cultural metaphor of mental illness as a "chemical imbalance, " with human minds reduced to "a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowls of our skulls," represent true enlightenment?

Our implicit condescension is made explicit if we imagine the converse, one of Watters' interview subjects points out: "Imagine our reaction if Mozambicans flew over after 9/11 and began telling survivors that they needed to engage in a certain set of rituals in order to sever their relationships with their deceased family members. How would that sit with us?"

Not only is our missionary zeal condescending, it may be harmful. Watters provides evidence to suggest that the "hyperintrospective" and "hyperindividualist" model of Western psychiatry can be destabilizing to time-worn, tried-and-true indigenous healing practices, in some cases even producing the problems we naively believe we are combating.

"What is certain," Watters cautions in his conclusion, "is that in other places in the world, cultural conceptions of the mind remain more intertwined with a variety of religious and cultural beliefs as well as the ecological and social world. They have not yet separated the mind from the body, nor have they disconnected individual mental health from that of the group. With little appreciation of these differences, we continue our efforts to convince the rest of the world to think like us. Given the level of contentment and psychological health our cultural beliefs about the mind have brought us, perhaps it's time that we rethink our generosity."

Perhaps it is already too late to turn back the tide. Thanks to the exportation of Western diet and lifestyle, 19 out of 20 inhabitants of the tiny island of Nauru in the Pacific Islands are now obese. Previously hardy islanders are stroking out in their 20s and 30s. The globalization of the American psyche is more insidious, but perhaps in the end it will prove equally catastrophic.

Reading Crazy Like Us left me with a nightmare image of a homogeneous future world with McDonald's and Starbucks (see my review of Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture) on every corner, obesity gone wild, and Western psychiatry reigning supreme

A Tough Weed To Uproot

An examination of the practice of scapegoating

(Painting – William Holman Hunt’s 1854 painting “The Scapegoat.”)

In the year 1350 AD the black plague struck France. The mortality rate varied from place to place from around an eighth to two thirds of the population. Often whole families or towns were wiped out. It was the worst catastrophe the world had ever seen. The terror that people naturally felt in the face of such a calamity was intensified by their absolute helplessness to do anything relevant about it.

In order to gain a sense of mastery over an uncontrollable situation, people need a theory about what is going wrong and a strategy for correcting the problem. The theory that the Christian community in France came up with was that the Jews caused the plague. A French poet by the name of Gauillaume De Machaut expressed the consensus of the people of the time in his description of the events:

After that came a false, treacherous and contemptible swine: this was shameful Israel, the wicked and disloyal who hated good and loved everything evil, who gave so much gold and silver and promises to Christians, who then poisoned several rivers and fountains that had been clear and pure so that many lost their lives; for whoever used them died suddenly. Certainly ten times one hundred thousand died from it, in country and in city.(Girard, P. 2)

So there we have the 14th century theory of the plague. The Jews were poisoning the water. It should be noted that Guillaume interprets this as a defiling of what is pure, and this, of course, was how he understood the effect of the Jews in general. They defiled the purity of the dominant community.

When God made it clear to the Christians that the Jews were poisoning the water, the strategy for dealing with this was obvious. Without a shred of shame, Guillaume describes the chosen solution:

Then every Jew was destroyed, some hanged, others burned; some were drowned, others beheaded with an ax or sword. And many Christians died together with them in shame. (Girard, Ibid.)

The Christians who died with them in shame were those who collaborated or sympathized with the Jews.

Guillaume’s narrative is offered as a justification for the slaughter of the Jews. It is a sobering thought that the Christians who participated in the slaughter of the Jews in the middle of the 14th century genuinely believed that they were acting on behalf of purity, decency and goodness. Gauillaume’s justification of the slaughter becomes for us a cautionary tale. It suggests that the great collective atrocities of humanity were generally motivated by a profound sense of righteousness – often accompanied with the conviction that the gods themselves ordained the unspeakable cruelty inflicted on others. One must especially beware the idea of “purity.” An immeasurable amount of pointless suffering has been perpetrated on people in defense of that dubious ideal.

Almost anyone would see in the events described above a classical example of scapegoating. It is my intention in this article to explore the nature of scapegoating – its definition, its dynamics, its prevalence, and its cure. We can begin with a dictionary definition. Merriam Webster defines the scapegoat in the following way:

1: a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur 2 a: one that bears the blame for others b : one that is the object of irrational hostility

The relevant Jewish scripture is Leviticus, 16, 7-10:

And he [Aaron] shall take the two goats, and present them before the lord, at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.

Here we have something a bit different than the example with which we began. In this ceremony the goat is understood to be innocent, and is chosen randomly. The sins which belong to the people of Israel are projected onto the goat, which is then driven out of the community, into the wilderness to wander until he dies. Here the persecutor understands that he is guilty and the the scapegoat is innocent. This is a more conscious form of scapegoating, and is for that reason less lethal. Only a goat ends up being sacrificed.

The psychiatrist, Saul Scheidlinger, examines the nature of scapegoating in groups of children. He suggests that discussions about scapegoating in the past may not have been as productive as one might wish because it is “depicted in such a loose and varied fashion as to preclude an adequate understanding of what is involved.” (Scheidlinger, pg. 136). He offers the following definition:

In psycho dynamic terms, scapegoating constitutes a group defensive manifestation, a shared fantasy or act, designed to deal with unacceptable emotions, such as hostility, sexuality and guilt.

In this definition he emphasizes some dimensions of scapegoating that I believe are crucial. It is a social process that is aimed at defending a group from a perceived danger. Shared fantasies are understood to play a central role in this process. Scheidlinger would limit the use of the term “scapegoating” to situations where the aim is to get rid of unacceptable emotions. I feel that his definition is unnecessarily narrow at this point. The dangers, real or imagined, against which groups attempt to defend themselves are quite diverse. However, it seems to me that in many cases which appear quite different on the surface, we can discern a common thread that justifies our intuitive sense that we are dealing with a single fundamental dynamic. I have tried to capture what I believe that common thread is in the following definition:

Scapegoating is a strategy used by a group to ward off real or imagined threats to its integrity and safety by imputing an irrational degree of blame for the dangerous circumstances to an individual member or subgroup, which is then attacked and ostracized.

There are five essential elements in this definition which need some clarification.

  • First, scapegoating is a social strategy, not simply a matter of one individual blaming another one for something, and it must be understood in terms of group concerns and dynamics.

  • Second, scapegoating is always focused on a real or imagined threat to the group. The wide variety of dangers that might be at issue is what gives rise to the feeling that we may not be dealing with a single phenomenon at all. The danger may have to do with forbidden or stigmatized ways of feelings that threaten the identity of the group and its members, and must therefore be disowned through projecting them onto a scapegoat. The threat may have to do with interpersonal hostilities that threaten the cohesion of the group. It may be that forces of change or social evolution threaten the group by bringing into question its identity or coping mechanisms . The group may be threatened by a plague, or by an external enemy, or simply by a humiliating event. Granted these are very different kinds of danger, but if the way of dealing with these threats involves projection, irrational blame, and an attack on the individual or group blamed, with an ultimate aim of casting him or her out, then I think we dealing with variations on a common dynamic that can very appropriately be called scapegoating.

  • Third, there is a degree of irrationality in the degree of blame that is cast on the person or group chosen to be scapegoated. This is not to say that the scapegoat is always innocent. There may be something the scapegoat does that draws the fire. The scapegoat may even do something that is objectively a threat or a problem to the larger group. Or the scapegoat may be quite innocent. For the phenomenon to qualify as “scapegoating” there must simply be an exaggerated or unrealistic assessment of how dangerous and guilty the scapegoat is, and as a consequence, an overreaction to the situation.

  • Fourth, in scapegoating we always find a degree of demonization. The scapegoat is not quite fully human in the eyes of the scapegoaters.

  • Fifth, the ultimate aim of the scapegoating is to cast out the evil through ostracizing the scapegoat. He or she must be driven into the desert. In these days the desert is likely to be a prison or a mental hospital. Or perhaps it takes the form of deportation. In many cases it is simply a matter of quiet ostracism. The common dynamic is simply that the group rids itself of the perceived threat to its existence or wellbeing by driving the scapegoated person or group into the desert.

As a social way of dealing with a danger, scapegoating is driven by a shared theory of what makes things go wrong, and what needs to be done to protect the threatened group. This theory begins with the sense that we are sustained by an order of things which is ordained by the gods or by a single supreme deity. Things go wrong – plagues occur, fire rains down from the sky, the crops are destroyed by drought, the social order falls into chaos, the enemies overrun our borders, the economy fails etc. – because people act in such a way as to violate this ordained pattern of how things should be. Women wear men’s clothes. Slaves ask for a say in things. The races intermarry. Ordinary people try to preform priestly tasks. Boys grow long hair. The flag is trampled underfoot. The rituals are neglected. The mores that have been passed down through the generations are ignored. And because of this, to use Yates imagery from “The Second Coming,”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

The specifics vary from culture to culture, but any deviation from the the established order and the expected pattern of behavior will always be a source of anxiety. Order and specifically the status quo – is established by divinity and disregarding it will bring down the retribution of the gods.

The enemy with which the collective theory of scapegoating is concerned is always within the city walls. He is the foreigner or the minority that we have permitted to live within our borders. He is the eccentric within our town. He is the disobedient son within our house. He is the rebellious impulse within our own soul. He is whoever or whatever that is rebelling against the mandated order. The inner enemy always has the capacity to defile – to destroy the purity of the collective self. He or she must be therefore be excluded from the rest of the population. Excluding the enemy when they other people is fairly easy. Other people can simply be burned, hanged or beheaded, as in our first example. Or in more civilized times they can be sent to prison, expelled from the country or simply ostracized. But if we are dealing with an enemy that is lodged in our own souls it is a far graver matter. If the structure of our desire is not what the gods ordain, what then? This structure of desire must be projected onto a scapegoat who is then driven into the wilderness.

In Jungian terms, a structure of desire which is not socially acceptable, and which is consequently a source of embarrassment, shame and guilt when we become aware of it, becomes the kernel around which the shadow develops. The shadow is all that is within us that we consider unacceptable. It includes weaknessas well as disgusting or unacceptable wishes. The shadow may be so common as to take on a collective aspect. The boy masturbating under his covers to some delicious fantasy is the shadow of the little upstanding citizen sitting obediently in church or waving his hand in the air at school to gain recognition by answering the teacher’s question. This, of course, is a shadow common to all boys. When scapegoating is concerned with disowning unacceptable feelings, it will always concern feelings that are sufficiently common to warrant collective action.

The dynamics of scapegoating may be embodied in rituals that take place on a regular basis in a community. After all, we are always violating the mandates of the gods, in our desires if nowhere else. But whenever a people finds itself in a crisis – whether it be a plague, an economic disaster, a humiliating situation, a political danger, or a social upheaval – the dynamics of scapegoating will tend to be especially intense, uncompromising, and lethal. This disaster is coming upon us because we are impure. It becomes an urgent matter that we purify ourselves inwardly to prepare ourselves to meet the enemy.

In the Jewish scripture one finds this theory of why things go wrong articulated quite clearly. But they were not unique. An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica points out that “in ancient Greece, human scapegoats (pharmakos) were used to mitigate a plague or other calamity or even to prevent such ills. The Athenians chose a man and woman for the festival of Thargelia. After being feasted, the couple was led around the town, beaten with green twigs, driven out of the city, and possibly even stoned. In this way the city was supposedly protected from ill fortune for another year.” (”scapegoat” Encyclopedia Britannica)

In Sophocles Oedipus, it is noteworthy that the play opens with a plague in the city of Thebes, which was apparently caused by the unintended impiety of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. The scapegoat that Oedipus must find and drive into the wilderness is the murderer of the former king, Laius. This of course, turns out to be Oedipus himself. All the themes we have identified as underlying the scapegoat theory of why things go wrong are included here. We have a catastrophe, the plague, brought on by impiety. And this catastrophe can be cured only by identifying the guilty one, and driving him from the city into the wilderness to die.

We have already shown the scapegoat theory of catastrophes was operative in 14th century Christian culture. In “The Golden Bough” Frazer gave numerous examples of scapegoat myths and ritual practices from a wide variety of cultures (Frazer). The human sacrifice that the Aztecs preformed would be an well known example. A particularly egregious modern example with which the reader will undoubtedly be familiar would be the scapegoating of the Jews, Gypsies, mentally ill, mentally retarded, and homosexuals in Hitler’s Germany. We would appear to have another example in Stalin’s treatment of political dissonants as Russia’s primary scapegoats. The functional equivalent of the “will of the gods” in Russia at this time was “the inevitable unfolding of History.” It was this dynamic that created the infamous gulags. Indeed, the evidence is that every civilization that has ever existed has endorsed what we are calling the scapegoat theory of catastrophes. In broad outline this theory entails the following beliefs:

  • catastrophes are caused by people or groups who defile the collective life with some kind of impurity.

  • These impurities lead to catastrophes because they offend the gods by deviating from the divinely sanctioned order of things. They are not “natural.”

  • The means to protect the community from the threatened catastrophe is to purge the community of its impure elements.

I am not suggesting that these beliefs are clearly articulated in the minds of those who carry out the scapegoating functions of a society. But if we listen to the talk, and read the writings, of those who are justifying their attacks on scapegoats, we can discern an underlying understanding of why things go wrong and what must therefore be done. It is this implicit belief system that underpins the understanding of life that leads to scapegoating. I have simply tried to make explicit in the three points listed above.

Both the dynamics and the beliefs associated with scapegoating are well illustrated by an example from 19th century Europe. Throughout the greatest portion of that century a peculiar and hard to explain moral panic about masturbation dominated the minds and behavior of people and led to a variety of dysfunctional counter-measures. Doctors, educators, and the clergy were in agreement on the subject. Masturbation caused a huge variety of mental and physical misfortunes, ranging from insanity to almost any physical illness or disability one could name. It was a sin against God, and threatened to cause the degeneration of the species. Given what was at stake, no measures to deal with the matter were too extreme.

The opinions of Monsignor Dupanloup, an educator and the head of a prosperous school for boys, were typical of the times. He described masturbation as as being “like a plague.” ““Professors, Directors, Superiors,”” he wrote, ““open your eyes and be vigilant! For there is the enemy, the formidable enemy: if it penetrates, if it enters, it will devastate your house, it will destroy everything, it will pile victims upon victims, dead bodies upon dead bodies.”

Given the seriousness of this crime, it was natural that Dupanloup recommended “an immediate and merciless repression” of the practice whenever a boy was caught. Otherwise this “horrible wound will spread and ravage everything.” He boasts that he “once had to advise the head of an establishment that the evil had invaded, to send home sixty nine students; he did it, and saved his house; and it is today one of the largest and most prosperous educational establishment in France.” ( Stengers, pgs. 4 and 5). One suspects that if they actually had caught and expelled every student who was guilty of the practice, they would not have remained one of the largest educational establishments in France for long.

Dupenloup’s school was threatened by an act that violated the divine decree. The sinful ones,– the masturbators, defiled the entire school by their private acts, and were seen as a threat to civilization itself. I suspect that the underlying threat that the warriors against masturbation were struggling with had to do with a cultural upheaval. The authoritarian, patriarchal and puritan understanding of life was losing its grip – its strangle hold if you will on society. The child’s most common expression of sexuality became the battle field for this struggle. The end of civilization as the Dupenloups of the world understood it was, in fact, inevitable. And of course, the solution, the expulsion of the polluters, was typical of the scapegoating dynamic.

A very important aspect of scapegoating can be seen in this example. Scapegoating prevents learning. The scapegoaters cannot learn because they think they already know. There is no need to listen to the scapegoats. Indeed, to do so would be to expose themselves to polluting thoughts. If they had listened to the boys I am sure the good doctors and educators of the time would have learned that these boys “abused themselves” because it felt good and because it comforted them in a world that was often lonely and harsh. Or if they had been able to listen in at an adult masturbators anonymous group they would have learned that none of the dire consequences that were predicted to flow from masturbation actually came to pass. But, as always, the narratives of the scapegoats were excluded from the public discourse. And two centuries after this moral panic got under way, we have still not learned. Not many years ago, Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General of the United States lost her job for the modest proposal that masturbation be mentioned in the public school’s health curriculum. Still it too shameful a thing to mention.

As one closely observes the dynamics of scapegoating, a peculiar ambivalence toward the scapegoat is frequently noticed. This may be in part because the scapegoat is perceived as being very powerful. After all, he or she has the capacity to pollute the collective life of a whole group. Because of this power, the scapegoat may also have the capacity to bring healing.

But there may be a deeper cause for the ambivalence that is felt about the scapegoat. The scapegoat is a shadow figure. There is a peculiar ambiguity about the shadow. The shadow may represent simply that which we don’t find attractive about ourselves, or that which must realistically be kept under control if we are to live in a civilized manner. But the shadow may also contain energies, impulses, and longings that have been rejected by a rigid, arbitrary or puritanical consciousness that does not understand the requirements of wholeness. In this case the shadow figure comes to represent exactly that which must be incorporated into conscious and social life if wholeness is to be regained, or if the the evolution of consciousness is to continue. In this case the shadow figure may indeed threaten the status quo, but do so as a prerequisite for ushering in a new individual and collective way being in the world. In this case the shadow figure, who is at first persecuted, and then scapegoated, eventually becomes the healer or the savior. This is the guiding myth of the synoptic gospels. Understood in this way, the Christian story is truly a redemptive myth.

The brutal persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire is one of the best known examples of scapegoating. It is ironic that groups who have been subjected to scapegoating when they are politically weak sometimes become ruthless scapegoaters when they gain power. The practices of Christians during the Inquisition of the 14th and 15th centuries AD were as cruel as anything Rome ever perpetrated during its time of dominance. Women who were believed to be witches were targeted along with anyone suspected of heresy. So many women were tortured and executed during this time for being “witches” that it has been justifiably referred to by some historians as the “women’s holocaust.” But numbers sometimes make us numb. Perhaps the horror that the practice of scapegoating can create in people’s lives can best be captured in a specific incident. Here is the letter of Rebeca Lent, who was caught in the lethal net of the Inquisition in 1590 A.D.

Oh, Husband, They are taking me from thee by force. How can God suffer it? My heart is nearly broken. Alas, alas! My poor dear children, orphans. Husband, send me something that I may die or I must expire under torture. If thow canst not today, then tomorrow. Write to me directly. RL

Whether we are dealing with a child being tormented and ostracized by his or her peers because of some perceived and unacceptable difference, or with whole nations purging themselves of those individuals and groups who are perceived to threaten their wellbeing, scapegoating produces a huge amount of suffering and solves very little. It is a form of darkness that humanity can ill afford if it is to find its way out of the quagmire of endless war and violence that now threatens its very existence. That scapegoating is not a good way to solve problems is so obvious that it hardly seems to merit saying. Still, it is perhaps worth while to spell out some of the specific disadvantages of scapegoating:

  • It stands in the way of learning and understanding and thereby blocks real solutions.

  • It enables the persecutor to refuse responsibility for his or her own shadow – which can then act out unconsciously at will.

  • It is unnecessarily cruel and inhuman toward the victim.

  • The community’s possibilities for growth toward wholeness are lost.

If the practice of scapegoating is so destructive to both individuals and society, we must ask ourselves, why then is it such a tough weed to uproot? There are two reasons for this. First, scapegoating is invisible to the persecutors. Modern people may be more sophisticated than Guillaume who provided us with the example with which we began. We can easily see through the beliefs that led to his condoning the persecution of the Jews. Yet our sophistication may at times simply enable us to be more sophisticated in deceiving ourselves. Scapegoaters genuinely believe that they are assessing in a realistic manner the guilt of the scapegoats. They do not believe, therefore, that they are scapegoating. It is this unconsciousness that makes the scapegoating invisible to the one doing it. As Girard says, ““those in our day who are the most proficient in discovering other people’s scapegoats, and God knows we are past masters at this, are never able to recognize their own. ... We have only legitimate enemies. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.”” (Girard, pg. 41.)

The other reason scapegoating is so hard to uproot is that it is overdetermined. It serves many social functions, some of which have already been touched upon:

  • It provides a theory and a remedy that enables people to conquer feelings of helplessness when groups are faced with problems that seem overwhelming.

  • It enables people to disown unwanted feelings or attributes.

  • It provides a community with boundaries and identity.

  • It provides a common enemy and thereby facilitates group cohesion.

  • It enables groups to neutralize interpersonal and inter-group. hostilities by displacing them onto an agreed upon scapegoat.

  • It enables people to repair an injured self esteem or overcome a stigmatized social status by pushing someone else down.

  • It allows the leaders of a country or a group to distract its members from problems and issues that they do not want people to examine too closely.

  • It provides employment and status to members of the bureaucracy that grows up around it.

A weed that provides so many benefits is a hard one to uproot even if it poisons our individual and collective lives and may ultimately be fatal to humanity.

Because it is so difficult to see the forms of scapegoating practiced by our own groups or nation, it is well to take note of some of the signs that the process is alive and well in the groups to which we are loyal. Otherwise we might ourselves be deceived. Whenever one sees in the press the use of a language that demonizes a group of people, that, by itself, is an almost sure sign that society is once again attempting to solve its problems by scapegoating. I say this for a simple reason. Whatever social norms people have violated, whatever characteristics they may have or be imputed to have, however they may threaten us or our loved ones in reality or in our imaginations, people are not monsters or demons. Nothing human is foreign to any of us.

Another almost sure sign of scapegoating is the refusal to hear the stories of any individual or group of people. Their narratives are not published in the mass media. Often virtually nothing is published anywhere that gives an honest are realistic picture of who the people in a despised group really are. People say, “I just cannot understand why” this or that person or group did something. In reality this statement does not reflect so much an inability to understand, as a refusal. It is a refusal to hear and to learn and thereby to have ones assumptions challenged. We refuse to understand because we need demons. No person we understand remains a demon in our eyes.

Scapegoating is grounded in judgment rather than in understanding. When scapegoating is going on, the talk takes on the shrill and sometimes hysterical tone of indignation and self-righteousness. Often a religious language is invoked to justify the condemnation of the demonized person or group. Frequently one hears the language of purification.

We would like to think that “we” – all of us in the the group or nation with which we identify – have put such primitive practices behind us. We could never be like the Germans in their persecution of the Jews, the gypsies, the mentally retarded, homosexuals and the mentally ill during WWII. We have enemies, but not scapegoats.

In the United States today our primary enemy is the terrorist. Surely we can all agree that terrorists are monsters. One has only to look what they do. They kill innocent people for political goals. Well, the terrorist does, in fact, kill people for political advantage. I would be the last person to condone this. But it is not true that they are monsters who are beyond our understanding. Very human reasons, that we could readily understand if we took the trouble to hear their stories, have brought the people we call terrorists to the point where they see no alternative other than violence. Human motivations are almost always understandable, and usually more easily so than we pretend. We choose not to understand. This commitment to not understanding requires at least as much energy and effort as understanding. But we have two strong reasons for this refusal. First, looking objectively at the situation may lead to the realization that in some cases the terrorist, and the group he or she represents, is in fact a victim of our collective actions. We do not wish to look at this. Second, the mechanism of projecting our own collective ruthlessness onto the terrorist helps us avoid seeing that we too kill innocent people in the pursuit of political goals. It is estimated, for example, that the U.S-supported sanctions against Iraq between 1990 and the second gulf war resulted in the deaths of about a half a million people – predominantly children.

Is there any hope for uprooting this weed that crowds out so many good things that could be happening between us? What is the cure for scapegoating? As we think about strategies for reducing the amount of scapegoating that takes place in the world, it is important to begin with the understanding that the one doing the scapegoating is also not a monster. We must not allow ourselves to demonize the scapegoater. He or she genuinely wants to do what is good and is no more a monster than is the scapegoated person. The novel “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink brought this point home to me more vividly than anything else I have read. Hanna, one of the two main characters in the novel, worked in a concentration camp at one point in her life, and is guilty of a terrible crime. Neither the profound evil of the concentration camp, nor the enormity of Hanna’s specific crime is minimized. Yet she is a very human and understandable person, and capable of real love.

There is a Gary Larson cartoon sequence in which a mob is confronting the sheriff at the jail. They want to lynch the man inside. The Sheriff holds them off for them for a while, but then gives in. “Well, all right,” he says. “But this is the last time.” Many people would agree that it is not a good idea to demonize people. Yet perhaps we all cling to that one exception – the one person or group who in our minds we would willingly allow to be lynched. This may be our biggest stumbling block. Perhaps the scapegoaters are right on at least this one point: in order to struggle against the enemy in this case the practice of scapegoating – in an effective manner we must begin by cleansing our inner household.

The demonization of human beings is the linchpin of all scapegoating processes. Therefore we must attack the process of demonization wherever it is found. Whatever group or person it is who is being demonized, they are human beings. These people are more like us than they are different from us. They are understandable even if we do not agree with them. This is the message we must get out. Perhaps the most effective manner of countering the demonization of people is to make their stories available. Those being scapegoated must be permitted to tell their own stories in their own way. If they do so honestly, and if their accounts are read with an open mind, they will be recognized as human. The stories of past scapegoating scandals are always popular, but every society refuses to publish the stories of its current scapegoats in a realistic manner.

In every situation where it is possible, the dynamics of scapegoating must be uncovered and revealed for what they are. In this way we work to usher in the day when we are able to extricate ourselves from this quagmire – when we will stop demonizing one another, when we will seek to understand rather than judge and condemn, and when we will listen to one another’s stories with respect. Then we will begin to realize that we have everything to learn from one another.


Frazer, R. The Golden Bough. [Vol 5] London, Macmillan and co., 1911. Girard, Rene. The Scapegoat. Baltimore; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Scheidlinger, Saul. “Presidential Address: On Scapegoating in Group Psychotherapy.” International Journal of Group Psychotherapy. 32, 1982, PP 131-142.

Stengers, Jean, and Van Neck, Anne (translated by Hoffman, Cathryn). Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror. Palgrave, 2001.

Scapegoat. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved November 15, 2003, from Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service.


Painting by Franz Marc
When I was very small, I believed that I owned a ranch with horses of many different colors. When I was a little older and saw horses painted by Franz Mark, I was amazed. They looked just like mine. Perhaps even at that early age I understood that diversity should be celebrated – not just tolerated. (HealthWrights staff)


The Connection With Health

By and large people are fairly decent to others whom they perceive to be similar to themselves – especially to other people who belong to the same nation, class or group that they do. It is usually the outsider – the one who is different – who is singled out for attack. The difference may be one of race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality. Perhaps it is a matter of “mental illness” or retardation, or of some shameful stigma. Groups within the culture who do not allow themselves to be assimilated into the mainstream – the wandering Jew, or the Gypsy – are often targets of the righteous indignation of the mainstream. Diversity can be a source of pain and unnecessary suffering for individuals and communities. But this need not be so. From an ecological perspective we learn that diversity is actually a source of resilience and health in biological systems. In human social systems too, it can be a source of health.


Key Issues

“Southern Comfort,” a documentary film on transsexuals, ends with Lola reflecting on the hostility she and her friends have experienced from the straight community. “What a curious thing to be uptight about,” she says. “Nature delights in diversity. Why don’t human beings?” It’s a good question. The ecological perspective teaches us that a diverse natural environment is a healthy one. Perhaps the same is true of social environments. Yet people spend a great deal of time and energy persecuting various beliefs, personality types, and life styles simply because they are different.

Our thinking about identity is dominated by what might be called “identity templates.” These are more or less stereotypical images of various categories of people – the dumb blond, the cowboy truck-driver, the intellectual, the red neck, the good Christian, the patriot, the sophisticate, the outlaw, and so on. These templates are normative, and are powerful instruments of social control. It is good to be seen as fitting into the more esteemed templates. Conversely, it can be disastrous if one is identified as fitting into a denigrated category.

Dalit Children
Which patterns are best to emulate or to avoid is to some extent determined by the sub-culture to which one belongs. But virtually everybody goes to some trouble to try to mold his or her behavior and appearance into conformity with at least one desired template.

A lot of very influential identity templates are connected with sexual desires and behaviors. The various people portrayed in the “Southern Comfort” documentary grew up being aware that society imposed a hierarchy of identity templates over the biological facts of life. They were also aware of a conflict between their inner experience of themselves and the demands of the templates that they were expected to emulate. The surgical procedures that they sought out, the hormones that they took and the patterns of behavior that brought them into conflict with their families and with society were efforts to resolve this conflict.

The cross-gendered people that were portrayed in “Southern Comfort” were determined to be faithful to their inner sense of who they were. They were willing to risk social censure and other difficulties in life in order to affirm the person they felt themselves to be. I admired them for this and was deeply moved by their struggles. At the same time I wondered whether they were not still trapped to some degree within the identity templates that had been such a problem for them.

Those who felt themselves to be “women trapped in men’s bodies” went to great pains to conform to the dominant identity template for women. They tried to act like women, look like women, and have the classical experiences that women are supposed to have. They even struggled to conform their bodies to the woman template – which was never a wholly satisfactory procedure. And the “men trapped in women’s bodies” did the same in reverse.

Suppose that either boys or girls could wear jewelry, play baseball, cuddle dolls, put on colorful clothes, play with trucks, cry, or assert themselves aggressively. In that case we could possibly move beyond the templates themselves. All people could simply be whatever they experienced themselves to be, and could enjoy residing in whatever body they happened to be born into.

Connections With Other Topics


One of the basic messages that has emerged from ecological studies is that diversity is good – that it provides a rich, flexible and stable foundation for the development of all life. Our understanding of diversity in our social lives is broadened and deepened by bringing to it an ecological perspective.


The issue of diversity is closely connected with education. As the song from the musical “South Pacific” says “You have to be taught to hate.” It is important that in schools children learn that to have respect for oneself, ones ethnic group, and ones country need not entail denigrating people who are different, other ethnic groups or other countries.

Humanizing Institutions

We will also be challenging the social forms that are created to deal with discredited minorities. For more information about the kinds of institutions that tend to be created for devalued minorities, the reader is directed to the “Humanizing Institutions” section. In that section, the idea of labeling theory is especially pertinent. We are also concerned that everybody in our society – even those who have been demonized – should have access to the media – and that they should be able to tell their stories there.

Human Rights

We are challenging the whole idea that some categories of people should be accorded less social status than others. This idea is behind many of the issues that come up around the question of human rights - especially minority rights. The points made by David Werner in his article with regard to those with physical disabilities, in his article People with disabilities in the struggle for social change are applicable to any minority group.

What Can Be Done?

What then, can one person do to create a social environment that is more hospitable to diversity? All of us have aspects of our identity that would place us in a less esteemed social template if people knew more about us. Very likely we are we ashamed of these aspects of who we are. If so, that’s where to begin. The pros and cons of whether or not we wish to allow potentially discrediting information about ourselves made known need to be carefully weighed. But at least we should begin trying to uproot the shame that we privately experience because of our differences. Perhaps we could reach out to someone who shares this difference. In the opposite direction, perhaps we could learn about a person or group that really is quite different from us, and then perhaps communicate with them. Maybe we could even come to understand them. This would help us examine and perhaps expand our own capacity for accepting and celebrating diversity. This sort of reaching out is encouraged by Vicki Robin in the article “Lets Talk America.” Finally one might want to pick a specific issue having to do with diversity and become politically active with a group working in that area.


The question asked by Lola about why human beings don’t love diversity is not an easy one to answer. Of course this lack of love has to do with fear. That points us in the direction of an answer. But what is the nature of this fear? In the article “A Tough Weed to Uproot,” which is on scapegoating, some of the consequences of this fear are explored. But the nature of this fear needs more careful examination. Rather than scapegoat the scapegoaters, we need to try to understand them. Then perhaps we will find ways to allay the fears that drive them to do such terrible things. Because of the current conditions in society it is necessary to focus on “tolerance” for differences and on human rights for minorities. But it is time for us to move beyond tolerance and the legal protections for minorities. Diversity should be celebrated – not just tolerated. It is a source of joy, beauty and creativity in life.


Vermin inherit the Earth

Vermin inherit the Earth

by Michael Nenonen <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >, 2005.02.20

Vermin of every description have been hunted with the intent of stamping them out. But they always survive, and in the 

process, offer us important lessons about how we can, too.

Photo by Danny Chapman

One morning not long ago I saw rats rooting beneath a garbage bin in my neighbourhood. My immediate response was to scowl and stiffen. After all, these were the ambassadors of sewers and cemeteries, reminders that death and disease hold ultimate dominion even in the land of lotus-eaters. God, I thought, isn’t it enough that our world’s burning down? Do we have to watch vermin swarming at the edge of the blaze?

It was with such thoughts in mind that I came upon a scientific article about our earliest mammalian ancestor. Eomaia, who lived around 125 million years ago, and was a furry, four-legged creature about ten centimetres long, not counting its tail. It turns out that five million generations ago we looked a whole lot like rats ourselves.

Eomaia’s descendants survived the fires that consumed the dinosaurs’ empire. Over the course of aeons, mammals filled many of the ecological niches these titans had abandoned. They were like arks, carrying precious genetic potentials from one world into the next.

Could the vermin of our age be the inheritors of the age to come? Is it too much to imagine that in the distant future the descendants of today’s vermin might fill the ecological niches once inhabited by whales and bears, wolves and apes? I happen to like whales and bears, wolves and apes, and I’m worried that they’ll become extinct within a century or two. The idea that vermin may someday evolve into similar creatures is comforting. In the long run, vermin may well be the servants of life, not death.

So, maybe it’s time to reconsider our attitude towards vermin. In doing so, we’d also have to reconsider how we treat each other.

Human beings have a long history of labelling marginalised groups “vermin” and trying to exterminate them either through outright murder or by pressuring them to abandon their cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles. Very often, the people tagged with this label have proven to be the bearers of ethical potentials desperately needed by the larger society. During Rome’s decline, Christianity was slandered as a subversive, baby-eating cult. The Christians, in turn, re-organised, humanised, and rejuvenated Roman civilisation. Medieval Europeans vilified Muslims, but it was the contributions of the Islamic world that fuelled the Renaissance. For centuries, Europeans treated Jews like an unwelcome infestation, but the Jews gave the West its most sophisticated ethical philosophies and its most stalwart defenders of human rights. There are a lot of examples of this principle, if we care to look for them.

Everything and everyone has something valuable to offer the whole, provided we’re willing to abandon the narrow-minded pursuit of our immediate self-interest in favour of curiosity, consideration, and compassion. By remembering this, we’ll be less likely to embark upon disastrous projects of extermination, and we’ll have a much better chance of finding ethical and ecological balance.

If we’re really interested in achieving this balance, we have to first ask, “who’s being treated like vermin these days?” It’s not hard to figure this out. Everyone who’s not Judeo-Christian and male, healthy and heterosexual, and well-off and white is treated like vermin to some degree. Arabs, and especially Palestinians, are often described in terms nearly identical to those the Nazis used to describe Jews, with predictable results. Menachem Begin, for example, referred to the Palestinians as “beasts walking on two legs” and “cockroaches.” Gays and bisexuals have often been referred to as carriers of physical, psychological, and social disease, a form of slander that encourages all manner of prejudice and violence towards them. People who use social assistance are commonly condemned as “parasites,” as are those who for whatever reason run afoul of the law. These are the people to befriend because, odds are, they have something we all need, whether we know it or not.

I’m not suggesting that such people are “better” than any other, or that those who aren’t considered vermin are “worse,” but rather that human diversity, like ecological diversity, is in everyone’s interest. The less we try to impose a single ideal upon the world, regardless of whether that ideal is economic or ethnic, social or sexual, political or philosophical, the better off we’ll all be. The more we share power and resources with one another, the stronger, safer, and happier our world will become.

Having said this, here’s a word of warning: most attempts to exterminate vermin have the exact opposite effect. Vermin have a habit of adapting to the grossest abuses, and of becoming stronger and more vicious in the process. Every exterminator, on the other hand, will eventually weaken. Unless we’re friends to vermin when we’re mighty, we can’t reasonably expect them to be our friends when we’re vulnerable-when it’s time for us to take their place. By choosing extermination, we choose despair.

I’d be lying if I said I loved the sight of rats, but I’m not as offended by them as I used to be, and my lingering contempt says far more about me than it does about them. Like all things, the animals and people we foolishly refer to as “vermin” have dignity and a place in the world. They have contributions to make and lessons to teach, lessons we’ll all eventually have to learn, one way or another.

The Homosexual Role

Note by HealthWrights Staff

There are a number of important political functions that are accomplished by assigning people labels based on their sexual orientations – none of them positive.

  • It provides a taxonomy that aids in the control exerted by the sex abuse industry.

  • It blocks the full development of people, who do not in fact fit into watertight compartments.

  • It creates artificial communities based on the myth that we can be sorted into neat categories.

  • It provides a target for those who wish to shun, scape-goat and in other ways attack people they see as different.

  • It does not fit the facts.

In fact, each person has his or her own unique pattern of sexual attraction, which usually includes a variety of types of people. The article below helps clarify how this rich diversity gets reduced to a small number of socially defined constructs.

The Main Article

First published in: Social Problems, 16/2 (1968).
Reprinted in: Steven Seidman (Ed.), Queer Theory/Sociology.
Blackwill Publishers: Cambridge/Mass.
Oxford 1996, pp. 33-​-​40.

queer theory

Recent advances in the sociology of deviant behavior have not yet affected the study of homosexuality, which is still commonly seen as a condition characterizing certain persons in the way that birthplace or deformity might characterize them. The limitations of this view can best be understood if we examine some of its implications. In the first place, if homosexuality is a condition, then people either have it or do not have it. Many scientists and ordinary people assume that there are two kinds of people in the world: homosexuals and heterosexuals. Some of them recognize that homosexual feelings and behaviour are not confined to the persons they would like to call homosexuals and that some of these persons do not actually engage in homosexual behaviour. This should pose a crucial problem, but they evade the crux by retaining their assumption and puzzling over the question of how to tell whether someone is “really” homosexual or not. Lay people too will discuss whether a certain person is “queer” in much the same way as they might question whether a certain pain indicated cancer. And in much the same way they will often turn to scientists or to medical men for a surer diagnosis. The scientists, for their part, feel it incumbent on them to seek criteria for diagnosis.

Thus one psychiatrist, discussing the definition of homosexuality, has written:

I do not diagnose patients as homosexual unless they have engaged in overt homosexual behaviour. Those who also engage in heterosexual activity are diagnosed as bisexual. An isolated experience may not warrant the diagnosis, but repetitive homosexual behaviour in adulthood, whether sporadic or continuous, designates a homosexual. (Bieber 1965: 248)

Along with many other writers, he introduces the notion of a third type of person, the “bisexual,” to handle the fact that behaviour patterns cannot be conveniently dichotomized into heterosexual and homosexual. But this does not solve the conceptual problem, since bisexuality too is seen as a condition (unless as a passing response to unusual situations such as confinement in a one-​sex prison). In any case there is no extended discussion of bisexuality; the topic is usually given a brief mention in order to clear the ground for the consideration of “true homosexuality.”

To cover the cases where the symptoms of behaviour or of felt attractions do not match the diagnosis, other writers have referred to an adolescent homosexual phase or have used such terms as “latent homosexual” or “pseudo homosexual.” Indeed one of the earliest studies of the subject, by Krafft-​Ebing (1965), was concerned with making a distinction between the “invert” who is congenitally homosexual and others who, although they behave in the same way, are not true inverts.

A second result of the conceptualization of homosexuality as a condition is that the major research task has been seen as the study of its etiology. There has been much debate as to whether the condition is innate or acquired. The first step in such research has commonly been to find a sample of “homosexuals” in the same way that a medical researcher might find a sample of diabetics if he wanted to study that disease. Yet after a long history of such studies, the results are sadly inconclusive, and the answer is still as much a matter of opinion as it was when Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion was published seventy years ago. The failure of research to answer the question has not been due to lack of scientific rigor or to any inadequacy of the available evidence; it results rather from the fact that the wrong question has been asked. One might as well try to trace the etiology of “committee chairmanship” or “Seventh Day Adventism” as of “homosexuality.”

The vantage point of comparative sociology enables us to see that the conception of homosexuality as a condition is, in itself, a possible object of study. This conception and the behaviour it supports operate as a form of social control in a society in which homosexuality is condemned. Furthermore the uncritical acceptance of the conception by social scientists can be traced to their concern with homosexuality as a social problem. They have tended to accept the popular definition of what the problem is, and they have been implicated in the process of social control.


The practice of the social labeling of persons as deviant operates in two ways as a mechanism of social control. In the first place it helps to provide a clear-​cut, publicized, and recognizable threshold between permissible and impermissible behavior. This means that people cannot so easily draft into deviant behavior. Their first moves in a deviant direction immediately raise the question of a total move into a deviant role with all the sanctions that this is likely to elicit. Second, the labeling serves to segregate the deviants from others, and this means that their deviant practices and their self-​justifications for these practices are contained within a relatively narrow group. The creation of a specialized, despised, and punished role of homosexual keeps the bulk of society pure in rather the same way that the similar treatment of some kinds of criminals helps keep the rest of society law-​abiding.

However, the disadvantage of this practice as a technique of social control is that there may be a tendency for people to become fixed in their deviance once they have become labeled. This too is a process that has become well-​recognized in discussion of other forms of deviant behaviour, such as juvenile delinquency and drug taking, and indeed of other kinds of social labeling, such as streaming in schools and racial distinctions. One might expect social categorizations of this sort to be to some extent self-​fulfilling prophecies: if the culture defines people as falling into distinct types — black and white, criminal and non-​criminal, homosexual and normal — then these types will tend to become polarised, highly differentiated from each other. Later in this paper I shall discuss whether this is so in the case of homosexuals and “normals” in the United States today.

It is interesting to notice that homosexuals themselves welcome and support the notion that homosexuality is a condition. For just as the rigid categorization deters people from drifting into deviancy, so it appears to foreclose on the possibility of drifting back into normality and thus removes the element of anxious choice. It appears to justify the deviant behavior of the homosexual as being appropriate for him as a member of the homosexual category. The deviancy can thus be seen as legitimate for him and he can continue in it without rejecting the norms of the society.

The way in which people become labeled as homosexual can now be seen as an important social process connected with mechanisms of social control. It is important therefore that sociologists should examine this process objectively and not lend themselves to participation in it, particularly since, as we have seen, psychologists and psychiatrists on the whole have not retained their objectivity but have become involved as diagnostic agents in the process of social labeling.

It is proposed that the homosexual should be seen as playing a social role rather than as having a condition. The role of “homosexual,” however, does not simply describe a sexual behaviour pattern. If it did, the idea of a role would be no more useful than that of a condition. For the purpose of introducing the term “role” is to enable us to handle the fact that behaviour in this sphere does not match popular beliefs: that sexual behaviour patterns cannot be dichotomized in the way that the social roles of homosexual and heterosexual can.

It may seem rather odd to distinguish in this way between role and behaviour, but if we accept a definition of role in terms of expectations (which may or may not be fulfilled), then the distinction is both legitimate and useful. ln modern societies where a separate homosexual role is recognized, the expectation, on behalf of those who play the role and of others, is that a homosexual will be exclusively or very predominantly homosexual in his feelings and behaviour. In addition there are other expectations that frequently exist, especially on the part of non-​homosexuals, but affecting the self-​conception of anyone who sees himself as homosexual. These are the expectation that he will be effeminate in manner, personality, or preferred sexual activity, the expectation that sexuality will play a part of some kind in all his relations with other men, and the expectation that he will be attracted to boys and very young men and probably willing to seduce them. The existence of a social expectation, of course, commonly helps to produce its own fulfillment. But the question of how far it is fulfilled is a matter for empirical investigation rather than a priori pronouncement.

In order to clarify the nature of the role and demonstrate that it exists only in certain societies, we shall present the cross-​cultural and historical evidence available. This raises awkward problems of method because the material has hitherto usually been collected and analyzed in terms of culturally specific modern Western conceptions.

The Homosexual Role in Various Societies

To study homosexuality in the past or in other societies we usually have to rely on secondary evidence rather than on direct observation. The reliability and the validity of such evidence is open to question because what the original observers reported may have been distorted by their disapproval of homosexuality and by their definition of it, which may be different from the one we wish to adopt. …

Allowing for such weaknesses, the Human Relations Area Files are the best single source of comparative information. Their evidence on homosexuality has been summarized by Ford and Beach (1952), who identify two broad types of accepted patterns: the institutionalized homosexual role and the liaison between men and boys who are otherwise heterosexual.


The recognition of a distinct role of berdache or transvestite is, they say, “the commonest form of institutionalized homosexuality.” This form shows a marked similarity to that in our own society, though in some ways it is even more extreme. The Mojave Indians of California and Arizona, for example, recognized both an alyhá, a male transvestite who took the role of the woman in sexual intercourse, and a hwamé, a female homosexual who took the role of the male. People were believed to be born as alyhá or hwamé, hints of their future proclivities occurring in their mothers‘ dreams during pregnancy. lf a young boy began to behave like a girl and take an interest in women’s things instead of men’s, there was an initiation ceremony in which he would become an alyhá. After that he would dress and act like a woman, would be referred to as “she” and could take “husbands.”

But the Mojave pattern differs from ours in that although the alyhá was considered regretable and amusing, he was not condemned and was given public recognition. The attitude was that “he was an alyhá, he could not help it.” But the “husband“ of an alyhá was an ordinary man who happened to have chosen an alyhá, perhaps because they were good housekeepers or because they were believed to be “lucky in love,“ and he would be the butt of endless teasing and joking.

This radical distinction between the feminine, passive homosexual and his masculine, active partner is one which is not made very much in our own society, but which is very important in the Middle East. There, however, neither is thought of as being a “born” homosexual, although the passive partner, who demeans himself by his feminine submission, is despised and ridiculed while the active one is not. In most of the ancient Middle East, including among the Jews until the return from the Babylonian exile, there were male temple prostitutes. Thus even cultures that recognize a separate homosexual role may not define it in the same way as our culture does.

Many other societies accept or approve of homosexual liaisons as part of a variegated sexual pattern. Usually these are confined to a particular stage in the individual’s life. Among the Aranda of Central Australia, for instance, there are long-​standing relationships of several years‘ duration between unmarried men and young boys, starting at the age of 10 to 12 years (Ford and Beach 1952: 132). This is rather similar to the well-​known situation in classical Greece, but there, of course, the older man could have a wife as well. Sometimes, however, as among the Siwans of North Africa (Ford and Beach 1952: 131-2), all men and boys can and are expected to engage in homosexual activities, apparently at every stage of life. In all of these societies there may be much homosexual behaviour, but there are no “homosexuals.”

The Development of the Homosexual Role in England

The problem of method is even more acute in dealing with historical material than with anthropological, for history is usually concerned with “great events” rather than with recurrent patterns. There are some records of attempts to curb sodomy among minor churchmen during the medieval period (May 1938: 65, 101), which seem to indicate that it was common. At least they suggest that laymen feared on behalf of their sons that it was common. The term “catamite,” meaning “boy kept for immoral purposes,” was first used in 1593, again suggesting that this practice was common then. But most of the historical references to homosexuality relate either to great men or to great scandals. However, over the last seventy years or so various scholars have tried to trace the history of sex, and it is possible to glean a good deal from what they have found and also from what they have failed to establish.

Their studies of English history before the seventeenth century consist usually of inconclusive speculation as to whether certain men, such as Edward II, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, were or were not homosexual. Yet the disputes are inconclusive not because of lack of evidence but because none of these men fits the modern stereotype of the homosexual.

It is not until the end of the seventeenth century that other kinds of information become available, and it is possible to move from speculations about individuals to descriptions of homosexual life. At this period references to homosexuals as a type and to a rudimentary homosexual subculture, mainly in London, begin to appear. But the earliest descriptions of homosexuals do not coincide exactly with the modern conception. There is much more stress on effeminacy and in particular on transvestism, to such an extent that there seems to be no distinction at first between transvestism and homosexuality. The terms emerging at this period to describe homosexuals — Molly, Nancy-​boy, Madge-​cull — emphasize effeminacy. In contrast the modern terms — like fag, queer, gay, bent — do not have this implication.

By the end of the seventeenth century, homosexual transvestites were a distinct enough group to be able to form their own clubs in London. Edward Ward’s History of the London Clubs, first published in 1709, describes one called “The Mollie’s club” which met “in a certain tavern in the City” for “parties and regular gatherings.” The members “adopt[ed] all the small vanities natural to the feminine sex to such an extent that they try to speak, walk, chatter, shriek and scold as women do, aping them as well in other respects.” The other respects apparently included the enactment of marriages and childbirth. The club was discovered and broken up by agents of the Reform Society. There were a number of similar scandals during the course of the eighteenth century as various homosexual coteries were exposed.

A writer in 1729 describes the widespread homosexual life of the period:

They also have their Walks and Appointments, to meet and pick up one another, and their particular Houses of Resort to go to, because they dare not trust themselves in an open Tavern. About twenty of these sort of Houses have been discovered, besides the Nocturnal Assemblies of great numbers of the like vile Persons, what they call the Markets, which are the Royal Exchange, Lincoln’s Inn, Bog Houses, the south side of St James’s Park, the Piazzas in Covent Garden, St Clement’s Churchyard, etc.

It would be a pretty scene to behold them In their clubs and cabals, how they assume the air and affect the name of Madam or Miss, Betty or Molly, with a chuck under the chin, and “Oh you bold pullet, I'll break your eggs,” and then frisk and walk away. [Taylor 1965: 142]

The notion of exclusive homosexuality became well established during this period:

two Englishmen, Leith and Drew, were accused of paederasty. … The evidence given by the plaintiffs was, as was generally the case in these trials, very imperfect. On the other hand the defendants denied the accusation, and produced witnesses to prove their predilection for women. They were in consequence acquitted. [Bloch 1938: 334]

This could only have been an effective argument in a society that perceived homosexual behaviour as incompatible with heterosexual tastes.

During the nineteenth century there are further reports of raided clubs and homosexual brothels. However, by this time the element of transvestism had diminished in importance. Even the male prostitutes are described as being of masculine build, and there is more stress upon sexual licence and less upon dressing up and play-​acting. …


This paper has dealt with only one small aspect of the sociology of homosexuality. It is, nevertheless, a fundamental one. For it is not until he sees homosexuals as a social category, rather than a medical or psychiatric one, that the sociologist can begin to ask the right questions about the specific content of the homosexual role and about the organization and functions of homosexual groups. All that has been done here is to indicate that the role does not exist in many societies, that it only emerged in England towards the end of the seventeenth century, and that, although the existence of the role in modern America appears to have some effect on the distribution of homosexual behaviour, such behaviour is far from being monopolized by persons who play the role of homosexual.


Bieber, I. 1965. Homosexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Bloch, I. 1938. Sexual Life in England, Past and Present. London: Francis Alder.
Ford, C. S. and Beach, F. 1952. Patterns of Sexual Behavior. London: Metheun.
Krafft-​Ebing, R. Von 1965. Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: G. P. Putnam’s & Sons.
May, G. 1938. Social Control of Sex. London: Allen & Unwin.

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