Queer Sex and Dating Trends Through History
Words and Artwork by Kyle Parker
With Contributions by Cassandra Litten
One of the passages of the Gay Bible goes something like this: gay dating is often like finding a job - you either find it online or through a friend’s referral.
You might assume that being queer and dating in the 21st century would be a piece of cake. But even now, with same-sex marriage legality constantly increasing around the world (at the time of this article, it is performed in 26 and recognized in 4), queer rights and representation being discussed more openly than ever, and the dawn of gay-exclusive dating and hookup apps, society still seems to scowl at queer romance/sex.
Though those scowlers only represent a small majority of Americans, the notion of being hated for my same-sex attraction still rattles me. Many hiding behind television monitors and computer screens will still condemn my queerness, however packaged and produced. If I’m having this much trouble in 2019, how hard must it have been for my queer ancestors to find lovers centuries, even just decades ago? Before I throw another tantrum, delete all my dating apps and declare that I am done with dating after being ghosted by another Grindr fuckboy, I decided to do a little investigation. If I had been born in another time (same Kyle, different era), what would have been my options for hooking up?
Ancient Roman Baths
In ancient Rome, it was not uncommon for men to have sex together. That’s why the baths (communal bathhouses - some small and private, others the size of several city blocks) were a popular, discreet, hookup spot for gay men. The baths weren’t just a place to have a soak with a bunch of strangers, they were seen as a place to socialize. It just so happens that sometimes “socializing” meant blowjobs in the steam room. With all that wet, steamy nudity, it’s no surprise that there was some saucy intermingling.
The Romans were not completely unphased by the act of gay sex, and ancient Rome was not the Gay Paradise that it is sometimes believed to be. It was expected that a man would be attracted to both men and women in his lifetime, but would ultimately marry a woman. And if they did engage in male-male sex, it was usually with prostitutes, entertainers, slaves, or young boys. They also viewed the participating parties with varying degrees of acceptance. Those men in the dominant role were seen as strong, masculine, and of a higher class standing. However, those who took the more passive role in gay sex were seen as less than and effeminate. Looks like the idea of bottom-shaming isn’t a new phenomenon in the gay community.
Women also participated in the societal ritual. There isn’t much written about lesbian attraction amongst the women of the Roman bathhouses, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any lady love happening.
Much of Roman society at the time had been greatly influenced by the Greeks, and the poet Sappho, of the Greek island Lesbos, made sure that female same-sex attraction would not be forgotten from the Ancient world. Her writing, most notably “Ode to Aphrodite”, has linked her to lesbianism. While many scholars still argue about Sappho’s sexuality, the fact remains that Lesbos is the origin of the word “lesbian” and though it’s not used very much today, the word “sapphic” means both “relating to Sappho or her poetry” and “relating to lesbians or lesbianism”. So there’s that gay coincidence. Because many patriarchal societies, like the Greeks and Romans, didn’t find it worthwhile to note the sexual relations that didn’t feature an ejaculating penis, (eye roll at men because that’s still the case), we will never know the confirmed truth. All we have are her incredibly gay poems and, confirmed lesbian or not, women-who-love-women throughout history have found solace and understanding in Sappho’s writings. We’ll take that as a win.
Bathhouses were born in the ancient world, but in many large cities in America, members-only bathhouses are still a common place for gay men to get their rocks off. It’s often considered a less attractive way to meet sex partners, but we’ll save slut-shaming people for how they achieve gratification for the ancient Romans and Fox News pundits.
Just make sure that if you drop the soap, you do so in the direction of a handsome admirer.
18th and 19th Century London: Molly Houses
Creating a dating profile on a website or through an app seems like a relatively modern thing to do, but people have been creating personal ads to find lovers, dates, sexual partners, and even spouses as far back as 1695. Beginning in the 18th century, the queer community frequented the personals, using code words and disguised names so that they could safely and discreetly meet with one another. Once it caught on, they needed a gathering place away from the eyes of nosy neighbors and the like. Thus, the “Molly House” was born.
Molly Houses were usually a pub or coffee shop. In the front, you could get a drink, and in the back you could partake in almost any sexual desire. Most would liken Molly Houses to male brothels, although many argue that it was more than a place to pay for male prostitution. A sense of community was formed amongst the patrons, many of whom were effeminate men or transgender people. Despite the efforts of Molly Houses to create a safe space for queer people, they were frequently raided by police. Patrons were often beaten or arrested (or both) for the crime of homosexuality. (Note: homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death in the UK until 1967.)
In true gay fashion, the patrons, or “mollies” as they referred to themselves, continued to enjoy the Molly Houses despite the continual threat made by police. For many, they were not only places to have a nice cuppa and a little fondle in the back room. Early forms of “camp” culture were introduced in Molly Houses. People would reenact births, dress as women, and perform plays to comment on the heterosexual world they lived in.
The gay subculture of London produced a dialogue that still can be commented on today. In many ways, the early camp culture of the Molly Houses is similar to the modern day drag bar.
Just remember to tip your local queens and no hanky-panky on stage!
18th, 19th and Early 20th Century: Boston Marriages
By Cassandra Litten
You may be thinking to yourself, “But I’m a lesbian! What would I have been doing in the past?” The sad truth is that there is not a lot of documentation of women-who-love-women dating/seeking each other out, partially because, as mentioned back in ancient Rome, patriarchal societies do not think the lives of women, outside of their relationships to men, are worthwhile. On top of that, the stigma surrounding homosexuality (and illegality thereof in most places) not only limited true, detailed accounts of people’s lives, but it had the power to dissuade people from participating at all.
Thankfully, there are many historical examples of a specific part of lesbian life, one that hasn’t changed much at all through the years: two single women living together, sharing laughs, friendship, bills, and, sometimes, beds.
Known as a “Boston marriage” following the publication of Henry James’ 1886 novel The Bostonians, not all of these situations were inherently gay. Some women lived together out of necessity (if you’re thinking about that “and they were roommates” Vine, you’re not the only one.) Women were often financially dependent on their family, which is why marriage to eligible, wealthy men was the goal of so many. However, if a woman was turned out of her house and no longer able to rely on her family for money (at least not enough to live on), living with another single woman eased the financial burden. Of course, necessity wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, women were financially independent, either due to inheritance or her own career, and simply wanted to live in the company of another woman, disconnected from the restraints and expectations of married life. Sometimes, they were gay.
Even with the many examples available to us, it’s hard to know with certainty whether any given Boston marriage was indeed two gay women. Historically, female friendships at this time were often intensely romantic. They held hands, kissed one another, walked arm-in-arm (all things that made me, a questioning bisexual, even more confused as I watched period films growing up.) It was acceptable for women to behave in this way because it was a common (and outrageously erroneous) belief that women were uninterested in sex. So when women kissed one another, it was not seen to have the same sexual desire behind it that it would have were it a man kissing a woman, or a man kissing another man.
Amidst all the confusion, we have been left some mementos from Boston marriages that sound pretty darn gay to me. For example, the writer Sarah Orne Jewett wrote an untitled poem, dated “23 Aug. 1880”, commemorating the one year anniversary of a relationship between two women. My favorite excerpt goes like this:
We have not been sorry darling
We loved each other so --
We will not take back the promises
We made a year ago --
Although technically unconfirmed, many believe that this poem is to her “husband”, Annie Adams Fields. The couple lived together following the death of Fields’ husband in 1881, until Jewett’s death in 1909.
Possibly the most famous Boston marriage is that of the “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The two upper-class women abandoned their lives in Ireland to start of home of their own in Wales. They lived together for fifty years, are buried in the same plot, and memorialized on the same headstone.
While the idea of leaving people guessing at what’s really going on in my life appeals to the drama queen in me, when it is borne out of necessity, it’s no longer fun. Some Boston marriages were gay. Some were not. Things haven’t changed much in that regard. The difference today is that fewer people have to hide the true nature of their relationships. And that’s something worth celebrating.
20th Century American Cruising
If you’ve ever given someone the up and down and then proceeded to hook up with them (most likely in a public place), congratulations! You’ve mastered the art of cruising.
Cruising, in as basic a definition as I can give, is a sex hunt. From the 1950s through the 1980s, cruising was a mainstay in gay culture. Being out wasn’t an option and safety was limited or simply not available. Gay men would cruise parks, piers, and public restrooms in order to find someone to have sex with.
Cruising starts with a look. It could be a glance, a smile, a glimpse over the shoulder, but what is produced is an instantly electric moment.
Some criticize cruising for being too promiscuous. These are the same people who wouldn’t want queer folks to be able to have gathered in public spaces to begin with. When cruising was at its peak, the only moment queer people could feel like themselves, when their day-to-day life was regulated by forced heterosexual norms, was usually during a sexual encounter.
Under a cascade of moonlight, gay men would gather in parks, cruise one another, and have sex. It’s worth noting that for much of history, straight men would have sex with female prostitutes in public places like a park or an alley, too. I can practically feel your confusion as you ask, why would anyone have sex in a park? Well, the simple reason is because civilization has demonized sex work in the same way it demonizes gay sex. It works to regulate who is worthy of validating their sexuality and those who don’t meet the criteria are deemed shameful. That’s that on that.
In the 1970s the "Hanky Code" came into vogue in the gay BDSM and leather scene and became a dominant (pun intended, sorry) part of cruising.
The Hanky Code is simple: just wear a color that coordinates with your sexual preference and other people will know what you’re into right away. For example: black = S&M, blue (dark) = anal sex, yellow = watersports. Depending on whether the hanky is worn in the left of right back pocket signifies if the wearer is in the dominant or passive role.
The Hanky Code is still used today, though not nearly as much as hankies gradually became a fashion statement within the gay community.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, cruising became less popular. In New York City, the piers, once a hotspot for cruising and gay sex, became a ghost town. Gay men were worried of contracting the new virus that was killing their friends and loved ones. As a community, the focus became less on sex and more on staying alive.
I might frequently complain that it’s tough to find someone to hookup with or date, but learning the complicated, dangerous, and varied history of queer dating, has humbled my view of things. Any time I want to curse the gay gods for letting a hookup fall through, I remind myself that at least I’m just chilling at my apartment, sitting on my couch and scrolling through my phone, as opposed to out at a park or inside an ancient Roman bath trying to get dick discreetly because I don’t have any other options. When I go to a club and see a drag show, I can attend feeling fairly confident that police (probably) won’t raid it like they did the Molly Houses of London (and continued to do at other queer establishments well into the 20th century).
There’s still a lot of work to do regarding sex in general -- how it’s talked about, how it’s portrayed in the media, the way sex work and sex workers are viewed. But as we continue moving, ever onward, toward a more accepting worldview, I want to honor those who came (sorry, again, the saucy puns just write themselves) before me, our queer ancestors who lived their truths and indulged their desires as best they could.