Fifty years ago a show of male nude art at a small gallery in Long Island, New York provoked the confusion and disdain of the critics. The poet and art critic John Ashbery complained in New York Magazine, “Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed.” (Ashbery’s concern here might have been masking his own homosexuality.) In a more sympathetic response, Vicky Goldberg noted that the homoeroticism that many of the works provoked cast such art “from its traditions and in search of some niche to call its home.” But it was Gene Thompson at the New York Times who pointed to the deeper concerns of this show when he wrote, “there is something disconcerting about the site of a man’s naked body being presented as a sexual object.” We have thankfully moved beyond such acute prejudices. But even today looking at… More…

In my first real music history class, I was confronted with a disturbing fact: I couldn’t name a single British composer. In a get-to-know-you exercise our professor asked us about our homes and histories, and then connected them to music. You’re from Louisiana? Tell us about the history of cajun and zydeco! Your family came from France? Name some French composers for us. Circling around the room, my professor stopped at me.

“Where are your ancestors from?”

“As far as I’m aware, my ancestry is almost entirely English.”

“Name a British composer!”

Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters, Philly.com, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.

While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive.

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

Since the 1960s, the history of sex has transformed from sleazy sideline to respectable subject of academic study. The following is a timeline of the lesser-known scholarly discoveries that inform our erotic thinking today.

 

c. 1700: Sex “invented.”

“Some time in the 18th century, sex as we know it was invented,” writes Berkeley historian Thomas W. Laqueur. Before that time, Laqueur argues, most anatomists accepted the ancient idea expressed by the Greek doctor Galen that there was really only one gender: Women’s sexual organs were essentially the same as men’s, except they were inverted due to a lack of “vital heat.” The vagina was matched by penis, the ovaries by the testicles (“stones of women”), the labia by the foreskin, the uterus by the scrotum. This appealed to classical notions of cosmic harmony, and allowed doctors to argue… More…

The Empire may have been built by men and women trying to escape Britain’s terrible weather — or even, as Cecil Rhodes once said, to avoid the lamentable cuisine — but it was kept fully staffed by refugees from the conservative sexual code. Accounts of life in colonial Bombay, for example, read as if the entire subcontinent was managed as a sleazy gentleman’s club, with enterprising local agents procuring a series of “native wives” and “colored sisters” to warm the bed of every newly-arrived heterosexual army officer and bureaucrat. Gay men, meanwhile, quickly became addicted to the freedom in the colonies, which lured writers such as E. M. Forster and Somerset Maugham.

 

These impulses were certainly not just British. In French slang, faire passer son brevet colonial — “to give a man the test for his colonial diploma”… More…

The spectacle of the fleshy FBI chief lurching around the corridors of New York’s Plaza Hotel in drag is now indelibly lodged in American popular folklore. The story is deeply satisfying since it suggests the powerful Hoover — who monitored, harassed and blackmailed thousands of Americans about their sex lives — was a rank and villainous hypocrite. Unfortunately, it is based entirely on the testimony of only one witness: Susan Rosenstiel, the former wife of a wealthy liquor distiller, who was quoted at length in the over-heated Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, a 1993 biography by muckraking Brit Anthony Summers and excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine.

For the record, Ms. Rosenstiel said that she and her husband went to a party with the gay McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn at the Plaza Hotel overlooking New York’s Central Park in 1958. There she met Hoover in a… More…