Embodying Indecency: Policing Acts and Identities in 19th-Century Paris

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:50 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Andrew Israel Ross, University of Southern Mississippi
This paper explores the regulation of male same-sex sexual activity in mid nineteenth-century Paris. Although sodomy was decriminalized during the French Revolution, male same-sex sexual activity nonetheless remained an object of police attention throughout the nineteenth century. The police often used the legal category of “offense against public decency” to justify their harassment of men who sought sex with other men. But doing so raised several questions: What defines a “public” act? What defines an “indecent” one? The police took these concerns seriously, often hesitating to intervene in the subculture of men who sought sex with other men unless they had saw genitalia or a sexual act. This continuing emphasis on the need to witness certain acts proved frustrating to a moral police confident that it knew how to recognize “pederasts,” as they were usually called, on the streets. Indeed, at precisely the same time that the police were reinvigorating their attention to male-same sex sexual activity during the authoritarian and morally conservative Second Empire, a range of discourses emerged to argue that evidence of pederasty was written on the bodies of those who engaged in it. Under this discourse, the police would no longer need to witness a sexual act, but could rather justify an arrest on the basis of the signs that attached to the male body. The mid-century thus stands as a central moment through which we can understand the ways in which sexuality itself was or was not inscribed on the body. Written into the law was an emphasis on public acts even as the medical establishment and other moral commentators were writing their own system onto the body. This tension was not resolved; instead, the continuing emphasis on public acts combined with new forms of embodiment, a construction that rendered pederasty a necessarily unstable “identity.”