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Unruly Desires – American Sailors and Homosexualities in the Age of Sail – William Benemann.

Note: A version of this review appeared in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide


Anyone who has read Moby Dick will recall the scenes of Ishmael and Queequeg sharing a bed, or Ishmael giddily squeezing the hands of his fellow sailors in the sperm oil chapter, and wonder if Ishmael/Melville was hinting at something more between his fellow shipmates than mere amity. In William Benemann’s thoughtful study, the driving urge for Ishmael and many others to take to the sea may have been about more than depression or adventure: it just may have been because sailing ships offered one of the best opportunities available at the time in which to express same-sex desire.

Utilizing a variety of resources from diaries, autobiographies, newspapers, ship’s logs and personal letters, Benemann looks at various instances of homosexuality in a variety of maritime settings, from incarcerated sailors captured by Barbary pirates to disciplinary practices such as flogging in an attempt to suss out homoerotic currents. All of this is in an attempt, as he puts it, “to focus on the question of why so many men were attracted to a profession with low prestige, low wages, and restricted opportunities for socialization with women.”

Even in the Nineteenth Century, sailing ships were well-known to be environments in which men had sex with other men. Indeed, he cites one source which indicates that mutual masturbation (commonly referred to as “going chaw for chaw”) was so frequently indulged in that, ironically, solitary masturbation came to be viewed askance. Similarly, in an institution known as “chickenship,” a younger sailor would provide sexual services to an older sailor in exchange for various favors. There are numerous examples given where an especially good-looking boy would have two or even three men on board to whom he was indebted.

One of the main arguments of Benemann’s study is that such male intimacy is not merely an accident of the conditions on the ship, but was instead actually sought out by those who chose sailing as a profession. The author’s case for this is convincing and enlightening. He begins, for instance, by noting that the sites for naval recruitment were boardinghouses for transients and saloons – precisely the locations frequented by the marginalized, and asserts that this was strategic. For, by visiting sites peopled by society’s outliers, and then parading attractive young men in smart blue uniforms in front of them, a targeted and very smart kind of recruiting was actually being employed.

Benemann next looks at the romances of the times -- tales of sailors held captive by Barbary pirates and the like. He notes that “The homosexual bent of the men of Barbary was an established tenet of nautical lore,” and suggests that – far from acting as cautionary tales – these lurid stories of sexual slavery and vastly different perceptions of same-sex attraction were actually a draw to many. In this sense, men who felt trapped by the values of American society may have flocked to an exotic locale such as the Barbary Coast or Polynesia where Western prohibitions against homosexuality did not apply.

The sexual implications of flogging are also looked at in detail. As an official of the time reports: “The sailor prefers whipping to other punishments.” Tellingly, a visiting Englishman wrote: “It is a strange fact that a considerable portion of the sailors, and more especially that portion who oftenest suffer the infliction [emphasis not in the original], believe that the service would be ruined if the custom of flogging were abolished in the Navy.” Even after other branches had abolished it as a form of punishment, the Navy was the one remaining place where a man could get whipped. Again, in Benemann’s opinion, this may have been exactly the draw, as floggings are an eroticized public performance in which a nearly (or even fully) nude person is subjected to another man’s power. The author cites a study indicating that the majority of erotica consumed by sailors of the time involved scenes of flogging, and states -- astonishingly -- that, of all English pornography between 1840 and 1880, nearly 50% centered on scenes of flagellation.

Tattooing is another instance in which a man symbolically penetrates the skin of another man, and leaves a fluid deposit. It is also often the mark of someone defiant of traditional societal norms: a visible signal of difference. In this regard, note that Melville named his character Ishmael: the Biblical outcast. The discussion of various types of tattoos details the prevalence of boots and anchors (some even tattooed directly on the penis) and cites a nineteenth century scholarly work which traces this to a play on words in a French phrase meaning: “I am going to fuck you [with] my boot in your ass.” There is also documentary evidence of at least one man brave enough to broadcast his sexual preferences by having the words “Ticket Office” tattooed on his back, with an arrow pointing down to his anus.

Benemann also takes on the myth of the sailor with a woman in every port, which he debunks by arguing that, since whaling ships and other vessels did frequently stop at various places, and were not often that long at sea without touching land, why would so many of the men then choose to have sex with other men if it were not a matter of preference? Additionally, he highlights items such as the design of naval uniforms, which have always glorified and eroticized the male body, and points out that designating parts of the ship as “queer space” was as prevalent in WWII as it was in the War of 1812.

Benemann’s study is an excellent, very readable and insightful look at how -- for at least a fair number of recruits, anyway -- the Navy afforded a romance of the seas in more ways than one.


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