How open attitudes shut out extortion

Sexual Blackmail
September 5, 2003

Jeffrey Weeks ponders the rise and (relative) fall of sexual blackmail.

Blackmail is widely seen as the most heinous of crimes. It embodies betrayal. It threatens to make starkly public what was hidden and secret.

It offers embarrassment or shame in place of discretion. It relies on the fear that exposure will undermine reputation. It is dependent on an accepted notion of what constitutes respectability and on an awareness of the chasm that opens up if the norms of respectability are jettisoned.

Angus McLaren tells what he describes as "a modern story" of blackmail - sexual blackmail - because to an extraordinary degree, secrecy, embarrassment and shame, discretion, reputation and respectability have all been bound up with sexuality. A person's character has been inextricably linked to sexual behaviour. If, as Michel Foucault suggested, sex has come to be seen as the truth of one's being, then when the "truth" is too difficult to reveal, we have to create a smokescreen of secrets and lies to protect ourselves. But the trouble with secrets is that they only exist if someone else knows of them, and if the lies can be revealed. And knowledge is power, one that blackmailers have been only too willing to use.

This fascinating history of the rise and (relative) fall of sexual blackmail does two things: it shows how the shifting modes of sexual regulation made possible changing forms of blackmail, and it demonstrates the ways in which a history of blackmail can cast a light on the history of sexuality. As a result, sexual blackmail is shown to have a certain rationale. It is portrayed by McLaren as part of the power struggles that always play around the erotic. Class, race and gender structure the forms of blackmail that prevail at any particular time (and also shape the differences between the American and British experiences of sexual blackmail). They mould and limit the stories that can be told by the victims and perpetrators, by the law and the press, because as ever in the history of sexuality, there is no single logic at work, and the unintended consequences can be as important as the intended. The languages of sexuality were as varied 200 years ago as they are now, though bearing different accents.

At times, the courts willingly turned a blind eye to the major crime alleged (often sodomy) in order to deal with the lower-class blackmailer who was threatening the social hierarchy. At other times, both courts and press were happy to excoriate the victim (especially a woman) if the boundaries of respectable gender behaviour were breached.

Sexual blackmail itself became a means of policing the boundaries of sexual behaviour, and therefore one of the means by which sexuality was shaped and reshaped from the 18th century onwards. Sexual blackmailers had a way of always fixing on what was the major contradiction in the regulation of sexuality. From the 18th century, as emerging norms of respectable masculinity demanded the exclusion of homosexuality, sodomy became the focus of the blackmailer's art. It still carried the death penalty, notionally at least, till 1861, but social death was almost as threatening for many men as homosexuality became increasingly defined as the characteristic of a certain type of degenerate or diseased (and certainly unrespectable) personality.

The Labouchere Amendment, which in 1885 effectively made all forms of male homosexuality illegal, whether in private or public, famously became known as the "blackmailer's charter". Homosexuality (usually male, but occasionally from the late 19th century female) was the most tempting occasion for sexual extortion.

But blackmail also guarded the fences of female sexual respectability. The vulnerability of women to the double standard of morality in the 19th century created many opportunities for the blackmailer. These opportunities seemed to increase in the 1920s as some of the conventional constraints around female sexuality appeared to relax. The "fast woman" and the "gold digger" became new types of perpetrators as well as victims.

Racial transgression added a tasty new element. Lord Mountbatten's wife, Edwina, went to court to defend herself against accusations of an affair with the singer Paul Robeson.

Sexual blackmail thrived in an age when conservative sexual norms defined who was respectable or unrespectable, acceptable or unacceptable. Blackmail played on the contradictions between what people present themselves as being, and what they really were, between what they said they did and what they actually did. It tore apart the veils of discretion that allowed people to have private lives at odds with what society said at any particular times.

The threat of public disclosure hence served to terrorise the private, but also helped to ensure that it conformed to what was socially acceptable.

This, McLaren suggests, was the social function of the narratives of sexual blackmail that structured the response to sexual blackmail, and inevitably perpetuated the blackmailers' trade.

Sexual blackmail is not dead, but less potent in a world of greater sexual honesty. Since the 1960s, the coming out of lesbians and gay men has drastically reduced the opportunities for blackmail. In a social climate where premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, abortion and single parenthood are common, blackmail loses its purchase on female respectability. Of course, as sexual blackmail in the old sense declines, so new patterns of anxiety or threat arise. "Outing" of closet homosexuals plays on the survival of hypocrisy. Accusations of sexual harassment or date rape still have to work through our contradictory attitudes towards male and female sexuality. The adulterous alpha male is more likely to be revealed in the tabloid press than blackmailed privately.

As McLaren observes: "Financial payments are now made for disclosure rather than to prevent it." But few would want to go back to the age of sexual blackmail. As he shows in this meticulous and detailed excavation of a painful history, people suffer doubly when their consensual, private erotic needs are denied or distorted by a hypocritical culture: first by being forced to hide or deny their desires; second by being exposed to the insidious forms of sexual blackmail.

Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology, South Bank University.

Sexual Blackmail: A Modern Story

Author - Angus McLaren
ISBN - 0 674 00924 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 332

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