Volunteer educators wearing ribbons and going into public schools – often over the objections of parents – to talk about sex with pre-teens and teenagers. Doctors addressing the topic of STDs and disease prevention in the media. Pamphlets and books urging parents and teachers to talk about sex with their children.
For the readers of this column, I suspect these images would more likely conjure up the work of the post-AIDS education movement than anything that happened a century ago. This, though, is the social Purity movement, Canada’s most powerful movement in the late 19th century and the first decades of the 20th.
And while AIDS educators often had the secondary role of fighting homophobic bigotry, the Social Purity movement used similar methods to fan the flames of that homophobia to a panic level.
Before we can talk about the movement, we have talk about the concept of “degeneration,” which was popularized by an Austro-Hungarian intellectual by the name of Max Nordau and which was the basis of the idea of “social purity.” Canadian sociologist Mariana Valverde describes his major work, Degeneration:
Nordau claimed that fin-de-siècle decadence seen in such writers as Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde was rooted in physiological nervous-system decay and would lead to harmful evolutionary consequences, such as “hereditary hysteria,” if allowed to flourish. The artists and writers despised by Nordau were characterized as emotional, melancholic, and generally feminized; Nordau’s plan for regeneration thus involved both the purification and masculinisation of “the race.”
The theory went that immorality – as defined by the respectable Christian classes and their religious leaders – caused the brain and the rest of the nervous system to break down. Drinking and gambling could be a cause, and so could a lack of personal hygiene, but sexual immorality was what most interested the theorists of degeneracy.
Once the brain had begun to break down, they claimed, it would lead to further immorality – and a hardening of attitude that turned into contempt for conventional morality. This would cause the brain to break down further. This process would eventually cause the “degenerate” to turn to the most vicious of sexual crimes, by which was meant prostitution among women, and rape, incest, and – at the bottom of the list – homosexuality among men.
Worse, this was a Lamarckist theory. Lamarckism was the pre-Darwin form of evolutionary theory, and held that acquired traits could be inherited. The children of a man who’d developed his muscles, Lamarckists claimed, would grow muscles more easily than their father had. And the child of degenerates would begin life in a state of advanced degeneration, and would likely produce children even farther along the line – unless someone (such as a well-meaning Methodist) stepped in to intervene.
Since degeneration was considered easier that regeneration, and since it worked through temptation, it was thought that it would spread quickly and swallow whole cities, regions, and nations unless there was a constant effort to stop it. If degeneration were left unchecked, human civilization would rapidly crumble.
It’s easy to laugh at such ridiculous theories now, but this was considered mainstream science at the time. Even the most progressive organization at least paid lip service to it, and those who questioned it entirely were seen much as creationists are seen today.
Laughing at it might also be disrespectful to the millions of lives destroyed by this theory. “Degeneracy” was the kernel of belief at the centre of Nazi Party ideology. It also formed the theoretical underpinnings behind the residential school system here in Canada.
The Social Purity Movement in Canada
While the basic theory was taken as fact, there were many quibbles about the details. Were poverty or uncleanliness causes or symptoms of degeneration? Which races were the most degenerate – it being taken for granted that Anglo-Saxons were the most pure, thanks to generations of sexual repression. Were there any races that could not be regenerated?
The Social Purity movement was never a unified group. It was a series of organizations that occasionally came together to fight for specific causes or share information. Each had its own ideas, its own agenda, and its own theories around the causes and cures of degeneracy.
For this reason, they’re extremely hard to pin down on a modern political map. Social Purity groups fought for better conditions for the poor, better wages for women, and running water and sanitation in the slums. But they also fought immigration, and sometimes worked to bring an end to the influx of immigrants from China. They set up education programs, taught cooking and languages, but pressed for longer jail sentences for sex crimes and abortion. They promoted personal hygiene and the use of soap. They pioneered sociology in Canada. They set up missions to convert Catholics and non-Christian immigrants. They fought for (and in BC and Alberta, won) the forced sterilization of the mentally impaired. In short, they defied easy categorization as left- or right-wing or apolitical, and it was only after 1920 that the movement would divide strictly along left-versus-right lines.
The value system that linked all these things was the fear of “degeneracy.” Whether trying to get soap and clean water and good food to the desperately poor, or trying to keep so-called “degenerate races” out of the country, their goal was to prevent Canada from “degenerating” further, and to “regenerate” – through personal cleanliness, sexual repression, and Christian morals and prayer – those parts of society that had already begun to degrade.
The major players in the game were mostly Protestant churches – mostly the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and a theatrical Methodist breakaway group, the Salvation Army. Catholicism often had to defend itself from charges that the church was degenerate, and the church and the Catholic press frequently tried to demonstrate that they more pure that the Social Purity types.
Social Purity activists operated through organizations that ran the gamut from the moderate National Council of Women (which controversially broadened the fight against degeneracy to allow Catholics and Jews into the movement) to the extreme Lord’s Day Alliance (which fought stores opening on Sunday, and which considered the adding of Saturday to the weekend to be a Jewish plot). They included the Methodist-run Social and Moral Reform Council, and the YM- and YWCAs. They included many doctors and medical organizations, and their ideas were promoted in medical journals.
Social Purity and Homosexuality
Although it took up a number of issues, the movement is now often best remembered now for its focus was sex. In particular, its activists were obsessed with prostitution and incest and pornographic images of women. “Purity workers” went into schools to teach “sex hygiene” classes, or what we would call abstinence-only sex education. They raised panics claiming that secret, underground rings of forced prostitution formed a web across the country.
Most of the literature focuses on “degenerate” women, usually described her worst form as a “fallen woman,” or prostitute. Degeneration was thought to cause its victims to deviate from gender norms, and the “fallen woman” was usually portrayed as lacking in feminine modesty and delicateness.
Female homosexuality, though, was almost never even hinted at. I did find one 19th-century Canadian medical journal in French that warned against “tolerated houses” – legalized houses of prostitution – claiming that Paris’s tolerated houses were practically “schools of tribadism.” “Tribadism” was the old word for lesbianism, and – dating to 1893 – it’s the first unambiguous mention of lesbianism I’ve found in any Canadian source.
Male homosexuality, meanwhile – though rarely mentioned directly – was universally present as the subtext of all fears of male “degeneration.” It’s no accident that Nordau’s archetypes of degeneracy were Oscar Wilde (who was not yet Europe’s most famous sodomite, but who was suspiciously effeminate) and Friedrich Nietzsche (the German philosopher whose love of young men were already the stuff of rumour in his lifetime). It’s also no accident he singled out artists as “degenerates,” and gave “effeminacy” as a primary trait of degeneracy.
Nor did these associations always remain on the level of subtext. One wing of the Social Purity movement talked openly of sexual “deviance,” fearing that if young people didn’t know about it, degenerate predators might take advantage of their ignorance. The movement’s most popular sex education textbook, an American work published in 1894 called Light on Dark Corners, speaks about homosexuality openly and puts it at the top of its list of “Startling Sins”:
“1. Nameless Crimes.—The nameless crimes identified with the hushed-up Sodomite cases; the revolting condition of the school of Sodomy; the revelations of the Divorce Court concerning the condition of what is called national nobility, and upper classes as well as the unclean spirit which attaches to “society papers,” has revealed a condition which is perfectly disgusting.
Another section of Light on Dark Corners lumps “Sodomy” in as one form of Satyriasis – male sexual obsession – and describes it as a physical disease that can be transmitted along with gonorrhoea and syphilis. This fits more with the descriptions of other forms of degeneracy.
What’s interesting about the first description, though, is how it associates homosexuality with the upper classes. Virtually all the literature the Social Purity movement produced around “degeneracy” focused on the slums. Prostitution, alcoholism, and incest were believed to be exclusively or almost exclusively working-class traits.
Homosexuality, though, was different. The homosexual degenerate could infiltrate the halls of prestige and power through its salons, and find an audience to spread its degeneracy and corrupt the populace.
Not that the idea of homosexuality as a corrupting influence was new. Edward Gibbons had claimed that it had helped bring down the Roman Empire. Now, though, degeneracy theory claimed to show the scientific (and medical) process that caused homosexuality to bring down Rome.
If it could happen to Rome, it could happen anywhere. Canadian Social Purity activists were determined not to let it happen in their new, pristine nation. After all, not only were hey building a moral, Christian nation, but degeneracy was thought to cause physical deterioration as well as mental collapse, and large strong men were needed to clear the trees, work the farms, and operate the machinery in the factories. In short, sexual immorality was thought to dissolve muscle tissue and leave one less energetic.
One wonders what the Purity activists might have thought of today’s bodybuilders at a gay gym.
Again, these ideas were very much mainstream. A major medical journal — The Canadian Practioner — mentioned in 1895 that several medical journals were calling for castration of homosexuals and other sex criminals. It added, “The arrest and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for a ‘nameless crime’ and the recent exposure of the perverted sexual sense among many of the British aristocracy has awakened a feeling among many that imprisonment or fine is too mild a dose for such moral debauchees.”
Social Purity’s Legacy
In many ways, this movement is the thread that tied together the growth of homophobia in different areas of Canadian society. The Social Purity movement helped turn the tide of tolerance that the Enlightenment had encouraged by giving a veneer of science to homophobic neurosis. Arguments that homosexuality should be a religious and not a legal problem were silenced by making it seem instead like a threat to civil society.
The movement as a whole was ambivalent about politics, which seemed corrupt. But Social Purity activists had no problem accepting government funding, or lobbying governments for changes to the law. It was in part the influence of the movement that put “gross indecency” in the criminal code in 1890 and 1892, and strengthened the maximum sentence – when the law was questioned, after all, Minister of Justice John Thompson defended it on the grounds that it was necessary to stop homosexuality from spreading.
The Social Purity movement also helps explain why the Canadian Secret Service had to get involved in the first police raid on a gay space. If “degeneracy” could eat up Canada from the inside, then it was certainly a matter of national security.
Social Purity’s insistence on talking about sexual “deviance” in public, meanwhile, meant that homosexuality began to get covered in outraged news articles and editorials demanding a cleaning up in the streets. It was the topic of journalistic exposés, moral poetry, and in the novels of some of the country’s best-known authors.
In my next entry, we’ll turn to the growing number of discussions of the “problem” of homosexuality in the media – in newspapers, non-fiction books, poetry, and novels.
Sources: My best source is The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 by Mariana Valverde – this is, in fact, the best on the social purity movement in Canada out there. It has one odd flaw – though written as recently as 1991, it never once mentions the moral reformers’ obsession with homosexuality. This I reconstructed myself from primary sources – such as Light in Dark Corners, legal debates and newspaper articles previously cited and those that will be cited in the next article. This is especially strange, as she lists all their other obsessions exhaustively. Among the primary sources used here are Shedding Light in Dark Corners by B.G. Jeffris and J.L. Nichols, Max Nordau’s Degeneration (an 1895 edition in English with uncredited translation), the 1893 journal of L’Union médicale du Canada (Vol. 22, no. 11), and the September 1895 issue of the Canadian Practitioner (Vol. 20, no. 9). My interpretations have also been influenced by the readings sourced in the last three articles. As always, I turned to Wikipedia to flesh out details, and find names and dates.