Demographic factors

From William A. Percy
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Demography is the study of populations. Sex ratios, marriage ages, life expectancies, and prevalence of polygamy may tell us much about the relative frequency of homosexuality, or perhaps more strictly speaking, of bisexuality.

Theoretical Basis. Such deductions follow from a theoretical framework which sees the prevalence of homosexual behavior as somewhat plastic, responsive to situational factors, rather than fixed at birth or in infancy, and particularly sensitive to the relative lack or abundance of opportunity for heterosexual behavior, rather than being a phenomenon associated for the most part with exclusive "homosexuals." Demographically-oriented theorists take reports of increased homosexual behavior in such contemporary populations as those situated in prisons, seafaring, and public schools, where access to the opposite sex is difficult, and reason that when heterosexual opportunitities are relatively scarce, more and more of the general population will turn to homosexuality.

Applied historically, this method must take into account different social conceptions of homosexuality. Arguably, societies that tolerate homosexuality openly expect few social obstacles to such "surrogate" behavior, which Ancient Greece, overpopulated in the seventh century B.C., encouraged.

Until recent times, the absence of a folk model of exclusive homosexuality made it much easier for males to switch back and forth from penetrating the opposite sex (or desiring to) to penetrating the same sex (especially if the receptorwas not perceived as equally masculine, such as was the case with boys, slaves, captives, the poor, or those of inferior social rank) without facing either an identity crisis or massive social opprobrium. At the most, such an opportunistic switcher had made himself guilty of a vice considered minor except by Abrahamic religions; his marriage or financial prospects remained unimpaired. On the other hand, without available passive partners, or the willingness by actives to switch roles on demand, such a possibility would be of only theoretical interest. Reciprocity was by all accounts historically rare until recent times, but an overabundance of boys, passive partners in relation to adult males, has normally existed. Late ages of marriage, widespread slavery, resident non-citizens, prolonged warfare, and an overabundance of paupers favored the development of pederasty. Sufficient evidence for lesbianism in harems and other situations without males such as nunneries sustains demographic theorizing without further elaboration.

Prehistory. Before the breakthrough to agriculture–which terminated the Paleolithic Age–cave-dwellers averaged well under 20 years of life, primarily because of high infant mortality. Those who survived infancy, if often sick and frail by 40, had a good chance to reach 50. Active females who suffered from early pregnancies thus did not survive their peak sexual drive, which is currently estimated to occur at 27, by more than a decade or so. High death rates from pregnancy and childbirth may have reduced the number of women even more than deaths from hunting and warfare reduced the numbers of adult males. Women capable of reproduction were taken by men upon whom they depended for game, their major protein supply. Thus lesbianism would have been relatively infrequent. On the other hand normal males did not live into such old age that they became impotent, as so many do now.

The hypothesis that females dominated society by putting the young males outside the horde, as do baboons and gorillas, greatly stimulating homosexual contacts among the outcast adolescent males as it does among such primates, may have been realized occasionally in certain human groups. If so, lesbianism may have flourished among such "Amazons," but the surviving evidence, largely the widespread existence of "mother goddesses" on neolithic sites, is too scanty for proof.

Early Civilizations. Beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt, about 3500-3100 B.C., the earliest writings depict a maledominated society with a pantheon ruled by males. In most societies adolescents married shortly after puberty, and polygamy predominated as it has done throughout most of history-there have beenhardly any polyandrous and relatively few monogamous societies. One survey reports that monogamy prevails in 24 percent of societies, polyandry in 1 percent, and polygamy in 75 percent. Even in Egypt, where considerable evidence exists for monogamy, the wealthy certainly kept concubines and sexually used slaves and prisoners of war of both sexes. Mesopotamia and all the civilizations outside Europe practiced polygamy, replete with harems such as King Solomon's. Such institutions assured that many slave, poor, or young men could not have women for themselves, with a consequent probability of widespread homosexuality among the lower classes who could rarely have afforded prostitutes.

As life expectancy increased in these archaic civilizations that developed irrigation and storage facilities along with the plough, infanticide, especially of females, seems to have increased. Only Egyptians, who married relatively late, and Jews seem to have prohibited it, but even they greatly preferred male offspring. As a result of much more frequent female infanticide, males greatly outnumbered females in most societies. A 4:3 ratio was perhaps not uncommon, although among especially warlike nomadic societies like those of the Arabian Peninsula, men were in such short supply that Mohammed may have been recognizing actual conditions when he transmitted Allah's command that a man might have four wives and as many concubines as he can afford.

Even in monogamous societies such as those of the Indo-Europeans who settled in Europe, upper-class males married at very different ages. After about 600 B.C., copying a custom begun on Crete, Greek warriors waited until the age of 30 when they married girls from 15 to 18, gettingan aristocratic boy of 12 when they were 22 to train and love until they married. Aristocratic Roman boys, on theother hand, married in their teens girls of 12 or 13 as arranged by their patres (male heads of families). Middle-class males who predominate on tombstones married later, in their mid-twenties to women as old as twenty. Practically no women, who may have composed little more than one-third of society because of excess female infanticide, failed to find husbands, and virtually all upper-class males married, at least before the times of the Roman emperors. In Greece and Rome when a baby was born, the husband would decide whether to raise the infant or expose it–as contraception was ineffective and abortion dangerous, infanticide remained the usual method of birth control. Christianity, which took over the Empire and banned other religions with the sole exception of Judaism during the fourth century, outlawed infanticide and had the emperors decree death for sodomites.

The Medieval Period. During the Dark Ages (roughly A.D. 500-1000), after the Germans overran the depopulated Western provinces of the Roman Empire, little central control in the church or state survived. Among the barbarian laws, only those of the Visigoths condemned sodomy. The Celtic penitentials punished it harshly, but never with death. Many Merovingians and Carolingians had several wives and most had concubines, and evidence of excessive female infanticide continues. Knights and squires bound together by the closest ties in all-male (except for the lord's women and the servingwenches) castlesoken loved eachother.

Some poor in such an underpopulated society as Europe in the early Middle Ages could earn a sufficient living at an early age to marry or rather cohabit with a woman. Life expectancies decreased from clasdcal times but upper class males at least married in their teens.

From the end of the invasions about 1000 to the arrival of the Black Death in 1347, the population grew from thirty to seventy million as life expectancies improved agein to 40 or 50. As it became more difficult to get a farm or a position in a guild, commoners began to marry later in life. Merchants and professionals postponed marriage to accumulate capital or education. The marriage age for males went up from 20 to 30, but as they preferred women of 18 or even 16, a gap developed in the population pyramid. Lots 6f rowdy, lusty young bachelors must often have lapsed into homosexual acts. Moreover, when the smaller age-group of 30-year-old men married 18-year olds, many unwed women became spinsters or nuns, often cloistered against their will, vastly increasing the allure of lesbianism. Catholic authorities and even canon law condoned female prostitution so that unmarried males would avoid the worse evil of sodomy.

The Black Death, wars, and famines decreased the population by one-third, from seventy to fifty million. Wages rose and food prices fell. Men could establish a living for themselves earlier and their marriage age, except for merchants and professionals, dropped. As the number of young bachelors and of spinsters decreased, homosexual activity probably declined. Demographics may have been more important than clerical persecution or municipal houses of prostitution and municipal laws or royallaws, which became quite severe, often ordering castration before hanging or burning, in reducing sodomy and lesbianism during the late Middle Ages-just whendocumentation of it (such as there is) becomes more plentiful. On the other hand, urbanization not only provided anonymity and other opportunities to escape family control but produced a secular gay subculture outside monasteries. Early Modem Europe. The economic boom of the Renaissance and following period could not keep up with population expansion so that real wages fell. Bullion from the New World spurred inflation. Those unmarried inckeased, reaching almost 20 percent of the population in Spain. Pirates, sailors, merchants, and soldiers in the longer, more distant wars and voyages lived in male societies with only occasional contact with females, often through prostitution and rape, with a resultant increase in homosexuality. In the demographic boom that began in 1740 wages fell and males delayed marriage in the lower as well as in theupwardly mobile middle classes.

In England between 1550 and 1800 the age of marriage rose to 26 for males and 23 for females. The percentage of unmarried males rose to 22 but fell by 1800 to about 17; that of females rose to the low 20s. Other European countries displayed similar patterns. Between 30 and 50 percent of peasants in preindustrial Europe never married. Sons could often not afford to marry until their father retired or died, leaving one of them land.

The Nineteenth Century. In nineteenth- century agrarian Ireland overpopulation meant that many "boys" (so called until marriage), could never secure and support a wife and hence did not marry. The society became obsessed with homophobia, taking that fear with them wherever they emigrated. Sicily and Southern Italy in a similar situation, however, continued the ancient Mediterranean tolerance of homosexuality, a common Catholicism notwithstanding, but the Italians tended to emigrate to American and other overseas areas after the Irish and ranked beneath them in the Church in these areas. Catholicism in English-speaking overseas areas became more homophobic than Catholicism in Latin areas.

Immigration usually loosened family and church ties. Often the first generation delayed marriage so that overseas immigrants engaged in homosexual acts as in Carolina plantations or early Virginia, and even more so in penal colonies like Georgia and Australia where males greatly outnumbered females. Puritans, however, took wives and children with them to the promised land where the unchallenged church was strengthened. Easy access to western land and the constant labor shortages even in the eastern cities, however, lowered the marriage ages in comparison with Europe, where increasing numbers in both Catholic and Protestant countries remained lifelong celibates. Upper and middle class men married in Victorian England at age 30. The American frontier, however, was populated by young males with few females in the initial phase of settlement.

Among these nineteenth-century urban celibates the homosexual emerged and was named in 1869, exclusive as opposed to the earlier sodomites who, it was assumed, would normally be married. Reaching their sexual peak later than men, women had opportunities to become lesbian at various stages of their increasingly long lives. Most men long outlived their sexual peak (in their late teens), more and more livinginto theslackening of sexual potency attendant on middle and old age. No wonder one hears so much of lesbianism after the eighteenth century and so little before.

The application of demographic principles to the study of sexual patterns is still in a pioneering stage; further investigation may shed considerable light, not only on the ~eriods discussed above, but also on contemporary developments in the Third World and elsewhere. In the absence of literary and other documentation for sexual mores in the broad mass of the population, demographic analysis may open a window into these little-known areas.
William A. Percy

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