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A Walk on the Wilde Side

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Evidently some laid-off Lehman Brothers employees are turning to the Craigslist personals in an effort to distract themselves from their professional woes. For those I-bankers seeking consolation in erotic adventure, take note: the sexual lexicon has moved far beyond the old-school "W4M" or "M4M" into a whole range of new variations.

Consider this actual posting:

I'm a masculine bio female, boyishly butch, transmasculine - some might call me a FTM [female to male], but I'm not totally transitioned, though I'm on a moderate dose of T [testosterone], and I'm comfortable with my body as is. I'm looking for a masculine bi, or bi leaning bioguy who can embrace my masculinity. (Craigslist)

Transmasculine? Bioguy? The writer of this ad needed 400+ words to describe who she (he?) is and what he (she?) is looking for in a romantic partner; clearly familiar terms like "straight" and "gay" even "trans" are insufficient to say the least. In this love song of identity and desire, you can feel the writer grasping for new words to characterize who s/he is and what s/he wants.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was on my way to teach Oscar Wilde in a course on literature of the fin-de-siècle. If our era feels unprecedented in the history of human sexuality, it's worth noting that something similar took place a little more than a hundred years ago. And if the proliferation of new language for talking about sex feels uniquely modern, we should remember that dictionary editors also had work to do in the 1890s, when scientists, lawyers, and newspaper reporters found themselves at a loss for words for talking about sex.

Scholars argue about exactly when homosexuality became a sexual identity, something you were rather than something you did, but many tie it to the prominent rise and fall of Wilde in the heady days of the 1890s. In February of 1895, Wilde was accused by the Marquess of Queensberry of "posing as a somdomite" (Queensberry was better at boxing than spelling). Wilde sued for libel, lost, and then faced prosecution himself, charged with partaking of "acts of gross indecency" between men.

Wilde's trials dominated the papers but reporters covering the events were faced with a tough assignment. Obscenity laws meant that they could neither state what it was Wilde was accused of nor quote most of the testimony and cross-examination. To complicate matters further, the very words for sexual identity and sexual behavior were shifting and inchoate: the word "homosexual" itself was brand new - as was "heterosexual." In fact, the first citation of the term given in the Oxford English Dictionary is Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, which appeared in English in 1892. Krafft-Ebing's book was an early work from the new science of sexology, the study of human sexual behavior in all its variety. Sexologists sought to name and describe the myriad categories of sexual "deviance;" unsurprisingly, their scientific tomes found a large readership among the general public as well.

This is, of course, not to say that there was no homosexuality before 1890, only that a shift seems to have taken place around that time in the relative visibility of homosexuality and its usage as a term that could be applied to individuals. Men who were sexually attracted to men had good reason for keeping their feelings under wraps: through the mid-19th century in England, a conviction for buggery (as it was termed) could carry a death sentence. The 1885 law under which Wilde was convicted was less punitive, though still very harsh. Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labor and died shortly after his release from prison.

If medical textbooks took the lead in defining sexual categories in Wilde's time, today's new terminology seems to be emerging through online bulletin boards, personal ads, and other forms of social networking. Consider these lexical conundrums... What do we call a bisexual woman whose current preferred sexual partner is a male-to-female transsexual but who eventually plans to marry a straight man? How about a male-female couple that wants a cross-dresser to join in? And what about those who only fancy chicks with dicks? The Craigslist category of "Misc Romance" offers almost endless possibilities.

Yet there is also a crucial medical context for the contemporary reinvention of sexual identity and language. It is medical science that is now giving us the transdermal delivery of hormones and gender reassignment surgery. It is medical science that uses testosterone therapy to boost some women's libido, resulting, on average, in one extra orgasm a month (since the medication costs about $250 a month, that's a $250 orgasm) and Viagra to treat impotence in men (only about $20 per climax). Good luck developing a fee schedule for transmasculine orgasms.

Although only 100 years old, the language that was newly minted at the fin-de-siècle has come to be seen as almost quaint in the current era. The proliferation of particular desires and fantasies would seem to suggest that the identity-based and oppositional categories of "heterosexual" and "homosexual" are increasingly considered inadequate to the task of representing the spectrum of human sexual diversity. Are we witnessing a return to characterizing sex by acts rather than by identities: I like to do this, rather than I am this? Or some synthesis of the two?

What seems clear is that unlike Wilde and his contemporaries, those who seek Misc Romance in the world today -- from the financial sector and elsewhere -- are bound only by the limits of their imaginations and desires.