The Various Stages of the Alphabet Soup: from Sade to modern times

Gert Hekma


This chapter discusses the international use of terms and their changing meanings regarding homosexual practices from the 18th century (sodomy, pederasty) to the 19th century (male love, philopédie, perversions, uranism, homosexuality) and into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when acronyms like GLB or LGBTIQ+ came into use along with other concepts like SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity). This Foucauldian displacement from sexual practices to political identities will be presented and analyzed. The remarkable thing is that the older terms have not been included in the new ‘LGBT language’ where sodomy, pederasty, and 'perversions' such as BDSM, fetishism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, pedo-, copro-, zoö-, necrophilia, etc. (love for children, shit, animals, dead people) are no longer represented. There are however some new candidate-terms like asexual, allies, pansexual, polyamorous, but never the older concepts that seem to be overlooked, forgotten or excluded. Anyone who takes a quick look at Tumblr, will see how many sexual variations are not mentioned in the new list of acronyms celebrated by both straight and gay people. Why is this broader spectrum excluded from the LGBTIQ+ terminology? The chapter proposes a possible explanation for how gender identities are currently celebrated but sexual practices beyond what is seen as normal (coital, top/bottom) are still taboo and relatively unspeakable and shameful. Most variant sexual practices are seen as infantile, weird, filthy, only play, a phase, sick, not a part of one’s culture or religion. When it comes to sexuality, people may praise themselves for their tolerance, all the while continuing to feel ashamed or even abject when they engage in these sexual varieties, even if they only fantasize about them.


This chapter discusses the alphabet soup as it has today become concrete with the LGBT list to which is sometimes added ITTAAQQ (Intersexual Transsexual Transvestite Asexual Allies Queer Questioning). One wonders what may follow next: PP for Pansexual and Polyamorous? Some people use a +: LGBTIQ+, including unnamed variations. A SOGI terminology (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) or one related to human (civil, intimate, sexual, citizenship) rights is gaining popularity (Waites 2009; Plummer 2003). This change in the basis for understanding sexuality involves a move away from sexual practices themselves towards an identity and orientation based terminology, closely linked to gender issues. This shifting away from behavior – from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ as Foucault (1976, 59) summarized in his famous sentence of the sodomite and the homosexual – moving from a legal definition of an act to a medical concept of an identity. It parallels the move from a real world (bars, saunas, discos, cruising) to a digital world (grindr, tinder, tumblr). This was already a problem more than a century ago: when ‘being a homosexual’ had little to do with actual sexual practices; one could ‘be’ a uranian but ‘doing it’ was something else both from religious and medical standpoints. A main idea of sexologists at that time was that that the homosexual identity should be respected, but that the behavior could be prevented. Uranian activists themselves subscribed to a similar message: one could be homosexual but should not behave in accordance. Poet and activist Raffalovich (1896) criticized Wilde for practicing homosex with (old and young) males. Uranians should not be engaged in the anal acts that were apparently the most abject for everyone. The Dutch doctor and activist Von Römer (1905, 25-31) claimed: homosex could only be accepted within loving love relationships, not outside of these. Such messages were popular among Christians: accept the sinner but not the sin. The chapter will go through this history of homosexual-naming and the related meanings in European thinking, and will conclude with a suggestion for the current state of affairs.


The marquis de Sade (1730-1814), radical sex philosopher of the late Enlightenment was one of the first and most important authors to write apologies for pédérastie or sodomie (boy love; sodomy standing for anal sex or all non-marital sex) and many other forms of sex, while decrying coital sex as abject –the practice seen as the only natural and permitted sexual act by church, state and most Enlightenment philosophers (Sade 1795; Hekma 2016; Edmiston 2013). This novel by Sade La philosophie dans le boudoir includes a sexo-political pamphlet ‘Français, encore un effort’ where he defends sex between men and lesbianism, incest, prostitution, theft, lust murder and opposes the death penalty among more. He opposed sodomy to coitus like incest to marital reproductive sex. In Sade’s work the question of origins of homosexual behavior pops up already and he gives three explanations for this preference: for some people it is a natural inclination; all people are able to enjoy all kinds of pleasure including same-sexual ones and finally he sees it as a question of principles in a way that is comparable to much later claims like those of the lesbians of the 1970s who sometimes considered their erotic interest as a political choice (Hubbard 2016). Sade’s work is violent: life and death or ‘eros and thanatos’ are one; nature is inherently cruel and agnostic regarding life so it is not humane (Le Brun 2014). He took the cause of sodomy as he was a sodomite who was sentenced to death for this ‘crime’ but was saved because he escaped arrest. His work is polysexual and Sade pays a lot of attention to lesbianism, women’s clits and fluids, options to fuck with their genitals or a dildo, homosex, prostitution, promiscuity, sadism, masochism, shit sex, humiliation, blasphemy. He himself was probably a pansexual and masochist who became sadist when partners resisted his masochist, sodomitical and blasphemous desires. What did the other enlightened male philosophers change in the sex and gender system when we compare their approach to the attitudes of church and state? Mostly that they demanded chastity from women and youngsters (no masturbation) but not from themselves. For Sade it is more than a question of personal freedoms but rather a political and philosophical issue: the struggle against the straight state based on the reproductive family and coital sex. So Sade’s proposals, except for their violence, precede Gayle Rubin’s ‘charmed circle’ of critique (2011, 150-5) and inspire my suggestions here.

Activists and doctors on male love & perversions

Homosexuals and doctors introduced new terms, declarations and theories on male love (Hössli 1836, 1838), philopédie (Michéa 1849), uranism (Ulrichs 1864-70), sexual inversion (Westphal1869) or homosexuality (Kertbeny 1869), and many other perversions making the late 19th century the most productive time for the creation of new words and identifications (I prefer this word to identity because it is more fluid). This was very much a development of both medicine (Krafft-Ebing 1886; Hirschfeld 1914; Oosterhuis 2000; Tobin 2015) and homosexual activism in continental Europe. Medical and enlightened ideas inspired by these activists and doctors took over from religious and legal views on sexual behavior and stressed ideas of innate identities. Hössli (1836, 1838; Thalmann 2014) was a non-academic and probably male-loving hatter from Switzerland who used Greek theories and enlightened ideas to oppose existing prejudices and practices. The case of Desgouttes who murdered his lover/scribe and was subsequently executed for this homicide inspired Hössli to take this cause. Hössli saw male love as a natural given that was neither sin nor heresy and by no means warranting the death penalty. A central explanation of same-sexual behavior became gender inversion, the femininity of homosexuals and the masculinity of lesbians, and the idea that this inclination had a natural cause. According to Michéa (1849, Féray 2015), the men involved in philopédie had a remnant of a uterus that was responsible for their feminine characteristics. For Ulrichs (1864-70; Sigusch 2000) a uranian or homosexual was a female soul in a male body, making the homosexual a mental rather than a physical hermaphrodite – and an urninde or lesbian was likewise a male soul in a female body. Sexual inversion was considered to be the result of gender inversion, a male homosexual was a queen and a female one, a butch. And because lust was attraction between opposites as was the case in mainstream heterosexual relations, following the analogy of attraction between positive and negative electrical poles, the object of homosexual desire was not another uranian, but its opposite, a dioning or heterosexual man, a male soul in a male body, and for lesbians a female soul in a female body, a normal straight woman – in other words, butch with femme. In the 19th century this theory developed in cities with an abundance of sex workers, not only women for men and sometimes for women, but also ‘normal’ youngsters for inverts, and effeminate young queers for straight and gay clients. Cities like Paris, Berlin and London harbored places to meet, to cruise, with bars, balls and bordellos for uranians who created communities and identifications. There were few similar communities for other perversions in bordellos or in more private spheres. The creation of more varied sexual communities and identifications is a more recent development since the 1950s: for BDSM-ers, certain fetishisms (leather, boys), et cetera. The creation of these categories gradually put an end to promiscuous worlds that were multi- or pansexual, mostly located in Red Light Districts where sex workers could be found.

The interest in the non-normative moved from doing (sexual practice, crime, sin) to being (sexual invert, pervert, pathological identities). According to Alfred Binet (1887), creator of the concept of sexual fetishism, people could be involved in occasional perversities but for many of the sexually debauched it was the central aim of their sexuality, not a one-time digression. The same was the case with sadism, masochism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, necro-, copro-, zoö-, agora-, pedophilia (love for dead bodies, shit, animals, public sex and lads) and other varieties: these were not passing whims but well-engrained sexual variations. The acronyms of all these orientations would not make it into the present-day alphabet soup with homosexuality as its basis. The extensive series of works by Wilhelm Stekel Störungen des Trieb- und Affektlebens (Disturbances of passionate and affective life, 1920-8) contained volumes on masturbation, homosexuality, sadism and masochism, fetishism as well as on impotence and frigidity. Stekel would already name his set of perversions ‘paraphilias’: mental disorders besides love, apparently next to normal or straight love). US psychiatrists began to use this term more widely since the 1960s. Although after 1973, this no longer included homosexuality that had received the stamp of normalcy, joining heterosexuality (Bayer 1981). All other paraphilias kept the stigma of disorder – and this constituted a major breaking point between homosexuality and its sister perversions of the past.

World League for Sexual Reform

Some doctors and psychiatrists realized quite early that not all homosexuals were mentally disturbed or in need of a doctor. Krafft-Ebing, the founder of the tradition of sexual psychopathology and sexology, would say so at the time of his death and Freud would acknowledge there was not much wrong with most homosexuals except that they could not live a ‘normal’ familial life. Magnus Hirschfeld and others took on the task of contributing to an international struggle against the criminalization of homosexual behavior, founding the German Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (the WHK) in 1897, and Hirschfeld was also active in the depathologization of homosexuality. Later on, sexual reformers and doctors collaborated in The World League for Sexual Reform (WLSR, 1928-35; founders Hirschfeld, Henry Havelock Ellis and August Forel; see Loomis & Bonds 2003). As important as the creation of this organization was, its creators were not very liberal on all issues pertaining to sex and gender. The aims of the League, probably in a compromise between the many participants, were on the liberal side of sexual equality for men and women, legalization of divorce, sex laws that only criminalize non-consensual sex between adults (but what is adult, consent?), sex education, family planning, protection of unmarried women and their children. But they were less liberal and more controversial (conservative?) in their efforts to combat prostitution and venereal diseases. Seeing sexual disturbances as pathological and not criminal, was presented as a rational attitude towards sexual variations including homosexuality and racial improvement by eugenics. In those times with the advance of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and with doctors suggesting castration of ‘sex criminals’ (maybe rational?) and other conservative politics it became always more difficult to promote liberal sexual politics and one wonders what were the ideas about eugenics in the context of heterosexual aims. It was an interesting effort to create an international sexual movement, but it remained stuck in the contradictions of the time. There was no comparable effort after the Second World War to restart global sexual politics.

Fifties & sixties

After Hitler and the Second World War the main location of homo/sexual theorizing and naming moved to the USA, where some sexologists had migrated and Kinsey and his collaborators developed their ideas on varieties of outlets and a homo-heterosexual scale to replace the previous dichotomy. Their work was more practical than theoretical and Kinsey’s main contribution was to show how a range of sexual practices (outlets), were, according to his survey results, very common in the USA, but were nonetheless criminalized. His studies received much international attention and provided a strong case against the abjection sexual practices were held in. In this manner, Kinsey and his team were predecessors of the ‘sexual revolution’. His research was very much about what people actually did and his classification was based on categories regarding with whom what sex practice occurred: with oneself; with a person of the other sex before, in or outside marriage; with a person of the same sex; with an animal and in the case of men, with prostitutes or more (a plurality of?) partners. He paid little attention apart from interest in homosexuality and bestiality to the other variations with only some pages on erotic material (270-2), SM, fetishism and transvestism (676-81) which is mostly attributed to males, but placed in the Volume on Sexuality in the Human Female. There was no discussion on identities, inborn or not, for him: his prism was the scale, so variety, and the various outlets. His interest was in the diversity of what white people did notwithstanding possible identifications. His explanations were not in drives or minds, but in sociological variables such as age, education, class, religion, or urban/rural – but not ethnicity. For Kinsey sex was more based in society than in nature or in persons. This was his critique of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In later surveys, psychological data on sexual identity would be added to existing indicators on behavior and desire (Laumann, et al., 1994, 299).

After the Second World War, new ideals of sexual equality between man and woman and homo and hetero became stronger as seen in the work of Simone de Beauvoir (1949). Her main aim was equality between men and women, including lesbians. Starting in the sixties with the ‘sexual revolution’ (Hekma & Giami 2014, Hekma 2008), ideals of gender and sexual equality replaced older ideas of attraction between sexual opposites, not only between husband and wife but also between prostitute and client, poor and rich, young and old, black and white. Sexual excitement was seen as a tension between positive and negative electrical poles, following the male-female example. An old system of sissies going for trade or real men and butches going for femmes broke down: gays took on the male gender role and went for sex with other men like themselves while lesbians identified with the female gender and desired same-sex partners. The gender- and sexual inverts of the past went to normal and equal: ‘simply the same’ (title of his book) as Dutch psychiatrist Wijnand Sengers (1968) stated. So the male homosexuals and lesbians may have kept the same name but became another species. They went for political integration while sexual integration with border crossings between sissy and butch at the one and straight and femme at the other hand slipped away. Male and female homosexuals stopped – as it was called - ‘betraying’ their gender while identifications solidified: as homo and masculine and as lesbian and feminine. Slowly, there came an end to their gender and sexual inversion. And gradually the idea disappeared that gays and lesbians were sinners, criminals and/or insane people. Homosexual emancipation would now be about their equal rights, public visibility and social acceptance. After abolition of homosexual crimes from the law books, equal rights were about relations (marriage, children), professions (teachers, soldiers, clergymen) and being protected by civil law against discriminations (housing, jobs, care, welfare). This process that started in the seventies – the long march through the institutions - is far from ended in the contemporary world – with the Western world hesitatingly going forward and many gays and lesbians everywhere being stuck in legal and social homonegative practices.

The origins of the alphabet soup

In this period of gender equalizing words like homosexual and gay that may have included lesbians were seen as mainly for men and the terminology broadened to gay and lesbian. The ILGA was first called IGA and subsequently ILGA – with the further innovation that the L came first. In Belgium, the abbreviation became holebi (Borghs, 2015) with the addition of bisexuals, the ho still coming first. In Germany they turned to schwullesbisch (so gay and lesbian) like in the French speaking world: gai-lesbien, and recently more often the reverse in both languages. Soon the T was added to LGB. The old terms had been transvestite and transsexual but the rising star since 1990 was the term transgender, or simply trans, taking the place of women who had been butch or masculine and men who had stopped being sissies but were now straight acting gays. The disappearance of sissies and butches since the sexual revolution seems to have facilitated the rise of transgenders, or the reverse, so the rise of the latter, the fading of the first.

In the slipstream of gays and lesbians, other groups started to fight for their emancipation. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Movement for Sexual Reform (NVSH) became in the seventies a cover for minority groups, the main ones in the NVSH being transsexuals & transvestites, sadomasochists, exhibitionists and pedophiles. The first group soon had their first successes with the acceptance of transsexual operations and the legalization of a gender identity change. Local laws that forbade dressing as the other gender or same-sexual dancing disappeared. In the longer run, the T’s (now mainly seen as transgender) made it into the short-list of LGB, now becoming LGBT and part of the gay instead of the sexual movement. Always more rights were bestowed on them in the Netherlands and elsewhere such as not needing an operation for an official sex change. The sadomasochists or leather men already found a place since the fifties in the gay scene or entered more independent straight and mixed organizations like the US Eulenspiegel and Janus Societies. BDSM-people have now become more numerous than LG’s according to Dutch surveys, respectively being a bit more than 10% versus less than 4% (Bakker & Vanwesenbeeck 2006, 58, 170-1). The exhibitionists had monthly events in one the NVSH’s buildings and had a quiet, rather unremarked existence. Although the double of looking and showing off, making oneself subject or object, is an essential part of sexuality, the couple exhibitionism and voyeurism remained a silenced theme.

The final group of pedophiles made some progress in the 1970s and 80s, after which they became a largely demonized group. Over the course of these two decades, propositions were made that pedophilia should go the same way with the same arguments as happened with homosexuals: it was no disease and people didn’t feel so; there were no cures and arguments for sexual self-determination of youngsters against parents and other figures of authority were made. Criminalization and pathologization did not work and were expensive. The best thing psychiatrists could do was helping pedophiles with abstaining from sex with youngsters. Police-officers, lawyers and psychiatrists made the argument that pedosex was less an evil than were the negative reactions to sex with ‘minors’ by family, police and courts that traumatized the kids. These arguments found response among other mental health and legal officials, sexual activists and politicians who supported the idea of bringing down the age of consent to 12 years but this failed first due to a growing feminist concern: the sex law committee rejected it and – uncommon for the period - a majority of its members were kind of feminists; see also the report (Melai, 1980; Draijer, 1988) about fathers abusing their daughters.

And what was discovered on abuse inside the family, was in second instance projected outwards: the stranger danger. It shows a change in ideas about the family by feminists, gays and others from critical to supportive; about ideas on self-determination of youngsters who were sexually active and knowledgeable on ideas of risks and dangers they were running versus the need of protecting them (Hekma, 2013, p. 290-2). Pedophiles fell out of favor and couldn’t claim the status that homosexuals received and transgenders were beginning to enjoy. In the end, T’s were added to LGB but no BDSM, no P and neither acronyms for exhibitionists and voyeurists.

Another change took place in the times of Aids. Because health workers discovered not all men who had gay sex, were homosexually identified; they made a new category for such men who did not embrace a same-sexual self and were difficult to reach for Aids-care and prevention: MSM, men who have sex with men but don’t identify as gay, homosexual etc. Maybe being the biggest group of queers: men who are in the closet and not open about their preference, or even denying it. A new aim became reaching this new target group for Aids-prevention as they had been ‘overlooked’ (Ward 2015).

The explosion of the variations

The T-ing opened the way for others to create new gender belongings: from the old genderfuck and androgyny to trans; FtM; MtF; drag queen and drag king; boy; intersexual; bigender; gender queer and always more gender identifications while novel or updated sexual preferences, rarely included in the alphabet soup, popped up out of hidden corners into both queer and straight (often digital) worlds: sadomasochists or BDSMers; kinky people and all kinds of fetishists; skinheads; lads with an interest in sportsex; bears, cups and puppies (hairy and sometimes kinky men and their lovers); people into public and promiscuous sex or acts like fistfucking, oral or anal sex, handjobs or cumming; into rubber, piss, shit, water or oil; sexworkers and their clients; polyamorous and pansexual. What about all the specific clothing fetishes: nurses, police, army, sport, leather, silk, satin, plaster or certain situations for sex like elevators, airplanes (mile-high club), dentist chairs, beaches, parks, dark rooms, barracks, pillories, red light districts. The list is endless. Have a look on grindr or tumblr for the dozens of sexual fetishisms. Straight men took to shemales (Escoffier 2011) or had sex with each other without taking a gay identity, the not-so-gays (Ward 2015). One could mention masturbators, or consider the awkward position of women in heterosexual and -coital relations. Many gay men went the other way calling themselves straight-acting gay.

There are many remarkable points about the alphabet soup, to mention five: first that the list is continuously expanding; second that the gays, lesbians and bisexuals rather seem to embrace a gender identity based nomenclatura than one based in sexuality; third that it excludes the major classical perversions (BDSM, fetishism, pedo-, necro-, copro-, zoöphilia, etc.), fourth that names and meanings change continuously between places and times and that ‘homo’ and other terms were never the same and fifth that notwithstanding all divisions the common enemy remains similar: the heterosexual or, more precisely, the coital norm that marginalizes or excludes all other sexual variations in different degrees. This is the idea that sex should be orgasmic penis into vagina in monogamous, not paid relations between two adults of similar age in private dismissing all those other sexual practices and preferences. Not a reason to be proud of this long term, very limiting result of mixing religious, legal and scientific traditions.

Non-coital (or sodomitical, noital)

It should be my suggestion for sexual politics, erotic liberation and citizenship rights - whatever those may mean - to exclude no sexual variation – not even the pedo-, necro-, assissino- or coprophile desires: the limits are abuse of power and absence of consent (much discussed but remaining vague, see the work of Downing 2007 and Cowling & Reynolds 2004). The point many people miss on questions of sexual variation is that fantasies are central and most desires need not to be enacted in immediate reality but they often happen in indirect and imaginary ways. Sexual preferences can be staged. We are still living with a sad history where sexuality is seen as a natural (coital) flow that comes automatically and should not have anything to do with fantasies and doesn’t need the imagination (a reason masturbation was considered to be so dangerous). But, as Sade stated, sex cannot go without language or the imaginary. Sex is first a dream and then a deed.

An important issue is the idea of sexuality as an innate biological drive and natural sexual flow (Montesquieu in Merrick & Regan, 2001, 154), most often leading to the coitus that for most people does not need an explanation or the work and cultivation of the imagination. The idea that coital sex is self-evident and comes naturally makes all other sex ‘weird’, ‘evil’, ‘insane’, ‘sick’, ‘strange’, ‘unnatural’, ‘abnormal’, sometimes ‘childish’ or ‘infantile’, ‘a phase’ and ‘only a game’. But because they are often not reproductive, they fit much better in a world that needs less people rather than more. All non-coital sex acts are demonized (but interestingly not to the same degree) whether they are practices like ‘cumming in the face of your partner’ or an identification like homosexual. These acts are not seen as pleasures or possibilities.

In that sense the old politics against masturbation and sodomy still work that make those pastimes into secret vices and dangerous practices to engage in: no freedom to join but restrictions to endure.

The best summary for all those sexual variations would be anti- or noncoital – perhaps summarized as noital - that Sade summarized as anal, sodomitical or with the substantive ‘sodomy’ – being the exact opposite or inversion of coitus. Breaking coital norms would also break the gender dichotomy while the opposite is not the case: breaking gender norms does not open up sexual diversity. Much gender activism (labor, care, schooling, family) often excludes or overlooks sexual issues. Gender issues could be better split off from issues of sexuality as is the case with other so-called physical questions of race and age. Sex and gender are intersectional but separate. The sexual movement could better focus on its main issues of sexuality and noncoitality and should be aware of the mentioned issues and sociological variables of gender, religion, urbanity, education, class, ethnicity and what Kinsey referred to. This is my suggestion what should be the kernel of the struggle for equal sexual citizenship rights for all: rather than primarily engage with questions of LGBTQ identities or gender performances focus on the fight for sexual pleasures for all citizens and against privileging the coital system.


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