Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's Worse: Being a Gay Male or a Heterosexual Female?

I'm still enfeebled by my sickness, and this is why I can't read anything very complex or demanding of intellectual investment.  Not reading anything at all is out of the question, so I picked up Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. I will post the review of the book when I'm finished, but for now I wanted to discuss the differences between the oppression of gay men and of heterosexual women in the late 19th century.

I had always felt a lot of compassion towards Oscar Wilde. His trial and imprisonment are a shameful instance of late 19th-century European homophobia. However, only when I started reading The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde did I realize that there was somebody in the story who was victimized a lot more that Wilde. Somebody victimized in really atrocious ways by Wilde himself. I'm talking, of course, about Wilde's miserable wife Constance.

From quite a young age, as McKenna's book tells us, Wilde started looking for a woman to marry in order to provide for himself financially (he was only considering women with significant dowries) and preserve his respectability. The women he proposed to saw through him and refused the offer. When Wilde met Constance, however, he was in luck. As a child, she had been a victim of horrific abuse at the hands of her mother. I think there might be a possibility that Constance was brain-damaged from the abuse, but that's just my opinion based on what I have learned of her behavior as an adult. Constance's relatives wanted to get rid of her, so nobody opposed her marrying the flamboyantly gay Wilde.

Constance's treatment at the hands of her husband was really nasty. He got her pregnant twice, while complaining to everybody who would listen how ugly, smelly, fat, deformed, and disgusting the pregnancies made her. He insisted on sharing intimate details of their sexual relations even with casual acquaintances. He brought a steady stream of his male lovers into the house to be entertained and fed by an unsuspecting Constance. He spent her money freely on his whims, while lecturing Constance on the need to save and be careful with money. But there is worse.

Wilde, who spent his entire life pontificating about the importance of sexual fulfillment and pursuing said fulfillment for himself at any cost, denied it completely to his wife. This young woman was used and discarded by Wilde. At a young age, she discovered herself rejected sexually by her husband and prohibited from looking for fulfillment elsewhere. The tragedy of that doesn't bear thinking about. Wilde, who was so appalled at the constrictions placed on male homosexuality, never stopped to consider that there was somebody a lot worse off living in the same house with him. Even at a risk of punishment, Wilde and his friends still had very rich and fulfilling sex lives. Constance, however, had nothing of the kind.

We are schooled to pity Wilde, who spent his life travelling, practicing his art, spending time with friends and lovers, throwing around huge sums (often of Constance's) money, and pursuing his sexual happiness in any way he could. What about Constance, however? What did her life hold for her? Marriage to a man who saw the female body as ugly, who despised her and referred to her as boring and stupid. Sitting at home alone with two babies and waiting for her husband to show up with one or few of his lovers in tow. Being the joke of the entire country that knew the role she played in Wilde's wife. No job, no interests of her own, no sex life. And it's Wilde we are sorry for? Wilde was fortunate enough to have a set of political beliefs that he defended at a huge risk to himself. He was unfairly punished for that with a two-year imprisonment. Constance, however, had been imprisoned for much longer. And she didn't even have the consolation of suffering for some valuable ideal. From Constance's letters, we know that she had dreams of a career of her own, hopes of a life filled with learning, friendships, personal fulfillment. None of that came to be because Wilde needed a silent domestic slave. 

The story of Oscar Wilde and Constance Lloyd demonstrates that gender oppression was always the worst kind of oppression that existed. Even if one was gay, as long as he was male, he had a variety of rights and opportunities that women had no access to. Even today, we keep perpetuating the idea that women are worth less than men by professing compassion towards Wilde and forgetting about Constance Lloyd's suffering.


David said...

It sounds like Wilde was a pretty nasty person and Constance had a much worse time of things than him.

However, I don't think this proves anything in terms of "what type of oppression is worse".

I think that such statements are ultimately meaningless. Are we to evaluate the entire experience of gay male oppression and place it on a scale against that of heterosexual female oppression?

I know gay men have been killed, beaten, ostracized, "put into therapy", told time and time again that their sexuality is disgusting and unwanted.

Heterosexual women have been beaten, raped and murdered for transgressing the bounds of their societies.

Do we think that we can contrast these two? Is there some kind of unified oppression score that we can label each group with?

I've seen gay men be bigots toward women and call their bodies disgusting. But I've also seen quite a few heterosexual women call gay men disgusting. Can't we rise above the stupidity and bigotry of a few to uplift everyone? I'm not accusing you of participating in that type of zero-sum game, but... I don't think you sufficiently supported your example that in your words, "The story of Oscar Wilde and Constance Lloyd demonstrates that gender oppression was always the worst kind of oppression that existed "

cringe-all said...

I am wondering whether the title of the post is in the wrong tense.

Ozymandias said...

I don't think you quite proved your point that gender oppression is the worst kind of oppression. What about class privilege-- wealth, education, social status? Mr. Wilde was to a degree insulated from oppression due to his sexuality through the intersection of his class and gender privileges. If one compared a poor gay man and a wealthy straight woman in the nineteenth century, the results might be different.

Clarissa said...

No, Ozymandias, they are not different. The book describes several men in Wilde's circle who came from indigent working-class environments. One of these men is, for example, John Gray, the man who inspired the character of Dorian Gray. John Gray ended up having a very impressive career, a rich sex life, friends, travels, everything. It was exactly the same with several other working class gay lovers and acquaintances of Wilde.

wanderlust said...

Completely off topic, but why do I find it insanely difficult to read roman numerals? :(

Clarissa said...

I know, they are horrible. Maybe I shouldn't use them any more.

Clarissa said...

Changed the Roman numerals.

Cringe-all: this is precisely what I hope to determine through this conversation.

David: would you like to discuss why the statement you put in bold type bothers you so much?

Pagan Topologist said...

What's wrong with Roman numerals? I use them in teaching in a special way.

David said...

It bothered me because you took one historical case and used it to make a statement about the entirety of all oppression.

If by saying "that existed" you meant "existed during that time period" then I would completely withdraw all objections that I had. If you meant what I thought you meant: that gender oppression has always been the worst kind of oppresion period, then I still maintain my objection to that sentence for the aforementioned reasons.

Clarissa said...

David: I could say that, of course, but that would make the post very uncontroversial and who'll come to read it? :-) :-)

Tom Carter said...

I don't know what the case of Oscar Wilde and his wife says about discrimination of any kind now or then. I've always thought that Wilde was a general scumbag of a human being, despite his brilliance, and I think he still would have been a scumbag if he had been straight.