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social sciences

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Molly Houses  

The term molly originally referred to a female prostitute, but in London in the early eighteenth century groups of men, noted for their effeminacy and sexual interest in each other, began to call themselves mollies and gather in semi-private venues called molly houses.

In addition to a handful of public cruising places in London, molly houses, which were mostly taverns or private rooms, served as important meeting places for men sexually interested in each other. These venues and the men who frequented them comprised one of the first modern homosexual subcultures. Molly houses provided mollies a space in which to act on homosexual desires and develop a sense of community.

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Margaret Clap owned and ran the most notorious of these houses, which was located in Field Lane in Holborn. Sunday evenings were often its busiest night, when sometimes close to fifty customers filled her rooms. Men there often dressed in women's clothing, took on female personae, and affected effeminate mannerisms and speech.

In February 1726, Margaret Clap's molly house was raided, and more than forty people were arrested. This house and others like it had been under surveillance by agents from the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, an organization that had formed to rid London of , prostitutes, and breakers of the Sabbath. The arrests led to a series of trials, after which several of those arrested were hanged for sodomy.

At a trial in July of 1726, Samuel Stevens, the agent who had spent a number of Sunday evenings at Clap's house, described the sexual activities that took place there: "I found between 40 and 50 men making love to one another, as they called it. Sometimes they would sit in one another's laps, kissing in lewd manner and using their hands indecently. Then they would get up, dance and make curtsies, and mimic the voices of women . . . . Then they would hug, and play, and toy, and go out by couples into another room on the same floor to be married, as they called it."

Most historians agree that in this context "marrying" served as a euphemism for a sexual encounter of some sort, but the euphemism signaled a more dangerous threat to the dominant heterosexual order. As George Haggerty argues, by marrying, "these men mock[ed] the social forms of sexual relation" that they imitated and "undermine[d]" the institution that marginalized and condemned them.

At the time of the raid on Margaret Clap's house, more than twenty molly houses were known in London, many of which had been targeted and broken up by similar raids in 1726. Molly houses were generally located throughout the city north of the Thames, from the slums of Wapping to the wealthy suburbs in the west. Their emergence indicates the development of a new subculture, one that defined itself by homosexual desire, defiance of gender norms, and its working class demographic.

Even though same-sex sexual relationships are evident throughout the Renaissance in a variety of forms, the urbanization of English life in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries brought a greater number of young, single, working class men into one place and gave those with homosexual desires greater opportunity to find each other.

This economic and social dislocation created a crisis in masculinity. According to Haggerty, "The increased social mobility and urbanization of the early years of the eighteenth century made masculinity itself the center of heightened cultural concern." This concern may help explain why mollies and the molly houses became the target of such intense persecution in 1725 and 1726.

Yet after this crackdown, the persecution waned. Mollies and other men who were caught having sex with each other were subject to similar persecution in 1699 and 1707, but the historical record from this time onward shows very few other such incidents on such a scale.

Historians of sexuality have been left to question the motives of organizations such as the Societies for the Reformation of Manners. In their mission to rid London of sodomites they obviously failed, for molly houses continued, as did public sex between men.

But Bray suggests that the persecution may not have been intended to rid London of sodomy entirely. Tolerating molly houses, but subjecting them to occasional persecution could very well have been a tool to control male sexuality. For Bray, molly houses served as a negative example of how men should behave sexually and "restricted the spread of homosexuality at the same time they secured its presence."

Ultimately, molly houses survived the attacks, laying the foundation for a new sexual identity to emerge in modern culture, helping mollies defy persecution and serve as a prototype for our contemporary homosexual identity.

Geoffrey W. Bateman

     

    
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Throughout the Restoration and eighteenth century, sodomitical characters were both presented and pilloried in literature.

social sciences >> Overview:  Europe: The Enlightenment

Although the advocates of the Enlightenment encouraged free thinking, freedom of action, and frank discussion in sexual matters, the legal penalties for homosexual conduct during the period remained severely repressive.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay and Lesbian Bars

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social sciences >> Overview:  London

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social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

social sciences >> Clap, Margaret

Margaret Clap, also known as "Mother Clap," operated one of the more popular "molly houses" in London; after it was raided in 1726, she was pilloried and imprisoned.

social sciences >> Cleveland Street Scandal

The Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, involving members of the nobility and allegations of a government cover-up, fueled the perception of homosexuality as an aristocratic vice that corrupted working-class youths.

social sciences >> Vere Street Coterie

The 1810 conviction of London's Vere Street Coterie led to the most brutal public punishment of homosexuals in British history.


    Bibliography
   

Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Haggerty, George E. Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: Gay Men's Press, 1992.

Rousseau, G. S. "The Pursuit of Homosexuality in the Eighteenth Century: 'Utterly Confused Category and/or Rich Repository?" Eighteenth Century Life 9 (1985): 133-68.

Shapiro, Stephen. "Of Mollies: Class and Same-Sex Sexualities in the Eighteenth Century." In a Queer Place: Sexuality and Belonging in British and European Contexts. Kate Chedgzoy, Emma Francis, and Murray Pratt, eds. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002. 155-76.

Trumbach, Randolph. "The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1750." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. New York: New American Books, 1989. 129-40.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Bateman, Geoffrey W.  
    Entry Title: Molly Houses  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated April 4, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/molly_houses.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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