“Frynd synd on eorþan, / leofe lifgende leger weardiað”
[There are friends/lovers on earth, / dear ones living who lie in bed (together)]
The Wife’s Lament, a tenth-century Old English poem

The definitely-not-homosocial social space of the conference: relaxing over dinner

In Oxford, around 30 scholars from several disciplines, working on periods ranging from the early medieval to the near-contemporary, met to attend Beyond Between Men: Homosociality Across Time on the what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far – Monday 19 June. The Radcliffe Humanities Building, usually an airy space, gradually took on the feeling of a steam room as the day progressed. Yet delegates – with fans improvised out of the programme, slurping water and wryly tweeting pictures of the Circles of Hell – gamely stayed engaged from 9.30pm to 6pm, through an incredibly packed schedule. A plenary paper, twelve papers packed into three sessions, and then a roundtable was an extremely ambitious schedule, but one for which I make no apology – particularly since I had to reject so many other good papers to take the ones I did. I make the tactical decision to fit in as many papers as possible, but to keep the registration numbers down. It resulted in a delightfully intimate conference; though most of us had not met beforehand, by the first coffee break people were chatting easily to one another, and by the time we crossed the road to the pub at the end of the day, a stranger would have assumed we were a group of long-term colleagues. Which of course, working in fields that are disparate and yet preoccupied with similar themes, we are – we just hadn’t known it before Monday.

The structure of the day

I decided to ask David Clark to our plenary speaker as not only is he a key figure in medieval studies in pushing forward work on friendship, but also because I knew he would present a paper that reached out beyond medieval studies to engage our diverse audience. I was not disappointed; his paper “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Homosocial Desire, Scholarship, and the Impossibility of Friendship” raised points that proved vital during the rest of the day. He urged us to embrace the ambiguity and fluidity of premodern conceptions of friendship, to challenge unnatural divisions between the erotic and social, and to resist mythologies of linear “progress” toward an enlightened present day.

This set us up very well for the first session, STORIES: Homosocial Narratives and Images. Just as I’d interpret David as essentially arguing for developing a praxis for homosocial studies, incorporating non-linear trajectories, reconfiguring intimacies, and engaging in dialogue with the present, the four scholars in this panel all in various ways considered how homosocial spaces were constructed and co-opted for a “public” of one kind or another: early modern Catholic men, elite nineteenth-century Iranians, readers of Arabic epic, and the curious British public of postwar London. Amanda Hanoosh Steinberg’s discussion of medieval Arabic epic showed this medievalist a literature that provided female characters with far more agency and sheer physical power than western texts usually did, but where the weight of patriarchy still crushed women whose preference for other women made them dangerous. Androniki Dialeti’s paper – read in absentia by Chiara Giovanni – presented an early modern literary fantasy of a united Catholic martial masculinity, constructed in a time of political and religious anxiety and instability. Natasha Morris introduced us to the complex world of the Qajar coffee house, a fiercely homosocial space that nonetheless offered opportunities for ambiguities in gender identity and sexual behaviours. Finally, Greg Salter brought us the art of Gilbert and George and explored the power of homosocial norms in postwar reconstruction, and the way these ‘singing sculptures’ recognised and destabilised those norms.

For session 2 we turned from narrative to institutionalisation with SCHOOLED: Homosocial Institutions. These papers considered school, university and political organisations – all institutions that have historically (and to a lesser extent but still pertinently, in the present day) been male homosocial spaces. Robert Grout’s paper on the medieval school room urged us to stop thinking of socialisation of children as something purely done to them and instead to think about the ways in which children socialised each other into normative behaviour. Emily Rutherford’s paper on early-twentieth century Oxford demonstrated that certain kinds of homosexual behaviour were not only tolerated but even embraced – if they were used to uphold elite academic cultural norms. Similarly, James Southern’s paper showed that it was okay to  be gay in the Foreign Office – if you could perform a homosexuality that offered no threat to the white, upper class expectations of diplomatic behaviour. Emma Lundin, meanwhile, used women’s presence in political organisations in Sweden and South Africa to demonstrate the ways in which women may be perceived as threat to the masculine homosocial order.

In session 3, while elements of the erotic had repeatedly arisen in previous papers, we addressed it head-on with SEX: Homosocial Sexualities. Nailya Shamgunova challenged us not to accept there was a single European model of sexuality in contrast with the Ottoman “exotic”, and instead of contrasts between East and West focused on places of encounter in considering attitudes to male/male relationships. Seth Stein LeJacq sailed us away with the Georgian navy, emphasising the degree of not only tolerance but also acceptance of sexual relationships between men on board ship – particularly between “sea daddies” and their young mentees. Only when such relationships disrupted the discipline and order of the ship – sometimes because of abuse of one partner in the pairing – did the navy tend to intervene. Chase Gregory took us to a very different kind of homosocial space – one where a black man was living with women as a lesbian. Reid-Pharr’s political and erotic identities resulted in occasional cognitive dissonance for him but offered some provoking opportunities for thinking about what same-sex space really means. Finally, Daniel Laurin’s discussion of “straight guy” porn demonstrated the surprising truth that even pornography showing sex between men can be used to reify heterosexual norms about male behaviour.

Finally, our roundtable YESTERDAY, NOW, TOMORROW: History, Homosociality and the Hereafter featured three short papers and then a group discussion. Pat Cullum linked celibate monks with modern day internet trolls in thinking about the ways spaces were patrolled to exclude women. Huw Griffiths used a small piece of dialogue from a seventeenth-century play, adapted a century later, to consider the ways we erase or accommodate our homosocial pasts. Jenny Hoogewerf-McComb connected rape of sex workers by medieval studies to modern day rape scandals at university fraternities, and alerted us to the danger of tolerating these rape-conducive homosocial environments.


This was, as the above shows, an extraordinarily rich day, and it would be too difficult to sum up all the themes of the day. That, I hope, may be the work of a book! However, there were some connected strands that repeated themselves enough that they seem worth drawing attention to now.

One of the key sites of scholarly attention was – to what extent can homosociality be about private relationships between individuals, or is it primarily about collective performance of relationships for public consumption? In a homosocial society, how much does the individual matter, and what personal needs, wants and experiences get subsumed into a public whole? And if homosociality is a performance as well as a social construct, then who is the intended audience?

Another repeated them was the line between the erotic and the social: was it as important as scholarship has tended to assume? Why should friendship, for instance, exclude sex – why should the introduction of sex result in a re-categorisation of a friendship? As we saw, many organisations and social groups could tolerate homosexual acts if they did not disrupt the hegemonic order. While this can seem refreshingly progressive on the surface, this kind of tolerance could lead to abuse – for instance where a cultural acceptance of pederastic relationships at the expense of other forms of same-sex desire could leave young people open to exploitation by mentors and teachers. It can be too easy to assume that “acceptance” means “progress”, when instead acceptance can sometimes simply mean traditional hierarchies are being reasserted.

This led to a wider point that was in various ways made repeatedly during the day: homosociality, as a form of social organisation, seems to require that its members and its values uphold hegemonic norms. Homosociality seems in nearly every instance to be both an output of, and an essential prop for, patriarchy. While the desire for homosocial interaction is in nearly all cases seen as “natural”, homosocial organisation between women, or between people with LGBT identities, are perceived as enormously threatening to patriarchy, and great efforts are made to either integrate them into the hegemonic fold – or to eradicate them entirely.

This final point led me to the following conclusions: that as scholars we not only need to understand homosocial cultures, but that we need to dismantle homosociality as a cultural imperative. This doesn’t mean eradicating same-sex socialisation: far from it. Rather, that unpacking and dismantling the patriarchal norms that make white male heterosexual social intercourse the dominant mode of public discourse is vital not just in our academic work, but in our classrooms and in the wider world. I have been thinking increasingly that homosociality as a term is only useful if its definition incorporates hegemony. Patriarchy, we saw on Monday, is very good at adapting to accommodate queerness, multiple ethnicities, different genders: by subordinating those identities and desires to its own agenda. Part of understanding homosociality is to come to the realisation that it is a force for assimilation. Resist.