Friday, November 25, 2005

Homosexuality and numbers

The following is a small section from a work of some length that has engaged me for several years. A study in historical semantics, this projected book illustrates and compares the tropes governing the terminology for same-sex persons and same-sex behavior in major West European languages. Among the tropes covered in this work in progress are some that are fairly abstract, such as Directionality (which yields the terms orientation, bent, proclivity, decadence, and so forth). Some are, to be sure, more graphic, as Food terms, based on the folk comparison of nutrition and sexual gratification illustrated by the expression "sexual appetites."

I confess that the following short text is somewhat scattered. I would welcome suggestions as to how to pull the piece together, as well as additional items. Write me directly at


At first glance numeration does not seem appropriate to the conceptualization of sex. Numbers imply separation. All sorts of things—-apartments, passports, lottery tickets-—bear specific numbers designed to differentiate them clearly and conclusively from other things in the same class. By contrast, sexual congress seeks the union or blending of two or more bodies, rather than their separation.

Numbers are also impersonal. Here is where we find our first link. Some enthusiasts think of each sexual partner as a link in a numerical chain. Heterosexuals are sometimes surprised by the totals some gay men report for sexual partners, which may amount to thousands or even tens of thousands. As most of these couplings are anonymous, the individuals encountered may be thought of impersonally--as numbers. This was the idea iinforming John Rechy’s 1969 novel entitled Numbers. Some sexual athletes keep diaries in which their partners are carefully recorded in sequence. All the same, it is rare for these partners to be recalled as specific numbers: "317 was unusually hot; 566, a disappointment." In peninsular Spanish the word número refers to a particular way of performing sex, rather than to a partner in a sequence.

Number symbolism may arise from the shapes of letters. In Roman letters V is thought to be a diagrammatic rendering of a human hand. Accordingly, X is two hands. Unrelated to the origins of our zero symbol, 0 is sometimes used for the vagina (though the letter 0 is a more usual interpretation for the form).

The conjunction of two particular numbers provides the clearest example of such direct or transparent symbolism. The interpretation of 69 as two individuals pleasuring one another side by side, head to toe, reflects the shape of the figures. Such an interpretation was theoretically possible as soon as Arabic numbers became common in Europe (perhaps the fifteenth century). However, the trope has not been traced before the middle of the nineteenth century in France. The French expression "soixante-neuf" was then adopted in other languages (sesenta y nueve, neun-und-sechzig, and so forth.). A hundred years ago some English-speaking travelers and servicemen were evidently unfamiliar with its interpretation; hence the garbled imitation "swaffunder." A rare usage is 66 for anal sex.

Some numbers imply a series. The idea of the third sex goes back to the third century C.E. in the Roman Empire (tertium genus). In the guise of "le troisième sexe," the notion was popular in France during the nineteenth century. Some hold that only male homosexuals form the third sex; lesbians should be called the fourth sex. However, this distinction is not generally observed and, to the extent that the term is used at all nowadays, it refers to both both male and female same-sex persons.

In his first Report (1948) Alfred Kinsey introduced his scale of sexual orientation, with 0 indicating a pattern of exclusive involvement with the opposite sex and 6 an exclusive involvement with the same sex. Today it is not uncommon to hear gay men ask: “Are you a Kinsey 6 or a 5?” A similar usage seems to be lacking among heterosexuals, still chary of acknowledging any dalliance with the same sex. Not so, obviously, with bisexuals, whose moniker by the way incorporates a Latin prefix meaning "two."

From the Kinsey Reports (1948; 1953) some have derived quantifying estimates for the incidence of homosexuality, including the well-known ascription of 10%. Such numbers are still a matter of discussion. There is also the rather melancholy calculation (still in dispute) of the numbers of homosexual persons murdered by the Nazis.

Some numbers apply only within particular national jurisdictions. Ein-hundert-fünf-und- siebziger (175er) is still widely understood in Germany. This interpretation stems from Article 175 in the Imperial German Penal Code (promulgated in 1872) that prohibited same-sex relations. (It has since been deleted for adults.) There are all sorts of variations. May 17 (17 Mai or 17.5) is thought to be a gay day. Well-healed homosexuals are said to prefer a Mercedes 175.

In Britain Clause 28 was the legal provision enacted in 1988 by Margaret Thatcher’s government that forbade local authorities "to intentionally promote homosexuality" or to "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." This clause became a symbol of attempts to roll back gay rights. Today a dead letter, it was for a time the focus of the “scrap the clause” movement.

In 1901 in Mexico City a famous police raid took place at a drag ball. Reportedly 41 persons were arrested. The term has survived in Mexico to this day (see the essays in Robert McKee Irwin [ed.], The Famous 41).

A three way or threesome is a sexual encounter involving three persons. Likewise, four way or foursome.

In the US the dated expression "queer as a three-dollar bill" overlaps with the older idea of "queer money" (that is, counterfeit).

For many years there was a bar in New York's Greenwich Village called The Ninth Circle. The somewhat recondite reference is to the circle in Dante's Inferno where sodomites were confined.


Blogger Courouve said...

I remember that Michel Tournier, in his novel "Les Météores", wrote something like :

Male homosex = 1 + 1

Heterosex = 1 + 0

Female homosex = 0 + 0

3:25 PM  

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