The F-word

Once upon a time, a young man was walking home, alone, from a nightclub on Brighton’s seafront towards the house he shared with some friends. It was a warm summer night or, rather, morning, as it was about 3am. As he crossed King’s Road and began to walk up Preston Street, a group of four youths appeared from the direction of the West Pier, ran across the road and attacked him. He fought back, hitting one of them on the nose and drawing blood, but was soon overpowered and fell to the ground under a rain of fists. He was repeatedly kicked while he lay on the road, and soon lapsed into unconsciousness while the onslaught continued.

To this day he can’t remember how long this went on for, nor can he remember anything at all about the people who eventually came to his assistance. But he can remember the word that was being shouted continually as he was systematically beaten. The word was FAGGOT.

This was 1989, and the young man was me. At the time I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, and I had just spent the evening at the Zap Club (now sadly defunct). On wednesdays, this establishment played host to  Club Shame, a gay one-nighter that was extremely popular and well-known around the town. Unfortunately, this made people leaving it in the early hours of the morning easy targets for the many queerbashers who got their kicks beating up gay men for no other reason than that they were gay.

I was actually one of the lucky ones. Apparently, shortly after I fell to the ground and passed out, a group of passers-by chased off the youths who had attacked me, helped me to my feet, and helped me get home.  The commotion when I arrived woke up a couple of my friends who cleaned me up, and gave me a glass of whisky. I was rattled, angry at the gratuitous violence visited on me by complete strangers, and frustrated by the clear demonstration of my own inability to defend myself.   I had a black eye, a fat lip and a lot of bruises but there turned out to be no lasting physical damage. Although I don’t like to admit it, I do think I have a few psychological scars. I don’t even tell many  people about this episode because my weakness embarrasses me – it’s a slur on my manhood, such as it is. Still, at least I didn’t end up dead, like poor Jody Dobrowski.

Neither I nor any of the friends (also gay) who helped me ever even thought about reporting the incident to the Police. The Brighton police at that time were notorious for dismissing complaints of gay-bashing despite the fact it was an endemic problem. People I knew who had reported such incidents usually found themselves being investigated rather than their assailants. In those days the law did not recognize homophobic offences as hate crimes. Far from it, in fact. Attacking a gay person was, if anything, considered to be a mitigating circumstance. This attitude was fuelled by a number of high-profile cases (including a number of murders) where gay-bashers had been acquitted or charged with lesser offences after claiming their victim had provoked them.

Now fast-forward about 20 years. Attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and Police attitudes not always helpful.

Somewhat closer to home, a recent story in the Times Higher pointed out that relatively few universities have made it onto the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall. My experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay and lesbian staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions.

I also agree with the main point made by the Times Higher article which is that, despite what the law says, universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. Fairly predictably, the online version of the article attracted some nasty comments of a homophobic nature which were subsequently removed according to the terms and conditions of the website.

Recent experiences of my own (relating to this blog) seemed relevant so I passed them onto the Times Higher after reading this story. I didn’t think they would consider it important enough to publish, as in the grand scheme of things it involved a relatively minor offence, so I was a bit surprised to find a full story in this week’s edition. It caught me on the hop a bit because I wasn’t even told they were going to run it at all, let alone straight away and I didn’t get the chance to see the final copy. Thankfully, it’s quite accurate, matter-of-fact, and avoids sensationalism.

I’m not going to put all the details here, because as far as I’m concerned it’s all over and there’s nothing to be gained by going over it again. The relevance to the earlier Times Higher story is clear, however. In a nutshell, I made a complaint about a comment on this blog, involving offensively homophobic language, to the University of Nottingham, the employer of the person who made it. I was not asked to give evidence to the subsequent “investigation”, was not told how it was conducted or how it arrived at its decision, and was not even informed of its outcome for months after it had been completed, and only then after I made repeated requests. My subsequent requests for information about the conduct of the investigation were refused. The University of Nottingham also refused to confirm whether the culprit had ever attended Equality and Diversity training.

What was it I had objected to? It was the F-word – FAGGOT, universally recognized as grossly offensive and, as I’ve explained, one about which my I also have my own particular reasons for objecting to. I was appalled that a former colleague could use that word in a manner that seemed (and still seems) to me to have been calculated to be offensive, subsequent “apologies” notwithstanding. The “investigation”, however, disagreed and accepted the defence that it was meant as a joke. I wonder what they would have decided if I’d been black and had been called a “n****r”?

At the time, I asked for advice on what to do about this. Stonewall encouraged me to report it to the Police, on grounds of criminal harassment. This seemed to me to be excessive, since it had resulted in no physical harm or loss by me and would use up a lot of police time to little effect and a lot of embarassment to others at Nottingham that this had (and has) nothing to do with. A gay-friendly solicitor in Cardiff explained how I could pursue a civil case against the individual and/or employer but that it would be very expensive and damages, if awarded at all, would probably be very small. In the end, therefore, I decided to take the advice of our Equality and Diversity Officer in Cardiff  and reported it instead to the University of Nottingham to deal with internally. What a waste of time that was.

I’m sure there will be some readers of this post who think I over-reacted to the comment in question, and that I’ve blown this matter out of all proportion; this indeed seems to be the prevailing view among the comments on the Times Higher thread. You’re all entitled to your opinion, of course. I fully admit that, for reasons that should now be obvious, I am unable to respond particularly rationally to being called a faggot. But then I don’t see why, in this day and age,  I should be expected to. Things are supposed to have moved on, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, I  don’t think I over-reacted and, in this case, I happen to think it’s my opinion that counts. That’s what the law says too, as a matter of fact.

I’m not claiming to be whiter than white. I am fully aware that I’ve made comments on this blog that have offended some people of whom I am very fond. I’m very sorry that I’ve caused offence in this way. I also admit some of my jokes are a bit off-colour. I tend to be direct in my criticism of those I think deserve it. I think I know how to take a joke too; growing up as  gay teenager in 1970s Newcastle gave me quite a thick skin. I can take forthright criticism too – I should; I’ve had plenty of practice! But I will not accept being called a faggot. Everyone has their limits, and that is mine.

If you don’t like it then, frankly, you can F-off.

67 Responses to “The F-word”

  1. Hi Peter

    Sorry to hear about the abuse you suffered earlier in life. Bullying is never fun, whatever form it takes. Having known Merrifield at Nottingham, he always seemed very pleasant and friendly, not at all one to use such offensive language. Was there any animosity when you left Nottingham? I thought you guys were ‘friends’? Not anymore I suspect!



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  3. treaclemine Says:

    I think my next step if I was in your position would be a formal complaint to the University of Nottingham about the failings of their grievance procedures.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have neither the desire nor the energy to continue this with further complaints. It seemed clear to me there wasn’t any point in pursuing it, given how they behaved, so I washed my hands of it about 6 months ago. I only sent the details to the Times Higher now because it confirms their previous story.

  4. Haley Gomez Says:

    Peter, thanks for sharing that with us. As I said on my comment on the THE thread (as tinkerbell), I agree with you totally (especially the n word comparison, it’s exactly the same nasty, negative slur in my opinion) and even without the horrific experience you went through, “faggot” is an extremely offensive thing to say, but with the horrific history, I now understand why you were so shaky that day. I agree with treaclemine, don’t let it drop. The bigots on the THE thread forget the most important thing, the offense wasn’t intended at them, that’s why they didn’t feel offended and could dismiss it. I hope they read this and feel ashamed. I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with these horrific experiences.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    In my time and sometimes in other countries I have received abuse for being English and white. I would not have dreamed of using the law against the perpetrators even if such laws existed in those places. Provided it stops at words then I can always reply, of course. Freedom of speech means freedom to offend with words; you have stated that you do this yourself so how about some give and take?

    Most E&D people hunt actively for discrimination where it does not exist, in order to justify their (overpaid) jobs. They thereby stir up trouble where there was none. Put simply, it’s an industry, and a pernicious and corrupt one.

    Violence is absolutely unacceptable. Your assailants should have been hunted down and locked up. There should be neither increase nor decrease of process or penalty for racial or any other aggravation. Police and courts should take all violence equally seriously, ie they should be blind to colour or sexual preference, because a bruise is a bruise and a broken bone is a broken bone whether in a black man, a white man, a gay or a straight.

    Not even the politically correct classes can eradicate hate with laws, however much their reflexes to legislate and control others kick in – because laws don’t change the heart. I believe there is as much hate among the politically correct persons for their targets than there is among the bigots they legislate against.


    PS I spent years in a martial arts club where the first advice was: If you sense a rough-house brewing then leave your drink and your ego on the table and get out quietly; on the street trust your instincts and be ready to run. Interestingly I found it’s a lot easier to do once you have learned how to fight.

  6. telescoper Says:


    I had predicted that would be your response, and I agree with what lies behind it; namely that there is too much law relating to restrictions on freedom of speech. I should point out that this matter never went to the law anyway and I have no intention of taking it there. What I did was to register a protest. I don’t see it is any different from you taking up a placard and protesting about Jerry Springer the Opera.

    As for E&D people, your view is shared by a great many people I know. All I can say for myself is that our resident Equality & Diversity Officer at Cardiff, Isabella, was absolutely great. She calmed me down, talked me out of overreacting and was extremely sensible throughout as well as being highly supportive.

    Perhaps sometimes such people do end up chasing shadows, but ultimately what they’re saying is that we owe it to each other to show respect in the workplace. Perhaps you think it’s wrong that race, sexual orientation, disability etc are given a special status within this framework, but as I said in the post I really feel that the vastly improved status for gay people over the last 20 years does owe a lot to legal interventions. It’s all about raising awareness and sensitivity and promoting respect. As long as that’s what PC means, I’m all for it, although I admit I sometimes fall short of the ideal myself.

    Plus “PC” are actually my initials…

    Finally, going back to my own escapade 20 years ago, I think that successfully landing a punch on one of the yobs was potentially the biggest mistake I ever made, as it simply seemed to enrage them all further. I would have run, but couldn’t, as I was taken by surprise and didn’t know what was going on until they were around me. In other similarly dangerous situations I have always escaped by legging it. If you’re going to run, try to run towards people or lights rather than into a dark alley.


  7. treaclemine Says:

    Absolutely understand your wanting to wash your hands of it all.

    (Have a horrid feeling that the system failings will continue until someone is in a position to slog through the formal process).

  8. Peter,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I was very sorry to hear that you were assaulted in 1989, and you have my sympathy. Something similar although probably less severe happened to me and a friend of mine 19 years ago (in that case the police were helpful and the assailants got 30 days’ imprisonment).

    I understand your motivation for making the complaint about Mike’s comment using the f-word. But personally it is not clear that his intent was malicious — I’d say that it’s at least possible that he wasn’t thinking straight while trying to make a play on words. I say this also since in the 3 years I was at Nottingham Mike did not come across as homophobic. Still, the University should have carried out a proper investigation, which obviously should also have included you being allowed to give evidence.


  9. telescoper Says:

    19 years ago? You must have been still in short pants…

  10. I’ll take that as a compliment, Peter 🙂

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: you were caught by those thugs in an unaware condition. If I am on street at 3am I am *always* aware of others. You might think it is exhausting to practice such awareness but I assure you that it very quickly becomes second nature, to the extent that a girlfriend I was escorting home did not realise I was doing it. There are fine books by Geoff Thompson and Peter Consterdine about this sort of thing, and while they cover street fighting the most valuable chapters are those about avoidance. Other good practical advice is to bang on the door of a house with a light on or, if you have the time and the ammunition, heave a brick through somebody’s front window.

    Based on the normal pattern, they crowded and jostled you and one confronted you from the front, but you managed to get the first good punch in. If that is so then you are as likely to end up in court as they would be nowadays. (A fact I regret, for the avoidance of misunderstanding.)

    It seems to me that the analogy with my public protest vs Springer would be to post as robust a response as you wished on your blog. (I didn’t report anybody to someone who could take action against them.)

    How many physicists could you employ for the cost of the E&D department?

    Bo: Judging Merrifield’s intention depends a lot on how he and Peter got on before that, which is not public-domain info.

    PC is certainly a flexible acronym:

    police constable
    politically correct
    Peter Coles
    personal computer

    That’s Pretty Cool!

  12. telescoper Says:


    It was slightly different to how you imagined it and I was probably even less aware than you might have expected. I heard some shouting from across the road but didn’t realise it was aimed at me. I turned my back on them as I turned up the hill at preston street, so the corner hid them from view. The next thing I knew they were on me; the first blow was from behind and was only glancing. I turned and flung out a fist which found its target more by luck than judgement. But , because I had stopped and turned, I was surrounded and pretty much helpless.

    Looking back I should definitely have paid more attention to the danger of the situation, something I always do nowadays. As it was, I gave them every opportunity to get very close before I could act. Stupid. I should have kept them in view and made for safer surroundings.

    Nowadays I’m less likely to be found wandering about at 3am anyway.

    Another thing strikes me very forcibly about this incident which is that even half an hour after it was over there’s absolutely no way I could have constructed a coherent description of any of my assailants. I would have been a hopeless witness if it had come to court. I am always amazed by the ability of some people to give accurate descriptions in situations like this.


  13. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have to express my very great sympathy to Peter over the attack in Brighton many years ago. That was an appalling incident, and it is shocking that it was not reported to the police because of police attitudes at the time.

    The more recent incident involving a comment on this blog is very unfortunate. As a former colleague of both people involved, I regret that their friendship has been damaged.

    Teasing and derogatory comments are often made to people with the intention of being humorous. Sometimes the person receiving the insult shares the humour, but very often the comment is hurtful. Such comments, if directed against people with particular characteristics, can create an environment that shields discrimination within society, even if the person making the comments does so in jest without any intention of discrimination. On other occasions comments may be made with the full intention of causing hurt, and are therefore deliberately discriminatory.

    It is essential that comments that could reinforce prejudice are identified and action taken to ensure that they are not repeated. In some cases the person intended hurt, and recourse to formal complaint procedures would be fully appropriate. In other cases, a polite, private complaint from the victim to the perpetrator to point out that the comment was inappropriate would be sufficient to ensure that that person will never make a comment like that again. Which course is appropriate depends on the reasonableness, or not, of the perpetrator.

    I was surprised by the comment on this blog last year that upset Peter. It seemed to me to be crass, insensitive and unpleasant. However, I know the person who made the comment well, and it was my strong feeling that the comment represented a failure of judgement at that instant and a lack of understanding of the nature of the comment, rather than a genuine desire to cause upset or to reinforce discrimination. I therefore would have thought that a firm, polite e-mail pointing out the true character of the comment and the genuine upset it had caused would have been sufficient to have produced a sincere apology and the determination by him never to make a comment of that character ever again. He has never appeared to me to be somebody who would hold any prejudice and did make a swift apology after the comment, but I have no particular sensitivity to the type of discrimination involved here. A formal complaint does seem to me to have gone somewhat beyond what was necessary to convey the acute scale of the hurt and to ensure that comments of that character will never be repeated. I am sure that everyone involved will find it regrettable that this has gone further by being given such prominence in the Times Higher Education magazine following a decision by journalists, rather than the anonymous footnote that Peter might have expected.

    I hope that both people involved will be able to put this event behind them and not let it cause lasting ill feeling.

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  15. Rhodri Evans Says:

    A well written blog Peter. As someone who suffered a number of beatings at school, for being a ‘swot’ I can only imagine how much more psychologically hurtful it must be to be set upon merely because of your sexual orientation. And also in your 20s not as a teenager. It must have taken some courage to blog about this horrific event Peter.

  16. telescoper Says:

    Rhodri, certainly some Dutch courage was involved but in the end I found writing this piece quite easy, and very cathartic…

  17. Some random comments.

    To what extent is sexual orientation now protected from discrimination in UK law? A serially monogamous homosexual minister is now acceptable in many countries (the current mayor of Berlin, the current German foreign minister, the former chief of a conservative Swedish party, the current mayor of Hamburg, the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (killed not by a gay-basher, but by a radical animal-rights activist) are/were all openly gay (and span the range of political parties). I’m sure there are similar examples in other countries. However, would an openly polygamous minister be acceptable? An openly polygamous professor? Sure, there were some closet polygamists such as JFK, Bill Clinton (I was always waiting for Monica Lewinsky to say “but I didn’t inhale”) etc, but I am not aware of any politician or other public figure who is openly polygamous. (Of course, in most European countries, one can be legally married only to one person at a time, but fortunately extramarital sex is no longer a crime, so it is legally no problem to be polygamous, but it doesn’t have the same acceptance as other sexual orientations which were formerly frowned upon or even illegal.) Of course, rock stars, sports heroes, publishers of “men’s magazines” etc have long been polygamous without it hurting their acceptance in their fields (if anything, it probably helps them), but I don’t think that that acceptance goes so far that an openly polygamous politician could be elected. This is somewhat more accepted for folks coming from other cultures (IIRC, Abdus Salam showed up to collect his Nobel Prize with 3 of his 4 wives, which caused some consternation for those planning who sets where at the dinner table).

    Polygyny as opposed to polyandry is the usual form of polygamy. Many people see the move to monogamy as a victory of feminism, but actually, as Steven Pinker and others have pointed out, it’s really a victory for men. Most men benefit from a monogamous society, since otherwise most would have no wife at all, whereas most women benefit from a polygynous society. (The classic question: “would you rather be the third wife of JFK or the only wife of Bozo the clown” makes it clear to most women that their choice would be the former. Of course, many might say that they would like to be the only wife of JFK, but that is not an option, and Marilyn Monroe and others demonstrated that being a mistress of JFK was desirable, even though Marilyn could have been (and was) married to a sports hero, an intellectual etc. Of course, serial young-women monogamy has the same effect as concurrent polygyny, i.e. the rich and famous (Donald Trump, Mick Jagger etc) depriving some other man of a young wife, but it at least frees up the older women for the occasional discerning younger man (Ashton Kutcher, John Lennon etc).

    Some historians have suggested that the large number of female servants (French-maid costume, anyone?) among the well-to-do up until rather recently was actually a thinly disguised harem, rather than the result of actually needing so many servants.

    No comment on Gadaffi’s all-female bodyguard troop. :.-)

    I’ve long suspected that Peter was gay, though I have no direct evidence. I wonder what pushed my persuasion in that direction.

    Interestingly, many famous Black people (rappers etc) have taken to calling themselves the N word in a sort of pro-active defense. I wonder if something similar would work for the gay communitiy. If it is not desirable, where is the difference to Blacks calling themselves the N word?
    (I’m sure it’s even OK for white folks to use the N word, as long as it is clear from the context that it is used appropriately.

    Gay was adopted as a term for homosexuals in a deliberate attempt to use a positive word, to the extent that one can hardly use the word in its original meaning. Whether this was a good choice, I don’t know, but I think the similar attempt of some high-profile atheists to designate themselves as “brights” has to be the worst PR move in history.

  18. Peter – it has always been a difficult question whether rare but extreme behaviour, or the integrated effect of many insults or even small slights, is in the end more damaging to a good society, and the well being of all its members. I remember well how in the seventies and eighties, explicit racial discrimination became rarer, but lots of people I knew – nice middle class folk – continued telling “Rastus” jokes in the pub and so on, and just couldn’t understand what was wrong. I think criminalisation at this level is wrong (as opposed to your attackers of course) – but something has to be done. Social pressure, corporate policies, and explicit re-training must be about right. I can’t know all the facts but guess that the person in question was basically clumsy and stupid in an unacceptable way. This means that punishment is wrong, but censure and subsequent help is right.

  19. Peter,

    I realise I’m quite late in responding to this thread, mainly because I was worried my comments would be misinterpreted. I don’t think a formal complaint was excessive and I find the comments defending the use of such language disappointing.

    You’re aware of my Greek heritage but, to the average Daily Mail reader, I look like any other brown person and I’ve had various, increasingly geographically inaccurate insults thrown at me. Once I’d been chatting to a guy for several minutes and we were getting on fairly well. He made a comment which, unlike in your case, I am certain he didn’t mean to be vicious. Nevertheless his comment, and particularly his use of a certain word, reduced me to tears (which doesn’t happen often).

    Of course, this isn’t directly comparable to your situation. I’ve never been subjected to such language from someone I work with or anyone who should be my intellectual peer. And I have never been told by any of my friends that I was over-reacting.

    Anton, while I realise that being abused for your white skin in a foreign land must have been horrible, I don’t think the comparison here applies. England is my home; and to be abused in one’s home, whether on the grounds of race, sex or sexual orientation, is unbearably sad.


    • telescoper Says:


      I have a friend here in Cardiff who has had very similar experiences. She is of Spanish descent but born and raised in Britain, and has been subjected to racist abuse involving words implying that she was of asian extraction. Ignorance and overt racism are not strangers to each other, obviously…

      Incidentally it is perhaps worth mentioning that the law does not require the target of abuse to be gay in order for that abuse to be homophobic. Calling a straight man a “faggot” also constitutes a homophobic offence, if it is used in a way that is intended to cause distress or harassment. I assume that means that calling someone by a racist name is also an offence, even if the name doesn’t even apply.


  20. telescoper Says:


    I number of high-profile British politicians are openly gay. Lord (Peter) Mandelson is an example, but the less said about him the better.

    In Britain, various aspects of discrimination are forbidden under civil law, including that relating to employment and so on. Same sex couples can register for a civil partnership, but that falls short of the full legal recognition afforded to a marriage.

    More importantly than the law, I think, is people’s general attitude towards gay men, lesbians and transgendered people which – at least in my experience – has been transformed beyond all recognition since the 1970s.

    I’ve been quite open about my sexuality since 1978, when was 15.


  21. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Peter – Yes I can imagine it was cathartic to write about it but I still admire your courage.

  22. I’m still curious as to what reaction an openly polygamous person (who is not a rock star, sports hero or publisher of “men’s magazines”) would have, both legally and in terms of acceptance by society. Does the law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation apply to them as well? Any openly polygamous politicians or professors?

    I am not a football fan, but I’ve often heard that, in Germany, gay footballers are “the last taboo”. Are there any openly gay footballers in the UK?

    I agree that there has been a huge change in society, at least in the more enlightened countries. But the battle is far from won. Just in from the blogosphere:

    Of course, homosexuality is still punishable by death in many societies. (Note also that under CURRENT Afghan law, a Muslim losing the faith is also punishable by death—what IS the West fighting for there?) Apparently US fundamentalist Christians are behind some of the movement against homosexuals in Africa:

  23. Anton Garrett Says:


    As I understand it the gay community has done *exactly* what you suggest by analogy with black rappers calling themselves N*****s, by taking on board the once perjorative word “queer”. In a discussion of this sort I too would normally spell the word out in full, but I suspect it wouldn’t get through WordPress.


  24. telescoper Says:


    I thought polygamy meant having several wives, which is illegal in the UK. The issue of whether a person has multiple partners is in any case not really a question of orientation as such. Other than that I can’t comment. I find it difficult enough to find one person willing to go to bed with me!

    The only gay footballer I am aware of was Justin Fashanu, who only came out after he stopped playing. He committed suicide in 1998. Recently, however, the welsh international rugby player Gareth Thomas came out as gay. The news was greeted with remarkably little fuss, and many supportive comments from his team-mates. Times have changed.


    P.S. Erwin Schrodinger famously lived in a menage-a-trois for many years.

  25. Of course, some “backwards” African traditions are home-grown, some go back to the Islamisation of parts of Africa and others are more recent imports from Christian Missionaries. While reading the book THE MASKED RIDER (about cycling in West Africa), I was struck by the fact that almost all men wear long trousers there, despite the heat—this being an influence of the missionaries. Cyclists could just barely get by on the grounds that cycling trousers were necessary for cycling.

  26. Anton Garrett Says:


    When you say that JFK and Bill Clinton were closet polygamists I think there is a dictionary issue, complicated by a political issue.

    The political issue is this. When a State registrar, or a minister of an Established church, conducts a wedding and then declares the couple married, he is exceeding his authority (even if he is not aware of it). What he is really doing is saying that the State *recognises* the marriage. I assert in contrast that the couple become married simply upon exchanging marital pledges; this was the norm for aeons, including 3/4 of the Christian era. The point that distinguishes marriage from cohabitation is not a certificate from the State, but the pledged intent that the relationship should be permanent. It is also necessary that the authorities know who is married, because questions can arise (eg, who is the legitimate heir) that need to be decided in the courts. That is dealt with by the couple *informing* the authorities that they are married. (I do question the validity of “cladestine marriages.”)

    At a guess you might agree with this. But I am not aware that JFK and Bill Clinton made vows of permanence in their relations with their various lovers, so I do not agree that they were “closet polyamists”. They were not from a Muslim culture and they chose to include exclusivity in their wedding vows, meaning no polygamy. Quite simply they broke their vows and cheated on their wives.

    On a separate issue, polygyny is more common than polyandry because until the very recent rise of the Welfare State and reliable contraception the role of the man was familial provision and the role of the woman was child-bearing and child-rearing. Polygny arose because wealthy men could afford to support more than one wife.


  27. “I thought polygamy meant having several wives”

    Polygamy as a term is gender-neutral, referring to many partners (think “gametes”) while polygyny refers to many female partners (think “gynecology”) and polyandry refers to many male partners (think “android”, “man-like”).

    “which is illegal in the UK.”

    Right. Homosexuality also used to be illegal in the UK. I’m curious as to why one is now legal and the other not. (Presumably, in practice it doesn’t matter since extramarital sex isn’t illegal (except in some cases with respect to prostitution, at least in the UK), so one can have an arbitrary number of wives as long as one is legally married to at most one.)

    “The issue of whether a person has multiple partners is in any case not really a question of orientation as such.” I suppose that depends on the definition of orientation. Of course, if one doesn’t want something protected by the law, one can say that it doesn’t fall under the terms of the law. However, if that’s the case, the question is why. I think the main motivation behind increased acceptance of homosexuality is the idea that a person’s (or at least a consenting adult’s) sexual practices are a strictly private matter (in the sense that the law has no reason to specify anything in this regard). To me, it seems that this should extend to polygamy as well. If not, why not? Yes, Hugh Hefner can have several bunnies, but probably not your MP, like a couple of decades ago where famous people could afford to be homosexual but normal folks had to keep quiet.

    “P.S. Erwin Schrödinger famously lived in a menage-a-trois for many years.”
    Right. His wife didn’t mind his sexual exploits (often involving quite young girls); she was quite happy to have Hermann Weyl as her lover. I don’t know to what extent he was openly polygamous during his life. This (and much else, including much physics) is detailed in the biography by Moore. Apparently before he came to Dublin—aware of the influence of the Church there—he got his future employers to promise that he wouldn’t be persecuted for his sex life as long as he kept it reasonably discreet. Einstein was another example of a scientist who enjoyed the groupie lifestyle as much as Gene Simmons or Tiger Woods, but—although known within the inner circle—this wasn’t actually open during his lifetime.

  28. Anton Garrett Says:


    Polygamy *is* illegal in the UK, but the Labour government nevertheless decided that State support, ie taxpayers’ money, would be given to multiple wives of Muslims – and then tried to hide the fact of that decision.


  29. “Quite simply they broke their vows and cheated on their wives.” This depends on the definition of polygamy etc. However, I think the issue is acceptance in society, not so much the legal issue (though this can be important to the individuals involved). After all, homosexuality was illegal because the act was illegal—no mention of marriage in the anti-homosexuality laws. However, the word “cheating” doesn’t apply to cases where all involved are informed and agree (Schrödinger being a famous example from the world of physics).

    “On a separate issue, polygyny is more common than polyandry because until the very recent rise of the Welfare State and reliable contraception the role of the man was familial provision and the role of the woman was child-bearing and child-rearing. Polygny arose because wealthy men could afford to support more than one wife.”

    Of course, that’s an important part of the story. An additional part is that most men, if given the chance, would prefer more than one wife, while most women wouldn’t prefer more than one husband. 🙂 Just because a man can support more than one wife doesn’t mean that he is obliged to do so.

  30. Anton Garrett Says:

    ” “Quite simply they broke their vows and cheated on their wives.” This depends on the definition of polygamy”

    No, it depends on the content of the vows.


  31. This is slightly off the point, but there is still a Zap nightclub in Brighton (

  32. @Anton: I was using “polygamy” as a shorthand for “multiple partners”, regardless of any marriage vows and including but not limited to the situation of knowledge and consent of those involved. Again, that is the issue: public acceptance (i.e. that was what my questions were about). Since homosexuality is quite criticised by the church, I don’t think most homosexual people see marriage in a religious sense as a goal; at most in a practical sense (inheritance, tax etc).

  33. Anton Garrett Says:


    I copped one anti-Pom comment in more than 2 years in Australia (from a man who was very much the exception in a magnificently friendly country). A friend has got it in the neck for being English in Edinburgh. And I am entirely accustomed to being insulted in my own country for peacably defending my Christian beliefs. Where a debate is going on I take the view that someone who uses insults is losing the argument and that the best thing is to do or say nothing, because they thereby condemn themselves in front of the audience – who are not fools.

    I regard it is good exercise to rise above insults provided that there is no associated threat of violence; it develops one spiritually, just as weight training does physically. I regard free speech as a higher good and I would much rather have that in my own country than laws restricting free speech for my own supposed good or the good of others. I personally renounce the use of such laws (which are liable to be enforced selectively according to the State’s preferred views).


  34. Anton Garrett Says:


    You wrote

    “I was using “polygamy” as a shorthand for “multiple partners”, regardless of any marriage vows and including but not limited to the situation of knowledge and consent of those involved.”

    The dictionary calls that promiscuity. Polygamy means multiple simultaneous marriage, and it is generally agreed that marriage carries the intent of permanence. I was confused by your statement, as I think Peter was.


  35. telescoper Says:


    Promiscuity is not illegal, and I have to admit I don’t think it’s necessarily immoral either.The moral aspect is not being deceitful and not breaking promises (or “vows”). Many people enjoy no-strings mutually satisfying sexual encounters which society generaly condemns but which seem to me to be a perfectly moral way of living your life. It’s not for everyone, of course, but morality isn’t about making everyone behave exactly the same way you do.

    I am uncomfortable with the issue of gay marriages, in fact. If you don’t think that the only acceptable form of sexual relationship is between one man and one woman, then I don’t see why you should conclude that everything is solved if you extend that to two men or two women. Why should society confer a different status on that compared to those who are single, or who live in groups of 3, 5 or 27?

    I would prefer the law stopped discriminating in favour of those people who happen to be married rather than allowing others to join the favoured group. All people – straight or gay, monogamous, celibate or promiscuous – should be treated equally under the law.


  36. OK, then let me rephrase my question: To what extent (according to the law and with respect to acceptance by society) would an openly promiscuous person (say, a politician or television news reader or a professor) be as accepted as an openly homosexual person? If there is a difference, then why?

    (I don’t think “promiscuous” is quite the right word either, as this applies to just many sexual contacts. I was thinking of a subset of that, simultaneous relationships with several partners (whether married or not) over a longer term. Note that terms such as “monogamous” and “polygamous” are also used in zoology, although there is no legal marriage between animals apart from homo sapiens.)

    I was a bit surprised at Anton’s last comment until I realised that the WordPress font caused me to parse “Pom” as “Porn”. 🙂

    • telescoper Says:

      I really don’t know. However I would be wary of inviting someone to dinner if I thought they were going to bring several partners. Couples are bad enough: they only ever bring one bottle of wine between them. Imagine if you had to cater for 5 people who only brought one bottle!

  37. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, Phillp,

    Neither of you picked up my implicit invitation to comment on the use of taxpayers’ money to support polygamous families, so I hereby make the invitation explicit. What if a man living in our culture but originally from a polygamous culture claimed 200 wives and 800 childrren – do you think he should have State income support from taxpayers? (NB He does not have a banker’s salary…)

    You are now making the claim that consensual sexual activity (including the consent of partners to have sex with third parties) is a matter for them alone, and is therefore OK. The trouble is that there *is* such a thing as society, and every society to have moved from a conservative sexual morality to a promiscuous one has collapsed within 2-3 generations. That is the conclusive finding of a social anthropological study by the scholar JD Unwin in a book called “Sex and Culture” (1934). While his conclusion comes as no surprise to me given my religious beliefs, both he and his study were totally secular. In fact he posited a Freudian causative explanation for the correlation he had found. Of course if you reject the Judaeo-Christian or the Freudian explanation then the onus is on you to provide another. The outlook is not good for Western Civ.


  38. “Promiscuity is not illegal, and I have to admit I don’t think it’s necessarily immoral either.The moral aspect is not being deceitful and not breaking promises (or “vows”). Many people enjoy no-strings mutually satisfying sexual encounters which society generaly condemns but which seem to me to be a perfectly moral way of living your life. It’s not for everyone, of course, but morality isn’t about making everyone behave exactly the same way you do.”

    My point exactly. However, I suspect that someone openly promiscuous would suffer some criticism in society, might not be hired for some jobs etc. To what extent is this protected against by anti-discrimination laws? Perhaps not at all, if this is not considered to be an “orientation”, though a more inclusive definition would probably be more in the spirit of the laws.

    “I am uncomfortable with the issue of gay marriages, in fact. If you don’t think that the only acceptable form of sexual relationship is between one man and one woman, then I don’t see why you should conclude that everything is solved if you extend that to two men or two women. Why should society confer a different status on that compared to those who are single, or who live in groups of 3, 5 or 27?”

    Again, my point exactly. Gay marriage sometimes seems like an attempt to become accepted by someone who doesn’t want to accept one. I don’t think it’s the reverse of Groucho Marx’s “I don’t want to join a club which would have me as a member” but rather a drive to become accepted, but it often doesn’t work. Heterosexual couples are not accepted because they are married but rather their marriages are accepted because they are heterosexual. In some countries, there are no legal advantages enjoyed by married couples as opposed to people in other sorts of relationships. Elsewhere, however, since legal advantages for marriages are already in place, if one can convince the state to allow gay marriage, then it’s a big benefit for those concerned in return for getting only one law changed. However, in some respects it might be winning the battle but losing the war, especially if this leads to even more exclusion of other groups. Of course, for the people involved it might have huge practical advantages, but people often do something to advantage themselves which they don’t approve of in society in general.

    “I would prefer the law stopped discriminating in favour of those people who happen to be married rather than allowing others to join the favoured group. All people – straight or gay, monogamous, celibate or promiscuous – should be treated equally under the law.”

    Exactly. I think this is actually the case in some countries.

    Sometimes, as a result of anti-discrimination laws, it is not allowed to have tickboxes like “Sex: M / F” for male or female. I know a woman who says “I tick “F” for “frequently”. 🙂

  39. “Promiscuity is not illegal” In the UK, of course, and many other countries. But it is also illegal in many countries.

    @Andyxl “it has always been a difficult question whether rare but extreme behaviour, or the integrated effect of many insults or even small slights, is in the end more damaging to a good society, and the well being of all its members.” More damaging than what? Your sentence seems to be grammatically lacking.

  40. Anton Garrett Says:


    The cricket commentator John Arlott, when asked to define his race on entry cards to the old South Africa, used to write “human”. Good man.


  41. @Peter “Imagine if you had to cater for 5 people who only brought one bottle!” No problem; I’m sure my three wives could handle it! 🙂

    @Anton: “Neither of you picked up my implicit invitation to comment on the use of taxpayers’ money to support polygamous families, so I hereby make the invitation explicit. What if a man living in our culture but originally from a polygamous culture claimed 200 wives and 800 childrren – do you think he should have State income support from taxpayers?”

    First, presumably by “claim” I suppose you mean “ask support for” rather than simply “claiming” he has them with no proof. Second, one has to distinguish between support as in help for the needy and support in terms of income redistribution. For the former, this is part of a general question as to whether immigrants should receive help for the needy without contributing to society. That’s an interesting question, but not relevant here and can be circumvented by positing a UK-born, UK-citizen Muslim. I don’t really see an issue here at all. If taxpayers (who are also voters) want to support wives and children, why should it matter if there is one or several husbands for a given number of wives? Of course, the state might have its own goals and structure laws accordingly (such as the one-child-per-family policy in China), but in countries where people see a decreasing number of children as a problem, it seems to me that they should support children whatever their source. Surely one shouldn’t discriminate against children because of their parents. (Of course, illegitimate children have been discriminated against in much of history.) I think we can all agree that rape is bad and should be against the law (as it is in most places), but surely a child who is born as a result should not be discriminated against. My point is that even if one doesn’t approve of how the children were conceived, one can’t take this out on the children. Didn’t JC have something to say about whether children should suffer for the sins of the fathers?

    “You are now making the claim that consensual sexual activity (including the consent of partners to have sex with third parties) is a matter for them alone, and is therefore OK. The trouble is that there *is* such a thing as society, and every society to have moved from a conservative sexual morality to a promiscuous one has collapsed within 2-3 generations.”

  42. Sorry, here’s the response to Anton’s second quote.

    What happened to those “collapsed” societies? Presumably the people didn’t all die, but were absorbed by or transformed into another society.

    While “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is a bit too extreme, to take one example, is the Fall of Rome a bad thing? It was, after all, a fascist state (by any useful definition) which relied on slave labour. (Of course, some historians see Christianity as the cause of the fall of Rome, and not promiscuity.) What’s an example of a society which collapsed due to promiscuity and what became of the inhabitants?

  43. Anton Garrett Says:


    Muslims may not marry more than one wife under English law but if they marry more in a Muslim land and then import them, the British State will treat them all equally. The Labour government of the last 10 years decided to do that clandestinely, obviously because it believed most British taxpayers would dissent. Bear in mind that most Muslim women do not work and most Muslim men do not have salaries that enable them to support four families. But if they can claim off the State, many are more likely to run up four wives at the financial expense of taxpayers. And if other faiths allow an unlimited number of wives then the problem instantly becomes acute.

    The societies that fell after going promiscuous mostly lost wars and were invaded, after which their cultural identity vanished. That is a polite summary of a process that generally involves suppression, rape and murder. Read Unwin for umpteen examples.The fall of the Roman Empire is a partial exception in crumbling without invasion from all sides, but even then the Germanic tribes that were to become the “Holy Roman Empire” did a lot of marauding. The upside of Unwin is that sexually conservative societies tend to rise in power – he found that too.


  44. Again, I think this is an immigrant issue rather than a polygamy issue. If the government wants to support 10000 wives, does it matter if they belong to 10000 husbands or to a lesser number?

    Muslims in the UK are mostly immigrants presumably, and poverty is one reason for immigration, so yes, I see your point. However, think of it this way: for a given number of women on the dole, there are less men on the dole if polygamy is allowed! Of course, in Muslim countries there are many men who are rich enough to support 4 wives (or even more) with all their children.

    The corollary to your statement above is that monogamous societies expand by conquering, suppressing, raping and murdering. I don’t think that’s a suitable goal for society to aspire to!

  45. Dare I say “make love, not war”? 🙂

  46. My last remark was rather tongue-in-cheek. However, it has been suggested by Pinker and others that access to women is one of the main goals of war. He relates the story of a South-American Indian talking to an anthropologist, who had been explaining some of his theories about the reasons for war. The Indian replied “Sure, we like meat, but we like women even more”. Certainly rape was almost always a part of war, even if not the actual reason.

    In other words, maybe those in a promiscuous society don’t need to wage a war in order to be promiscuous. 😐

  47. Anton Garrett Says:


    You cite Gene Simmons, I prefer Jean Simmons…

    It would not surprise me if polygamy becomes legal in England soon; at that point it ceases to be an immigrant issue. Obviously you will take the point of considering hypothetical questions.

    As for your comment in response to Unwin, he pointed out a correlation not causation, so you can’t blame chastity/monogamy for the relative success in war of societies that practice those things. (There is a disproportionate number of young single men in armies, hence the rape factor.) Also, unless you can identify a more plausible explanation for Unwin’s findings than the Judaeo-Christian or Freudian ones, and then show that it doesn’t apply to the West, your rational belief will be that the sexual Utopia in which you currently live is not going to outlive your children. Some Europeans can already see which way the wind is blowing.


  48. telescoper Says:

    da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo

  49. Anton Garrett Says:


    I once adapted that quote of Augustine’s, to: “Let me be persecuted, but not yet”. (I think that persecution would be a good thing for the church in Britain, since I would regard it as God purifying his church – which it desperately needs – rather than rejecting it.)


  50. I think it is good to remember that the societies (mainly past, some present) that promote sexual fidelity tend to be more concerned that women keep their end of the bargain than men. Even in Victorian England, male sexual transgressions were tolerated provided they were kept private (see the reference to female servants above) and rape was a common feature of colonialism – not just by soldiers but by married land-owners, slave-merchants etc.

    I think that the 20th century saw a sexual liberation that involved women as much as it involved men which is something quite new and hopefully not subject to inevitable ruin.

    Hope springs eternal…

  51. Anton Garrett Says:


    You wrote: “I think it is good to remember that the societies (mainly past, some present) that promote sexual fidelity tend to be more concerned that women keep their end of the bargain than men.”

    That was because men wished to know that the children they were working to provide for, and who would inherit from them, were their own. It seems that about 1 in 20 weren’t, according to the results of some early (and ‘anonymised’) DNA tests.

    I do (of course) agree that sexual behaviour that is wrong for a woman is also wrong for a man, and that nonconsensual sex is always wrong.


  52. […] employment that involves attempting to educate others. However, the comments following the piece I blogged about recently contains, as well as  some sensible reactions (both for and against my actions),  a few that are […]

  53. My point was not that women were or are always faithful, of course not.

    My point is that the punishments for unfaithful women tend to be far more extreme than those for men.

  54. Anton Garrett Says:


    Understood – and I was explaining why. I was not discussing whether different penalties were right.


  55. “You cite Gene Simmons, I prefer Jean Simmons…” Just to be clear, I am not a fan of Gene Simmons’s music. (I do enjoy some 1970s rock music, but more progressive rock, hard rock, folk rock etc; glam is not my cup of tea at all and neither is Kiss. However, I do admire Simmons as a businessman (MOJO interviewer, after the conversation had come around to wealth: How much? Simmons: A few hundred. MOJO: Million dollars? Simmons: What else?) and, like Frank Zappa (another person whose music doesn’t do it for me but who always gave interesting interviews, wrote interesting articles and commanded my respect), as a musician who in some respects was quintessential 1970s but completely avoided alcohol and drugs (though of course not sex or rock and roll).

    Also, for the record, I have just one wife (at a time).

    With regard to fidelity: as many evolutionary psychologists have pointed out, it is natural (which doesn’t necessarily imply good) that men tend to be promiscuous (fathering 3 children a day more than outweighs the fact that one can’t devote much time to them) and women tend to be less so (they can have only one child a year, and that for just a few decades—so, like the US Marines, they “are looking for a few, good men”). Men are also interested in their wives’ fidelity, for the reasons mentioned above. The only conflict of interest is that women also prefer their men to be less promiscuous, to decrease the risk of another woman enticing them to support her children. Of course, with contraception, sex and pregnancy have been decoupled, but that hasn’t changed our psychological makeup (if anything, it lets it reign more freely).

    “My point is that the punishments for unfaithful women tend to be far more extreme than those for men.” Of course, in general punishments for all people for all crimes are quite cruel and unusual by today’s standards. I’m reminded of an old song, in which a man is being punished for having sex with an unmarried woman: If you be a married man hanged you shall be, if you be a single man you must marry me.

    “I do (of course) agree that sexual behaviour that is wrong for a woman is also wrong for a man, and that nonconsensual sex is always wrong.” Nice to have one thing we all agree on!

  56. Who would have thought that Augustine would make it into a Robbie Williams (for the record, no, I’m not a fan of him either) song?

    As Oscar Wilde said, I can resist anything, except temptation.

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  59. […] for the best part of thirty years. The last time I went there was a few weeks after I had been beaten up on Brighton seafront. I had more-or-less recovered from the physical effects of that late-night encounter with four […]

  60. […] For the record I should state that I have very good reasons for having zero tolerance to any form of violence, whether committed by staff or students or anyone else. You can read why here. […]

  61. […] and violence is still a threat in many environments. I know what impact the latter can have, as I have experienced it myself and is has caused me mental health problems throughout my life. In fact, I have found it much […]

  62. […] long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, […]

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