Boarding schools are schools with dormitories where pupils live during the term. Boarding schools have long been considered as hot-beds of sexual activity among students, or sometimes between students and teachers and over the course of history, semi-pornographic novels from The adventures of a schoolboy (1866) to The boys of Swithins hall (1999) have only reinforced this notion. While sexual contact between boys in boarding schools is often being regarded in terms of "situational homosexuality", a close examination of the nature and social context of these contacts reveals it had more to do with pederasty or boy-love than situational homosexuality.
English public schools
The English public (that is, private) school has been the exemplar boarding school in this aspect. The “prefect-fagging” system in particular, formally established by Thomas Arnold in order to enhance “character building”, quite accidentally, facilitated this bond between older and younger students. Under the prefect-fagging system senior boys (“prefects”, ages 17-18) “were given a major role in governing the school, wielding discipline, and carrying responsibility” while new boys (“fags”, ages 12-13), were appointed as servants to the prefects (Nash 1961). Their duties consisted “of almost anything” prefects cared to impose, from running errands, carrying messages, cooking, blacking shoes, kindling fires, warming beds and toilet seats, to sexual favours (Nash 1961; Wakeford 1969; Gathome-Hardy 1977; Chandos 1984; Hickson 1992). Fags were chosen among the “cutest” young boys and senior students often made “top 10” lists of the best looking ones. Cute boys were given feminine nicknames and, in cases where they welcomed the “attentions” of older boys, they were called “tarts” (Gathome-Hardy 1977; Chandos 1984; Hickson 1992). Prefects on the other hand, were chosen by teachers (“masters”) according to their performance in sports (“games”) which were highly idealized by younger boys (Mangan 1981) while their leadership and academic skills were taken into account only secondarily (Wilkinson 1964; Wakeford 1969; Gathome-Hardy 1977; Chandos 1984; Hickson 1992).
Relationships between older and younger boys (or between prefects and fags) were sometimes chaste (see Edward Carpenter’s The intermediate sex), sometimes overtly sexual (see John Addington Symonds’ Memoirs) but always sentimentalized (Chandos 1984; Hickson 1992). In turn, this tradition led to the creation and proliferation of romantic public school novels (most notably The loom of youth (1917) and The hill (1905)) and Uranian poetry.
Evelyn Waugh once wrote: “Most good schoolmasters are homosexual by inclination-how else could they endure their work?” (quoted in Gathome-Hardy 1977: 164). Although “masters” tried to sublimate their feelings, relationships between “masters” and pupils also occurred (the most notorious cases being Eton headmaster Nicholas Udall in 1541 ("Udall, Nicholas". Dictionary of National Biography) and Harrow headmaster C. J. Vaughan) (Ellis 1926; Hickson 1992). Despite Waugh’s observation, however, most English public school masters tried to repress homosexuality by taking several measures including dormitory patrols, enlisting students to spy on another, removing doors from lavatories, prohibiting students of different age groups talk to each other, prohibiting young boys to smile on the presence of older boys, changing the chapel seats arrangement (so as young and old boys would not face each other) and increasing the number of supervised activities especially strenuous sports (Gathome-Hardy 1977; Chandos 1984; Hickson 1992; Edsall 2003).
Boarding schools in other countries
Besides England, Scotland and Wales, the English public school proliferated in a number of other countries, most notably in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa but our knowledge is rather limited compared to England. In Canada, however, historian Steven Maynard (1997) observed that boys developed sexual relations with men in private boarding schools during the late 19th and early 20th century.
In Germany, A. Hoche's research (1896) described similar situations in schools. Chaste romantic friendships occurred between boys of usually different ages and school-classes. Boys with girlish complexion played the passive role and the relationship included “kissing, poems, love-letters, scenes of jealousy, sometimes visits to each other in bed, but without masturbation, pederasty, or other grossly physical manifestations” (Ellis 1926).
Albert Nortal’s, Les adolescents passionnés (1913), is an autobiographical story, is a notably intimate and precise study of homosexuality in French schools (Ellis 1926: 325). Similarly, Japanese higher schools during the Meiji period that operated as boarding schools, initiation rites were full of homosexual overtones (Roden 1980).
References and further reading
Historical and sociological studies
- Bullough, V. L. (1980) “Homosexuality in nineteenth century English public schools,” in J. Harry and M. Sing Das, eds. Homosexuality in International Perspective. New Delhi: Vikas Pub House, 123-131.
- Carpenter, E. (1908) The intermediate sex. London: Sonnenschein.
- Chandos, J. (1984) Boys together: English public schools, 1800-1864. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Edsall, N. C. (2003) Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
- Ellis, H. (1927) Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Vol. I, Sexual inversion (first edition 1897) (John Addington Symonds appears as the co-author in the first printing. The reference to Symonds' authorship was removed in subsequent printings).
- Gathome-Hardy, J. (1977) The old school tie: the phenomenon of English public school. New York: Viking.
- Hickson, A. (1992) The poisoned bowl: sex and the public school. London: Duckworth.
- Johansson, A., and W. A. Percy. (1990) “Public schools.” In W. R. Dynes, ed. Encyclopedia of homosexuality, vol. II. New York: Garland, 1083-1085.
- Lambert, R., Bullock, R. & Millham, S. (1975) The chance of a lifetime? A study of boys’ and coeducational boarding schools in England and Wales. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Mangan, J. A. (1981) Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Maynard, S. (1997) “'Horrible temptations': sex, men, and working-class male youth in urban Ontario, 1890-1935,” Canadian Historical Review 6: 99-124. (.pdf file)
- Nash, P. (1961) "Training an elite: the prefect-fagging system in the English public school." History of Education Quarterly 1: 14-21.
- Poynting, S. (2005) “Snakes and Leaders: Hegemonic Masculinity in Ruling-Class Boys’ Boarding Schools,” Men and Masculinities 7(4): 325-346.
- Roden, D. T. (1980) Schooldays in Imperial Japan. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Rotundo, A. E. (1989) “Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy and Middle-Class Youth in the Northern United States, 1800-1900,” Journal of Social History 23: 1-25.
- Schaverien, J. (2004) “Boarding school: the trauma of the 'privileged' child,” Journal of Analytical Psychology 49(5): 683-705.
- Wakeford, J. (1969) The cloistered elite: a sociological analysis of the English public boarding school. London: MacMillan.
- Wilkinson, R. (1964) The prefects: British leadership and the public school tradition. London: Oxford University Press.
- Anonymous, Memoirs of a Voluptuary (1906)
- Anonymous, "Admissions of a director of admissions," International Journal of Greek Love 2 (1966): 38-39.
- Boyd, D. “A suitable boy,” Observer, August 21, 2001.
- Dahl, R. Boy: tales of childhood (London: Cape, 1984)
- Fry, S. Moab is my washpot (London: Hutchinson, 1997)
- Lewis, C. S. Surprised by joy: the shape of my early life (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1955)
- Symonds, J. A. (1984) The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds (London: Hutchinson, 1984, originally written in 1897)
- Various authors, “When I was at school…” Guardian, October 12, 2005.
- Waugh, E. A little learning (London: Chapman and Hall, 1964)
See also the second part of Hickson’s (1992) book: “tales out of school” (pp. 105-212) with unpublished accounts of sexuality public schools.
- Hughes, Thomas, Tom Brown’s schooldays (1857)
- Farrar, Frederic W., Eric, or Little by Little (1858): religiously earnest story of a boy's fall from grace
- Reddie, J., The adventures of a schoolboy (1866)
- Vachell, H. The hill: a romance of friendship (1905)
- Waugh, Alec, The loom of youth (1917): semi-autobiographical account of his days at Sherborne, from which he was expelled for a love affair with a younger boy.
- Waugh, Evelyn, Decline and fall (1928)
- Dilke, Christopher, The rotten Apple (1968)
- Aldiss, Brian W., The hand-reared boy (1970)
- Fuller, R. The ruined boys (1987)
- Fry, Stephen, The liar (1991): semi-autobiographical, as can be seen from its similarities to his Moab is my Washpot
- Vernon, Frances, The Fall of Doctor Onslow (1994): 1858 scandal about a headmaster, loosely based on the above-mentioned Charles Vaughan, and a boy of 16.
- Kent, Chris, The boys of Swithins hall (1999), Boys in Shorts (2000), The Real Tom Brown's Schooldays (2002): all semi-erotic, the last set in the present despite the title
- Marlowe, Edmund, "Alexander's Choice" (2012): love affair of a 14-year-old and a young teacher at Eton in 1984
- Peyrefitte, R. Les amitiés particulières (1944), translated into English as Special Friendships (1958): tragedy in a Catholic school in the 1920s
- de Montherlant, H. Les garçons (1969), translated into English as The Boys (1969)