Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History

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Overview

Sexual blackmail first reached public notice in the late eighteenth century when laws against sodomy were exploited by the unscrupulous to extort money from those they could entrap. Angus McLaren chronicles this parasitic crime, tracing its expansion in England and the United States through the Victorian era and into the first half of the twentieth century. The labeling of certain sexual acts as disreputable, if not actually criminal--abortion, infidelity, prostitution, and homosexuality--armed would-be blackmailers and led to a crescendo of court cases and public scandals in the 1920s and 1930s. As the importance of sexual respectability was inflated, so too was the spectacle of its loss.

Charting the rise and fall of sexual taboos and the shifting tides of shame, McLaren enables us to survey evolving sexual practices and discussions. He has mined the archives to tell his story through a host of fascinating characters and cases, from male bounders to designing women, from badger games to gold diggers, from victimless crimes to homosexual outing. He shows how these stories shocked, educated, entertained, and destroyed the lives of their victims. He also demonstrates how muckraking journalists, con men, and vengeful women determined the boundaries of sexual respectability and damned those considered deviant. Ultimately, the sexual revolution of the 1960s blurred the long-rigid lines of respectability, leading to a rapid decline of blackmail fears. This fascinating view of the impact of regulating sexuality from the late Victorian Age to our own time demonstrates the centrality of blackmail to sexual practices, deviance, and the law.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post

By culling examples from the New York Times and the Times of London, legal reports, film TV and tabloids, McLaren shows not just how sexual blackmail reflects social mores, but also the ways in which sexual deceit and secrecy have affected legislation...The book tracks sexual blackmail from repressive Victorian times to today, when exposure of sexual secrets if far less damaging...Deftly organized and full of gripping facts and critique, Sexual Blackmail makes reading history a wicked indulgence.
— Lily Burana

Times Literary Supplement

One suspects that an examination of sexual blackmail in the United States and Britain must reveal a great deal about differing attitudes to sex in general, and indeed Angus McLaren's Sexual Blackmail—which addresses these two countries alone—does constitute a fascinating comparative study of sexual values...An excellent history: vividly argued, richly textured, widely focused and thought-provoking.
— Sarah Bakewell

The Observer

McLaren's book is a fascinating account of shifting power relations, influenced by largely unconscious assumptions about class, race and gender...It is a powerful reminder of a vanished world in which desperate women and gay men were persecuted, and judicial attempts to police private life were far more corrupting than the practices they sought to prevent.
— Joan Smith

National and Financial Post

A fascinating new study...[McLaren] introduces us to a gallery of persistent blackmailers, like Dapper Dan Collins, who led an American extortion gang 80 years ago...[He] sees the history of Europe and North America through the prisms offered by sexual experience and laws related to sex...McLaren uses the rich material he's uncovered as a way to understand sexuality in modern history.
— Robert Fulford

Times Higher Education Supplement

As [McLaren] shows in this meticulous and detailed excavation of a painful history, people suffer doubly when their consensual, private erotic needs are denied or distorted by a hypocritical culture: first by being forced to hide or deny their desires; second by being exposed to the insidious forms of sexual blackmail.
— Jeffrey Weeks

Journal of American History

Angus McLaren's book is full of fascinating stories…McLaren argues that sexual blackmail is unique to the modern period…[T]his book provides a wealth of rich evidence that establishes the cultural prominence of stories about sexual blackmail in the years in which sexuality began to take a modern form.
— Stephen Robertson

Journal of Contemporary History

Angus McLaren's account of modern sexual blackmail is extravagantly detailed. It confirms the view of legal scholars that sexual blackmail as a crime emerged out of a "sodomite" subculture of the eighteenth century…With increasing acceptance of sexual minorities, and the declining stigmatization of behavior that was hitherto regarded as deviant, McLaren suggests that sexual blackmail has died out.
— H. G. Cocks

Robert A. Nye
This book brilliantly explores the parallel historical expansion of sexual propriety and blackmail, the one making the other profitable until the onset of modern sexual tolerance put the blackmailers out of business. McLaren writes first-rate comparative legal and sexual history with wit, erudition, and considerable doses of irony.
Judith Allen
Sexual Blackmail is an original, timely, and illuminating study of a pervasive sexualized and criminalized cultural practice. McLaren offers a riveting narrative, with arguments supported by rich, evocative, and illustrative examples. A superbly written and finely researched history of a fascinating subject.
Washington Post - Lily Burana
By culling examples from the New York Times and the Times of London, legal reports, film TV and tabloids, McLaren shows not just how sexual blackmail reflects social mores, but also the ways in which sexual deceit and secrecy have affected legislation...The book tracks sexual blackmail from repressive Victorian times to today, when exposure of sexual secrets if far less damaging...Deftly organized and full of gripping facts and critique, Sexual Blackmail makes reading history a wicked indulgence.
Times Literary Supplement - Sarah Bakewell
One suspects that an examination of sexual blackmail in the United States and Britain must reveal a great deal about differing attitudes to sex in general, and indeed Angus McLaren's Sexual Blackmail--which addresses these two countries alone--does constitute a fascinating comparative study of sexual values...An excellent history: vividly argued, richly textured, widely focused and thought-provoking.
The Observer - Joan Smith
McLaren's book is a fascinating account of shifting power relations, influenced by largely unconscious assumptions about class, race and gender...It is a powerful reminder of a vanished world in which desperate women and gay men were persecuted, and judicial attempts to police private life were far more corrupting than the practices they sought to prevent.
National and Financial Post - Robert Fulford
A fascinating new study...[McLaren] introduces us to a gallery of persistent blackmailers, like Dapper Dan Collins, who led an American extortion gang 80 years ago...[He] sees the history of Europe and North America through the prisms offered by sexual experience and laws related to sex...McLaren uses the rich material he's uncovered as a way to understand sexuality in modern history.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Jeffrey Weeks
As [McLaren] shows in this meticulous and detailed excavation of a painful history, people suffer doubly when their consensual, private erotic needs are denied or distorted by a hypocritical culture: first by being forced to hide or deny their desires; second by being exposed to the insidious forms of sexual blackmail.
Journal of American History - Stephen Robertson
Angus McLaren's book is full of fascinating stories…McLaren argues that sexual blackmail is unique to the modern period…[T]his book provides a wealth of rich evidence that establishes the cultural prominence of stories about sexual blackmail in the years in which sexuality began to take a modern form.
Journal of Contemporary History - H. G. Cocks
Angus McLaren's account of modern sexual blackmail is extravagantly detailed. It confirms the view of legal scholars that sexual blackmail as a crime emerged out of a "sodomite" subculture of the eighteenth century…With increasing acceptance of sexual minorities, and the declining stigmatization of behavior that was hitherto regarded as deviant, McLaren suggests that sexual blackmail has died out.
Publishers Weekly
The central premise of this carefully researched volume is that sexual blackmail-the attempt to extort money by threatening to expose sexual secrets-has a past. McLaren, author of Twentieth-Century Sexuality: A History and a professor at the University of Victoria, has delved extensively into court documents and news archives to furnish hundreds of examples of his subject. >From 18th century England to 20th century America, he details blackmail threats built around homosexuality, adultery, prostitution, abortion and interracial affairs. Sexual blackmail is a crime without much of a present, though, and so McLaren's work is unlikely to hit the sort of nerve that tips an academic book into mass readership. He mentions Autumn Jackson, who in 1997 was convicted of attempting to extort money from the comedian Bill Cosby by threatening to publicize her claim to be his illegitimate daughter. But that case was an exception, and the author shows persuasively that in an era of greater sexual tolerance, sexual blackmail has lost its bite. Unsurprisingly, President Clinton's political survival after his affair with Monica Lewinsky is cited to show how little we now judge a public figure's private behavior. McLaren's most useful cautionary tale is that blackmail flares up in times when widely practiced sex acts are most stigmatized. 12 b&w illustrations. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
McLaren (history, Univ. of Victoria, B.C.) offers a fascinating account of blackmail in England and America, showing that it both reflected and influenced society's sexual values. Initially, men could be blackmailed only with revelations of homosexuality (a severely punishable offense), but beginning in Victorian times, when sexual propriety became more important, the blackmailing of men and women for many kinds of sexual indiscretions (including abortion and interracial pairings) became more common. McLaren discusses different forms of blackmail, including breach-of-contract suits and alimony demands by "designing women." As he shows, restrictions on private conduct eventually were loosened because the conduct itself did no harm and the restrictions encouraged blackmail. He also muses on the fascination with blackmail and blackmailers in art and in real life, since it is a crime in which the victim may be no more sympathetic than the villain. A more permissive world has led to a decline in blackmail, but it still goes on today. Though the book is definitely academic in tone, the subject matter is intrinsically interesting for the lay reader. For academic and larger public libraries.-Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674009240
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Angus McLaren is Professor of History at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Sodomy and the Invention of Blackmail

2. The Modern Mania for Morality

3. Womanizing across Class Lines

4. Entrapping the Jazz-Age American Male

5. The Homosexual Target between the Wars

6. Exploiting Racial Anxieties

7. Blackmail and the New Woman

8. Cautionary Tales of Adultery and Abortion

9. Disarming the Postwar Blackmailer

10. The Gay Movement's Attack on Victimization

11. From Blackmail to Tabloid Exposé

Conclusion

Notes

Index

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