Feature Articles - The Disputed Sexuality of T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence while at Oxford University In recent years the life and achievements of Thomas Edward Lawrence have been somewhat overshadowed by controversial claims published in posthumous biographies concerning his sexual orientation, accusations that he had been a closet or self repressed homosexual.

The claim was first made by author Richard Aldington 20 years after his death, controversial at the time because none of Lawrence's friends or family supported it.  In the wake of his being immortalized in the 1962 David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia a host of other biographers rode Aldington's coat tails, making the titillating claim that he had been both homosexual and sadomasochistic.

Claims seemingly given credence by newspaper interviews with privates of the Tank Corps who confessed to having had flogged Lawrence at his solicitation between 1925 to 1934, combined they set the seal on the alleged secret life of Lawrence of Arabia.

However those making these claims only told half the story, deliberately neglecting or downplaying the effect his having been raped had on his thoughts and actions.  The base details of Lawrence's life are already well covered on this site so I won't go into superfluous detail, suffice to recap he was captured by Ottoman Turk's in Deraa in 1916 and subjected to humiliating beatings and sexual assault at the instigation of Governor, or Bey.

Rape in time of war is age old, most people are aware of the suffering of woman and girls during hostilities; however since ancient times it has been a weapon of war used against men.  The word itself is derived from the Latin rapere meaning to steal, seize or carry away.  In the military context it was a means of stealing a man's honour, a victorious soldier emasculating a vanquished foe in the belief that by forcibly penetrating him he lost his manhood.

"The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. LawrenceThis indignity was more often inflicted on members of the officer class in the belief it robbed them of their authority as a leader of men, sometimes resulting in the victims suicide.  Gang rape was also considered a means of punishment in some cultures, the Romans, Persians, Ottomans and other societies practiced it.

The Ottoman Turks were infamous for inflicting it throughout the Great War on captured enemy troops, beating and gang raping enemy officers often as a matter of due course.  Prisons and garrisons often had personnel who specialized in this abuse, although there was nothing homosexual about it.

The Turkish soldiers perpetrating this war crime certainly never considered themselves gay, like male rapists in prison the act has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the attacker or victim.  "It's not about sexual gratification, rather a sexual aggressor using somebody else as a means of expressing their own power and control". [1]

It was a remarkable manifestation of courage, perhaps cathartic release, that Lawrence detailed what happened to him in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1926.  Then as now the fear of being labelled homosexual as a result of such disclosure was a legitimate fear, society having the tendency of blaming the victim of sexual assault rather than the perpetrator.

Homosexuality was a taboo subject at that time, same sex rape was even more taboo.  The suspicion Lawrence was homosexual is likely to have been a natural by-product of his shocking disclosure, some readers finding a homo-erotic undertone to his retelling of events.

Then as now few understood the incident in its historic context, the consensus being only homosexuals are victims of same sex rape, that a man can protect himself and if he's raped it's because he wanted to be.

If the 28 year old Lawrence was a virgin at the time of his assault, as many biographers believe, the experience would have had a profoundly negative affect on his concept of self and sexuality.  Alas in his lifetime there were no counselling services available to men who had suffered sexual assault, they were expected to get on with their lives with a stiff upper lip.

T.E. Lawrence "of Arabia"The post traumatic effects of same sex rape often last a lifetime, T.E. Lawrence manifested all the classic symptoms: workaholism, "depression, anger, increased sense of vulnerability, destructive self image, emotional distancing" [2]

In the wake of the Great War he had difficulties with intimacy, withdrew from relationships or carried them out via mail, had problems trusting people and a defunct sex drive.  Not that he ever had much interest in sex at earlier stages of his life, there is no concrete evidence of him having had an intimate relationship with anyone male or female, and he seems to have willingly chosen celibacy as many academics of his class and generation did.  His family and friends attested to his sense of horror with regards to sexual subject matter in the years following the war.

Many heterosexual rape survivors question their sexual orientation,  "it's not uncommon for a victim to blame himself for the rape, believing that he in some way gave permission to the rapist [3].

Recollection of involuntary physiological responses, erections or ejaculations, etc, during the event often make them question whether they deserved or wanted to be assaulted.  There are certainly aspects of this post traumatic introspection in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which many readers have mistaken as homo-erotic influences.

Contrary to popular belief Lawrence's notorious floggings aren't indicators of homosexuality, the fetish is more common with heterosexuals than homosexuals.  According to noted psychologist and rape trauma therapist Dr. Michael Hunter Lawrence's "behaviour was a recreation of the experience which marred his life, a repetition compulsion, an attempt to take control of an event which had previously been out of his control".

His victimology isn't unique, "people often repeat their prior traumas, literally or symbolically, both conscious and unconscious". [4] Psychologist's also believe Lawrence changed his name twice because he felt emasculated by his experience and wanted to escape the macho, action man image being forced upon him by popular culture increasingly obsessed with "Lawrence of Arabia".  By changing his name he took on another persona, left the wounded rape victim behind and became someone else for a period of time.

Over the past few decades pop biographers, historians and gay activists have made an art form of deliberately misinterpreting biographical information on notable people to sell their otherwise repetitious tomes or push an agenda.

T.E. LawrenceAny figure who remained unmarried, had close same sex friendships or acted in a way perceived flamboyant by modern standards is automatically presumed homosexual.

Evidence is not required, only innuendo, few figures escape sensational revisionism: Alexander the Great (356BC-323BC), Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), General Kitchener (1850-1916), Howard Carter (1837-1939) who discovered Tutankhamen's tomb, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and even the fictional Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson have been reclassified as homosexuals; whilst General Gordon (1833-1885) of Khartoum fame is recast a suspected paedophile for having helped homeless boys get off the streets of London; Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) recast a sexual deviant and Jack the Ripper suspect for having helped save woman from prostitution in 1888.

Few historic figures escape contemporary insinuation, T.E. Lawrence was one of the first casualties of it, the psychological after effects of having been brutally raped portrayed as sexual deviancy to sell books or justify someone else's modern lifestyle.

In the final analysis his sexual orientation shouldn't be an issue, if he was homosexual it wouldn't add or subtract from his legacy, but in the interests of historical scholarship it's important to view facts in their proper context.

1. Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender, Dr. A. Nicholas Groth
2. Silent Victims: Bringing Male Rape Out of the Closet, by Sue Brochman (1991)
3. Adult Male Sexual Assault in the Community: A Literature Review and Group Treatment Model, Paul Isley. (1991)
4. Dr. Jim Hopper Ph.D. Research Associate, Boston University School of Medicine Trauma Center, Brookline, Massachusetts, USA.

University of Texas Counseling & Mental Health Center
Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault. USA
Dr. Micael Hunter, Ph.D.

Contributed by John Godl

"ANZAC" was coined in s1915 from the initials of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

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