Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty

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Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty

Journal article excerpt

By: Jeremy Bentham

Date: 1785/1978

Source: Bentham, Jeremy. "Offences Against One's Self." Journal of Homosexuality (1978) 3,4 and 4,1.

About the Author: Jeremy Bentham was born in England in 1748. Best known as the "Father of Utilitarianism," Bentham's writings on government focused on reason and rational thought. Bentham supported both the American and the French revolutions and believed that all laws and politics should serve the "greatest good for the greatest number," the central tenet of utilitarian thought.


British philosopher Jeremy Bentham lived for eighty-four years, from 1748 to 1832. During his lifetime, the British lost what became the United States, France experienced a dramatic revolution, the Marquis de Sade was incarcerated in France for publishing sexual stories such as Justine and Juliette, and various wars in Europe and the Americas changed the political landscape of the known world.

Bentham, a prolific writer much sought-after in South America during and after the Wars for Independence in the Americas, worked with revolutionary leaders to write Constitutions, craft political theory, shape governments, and to change how leaders thought of the built world. His invention of the panopticon, a prison structure with a viewing tower in the middle of a semi-circular courtyard, with prison rooms in an array around the tower, applied the then-revolutionary idea of using the minimum amount of resources to exert authority over the maximum number of people. Both philosophically and physically, Bentham shaped the political and civil landscape of the western world.

While Bentham published his political ideas widely, his personal papers found after his death contained hundreds of pages of writings on the issue of homosexuality, which remained unpublished for more than 140 years. Homosexuality, under British law, was defined as "buggery" and punishable by death in Britain, France, and much of Europe. The word "homosexual" itself was not used in eighteenth and early nineteenth century English; "paederast" was the preferred term.

Under King Henry VIII, the Buggery Act of 1533 made homosexual activity punishable by hanging; this sentence was not changed until 1861. In France, following the 1789 revolution, the new government decriminalized sodomy in the Code Pénal of 1791; in 1810 the French government reaffirmed this position and that Penal Code became the basis for laws in other European countries such as Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.

It was in this environment that Bentham wrote, over a period of fifty years, about "paederasty," working to reconcile the harsh British treatment of homosexuality with his own philosophical beliefs.


To what class of offences shall we refer these irregularities of the venereal appetite which are stiled unnatural? When hidden from the public eye there could be no colour for placing them anywhere else: could they find a place anywhere it would be here. I have been tormenting myself for years to find if possible a sufficient ground for treating them with the severity with which they are treated at this time of day by all European nations: but upon the principle utility I can find none. Offences of impurity—their varietys

The abominations that come under this heading have this property in common, in this respect, that they consist in procuring certain sensations by means of an improper object. The impropriety then may consist either in making use of an object:

  1. Of the proper species but at an improper time: for instance, after death.
  2. Of an object of the proper species, and sex, and at a proper time, but in an improper part.
  3. Of an object of the proper species but the wrong sex. This is distinguished from the rest by the name of paederasty.
  4. Of a wrong species.
  5. In procuring this sensation by one's self without the help of any other sensitive object.

Paederasty makes the greatest figure

The third being that which makes the most figure in the world it will be proper to give that the principal share of our attention. In settling the nature and tendency of this offence we shall for the most part have settled the nature and tendency of all the other offences that come under this disgusting catalogue.

Whether they produce any primary mischief

  1. As to any primary mischief, it is evident that it produces no pain in anyone. On the contrary it produces pleasure, and that a pleasure which, by their perverted taste, is by this supposition preferred to that pleasure which is in general reputed the greatest. The partners are both willing. If either of them be unwilling, the act is not that which we have here in view: it is an offence totally different in its nature of effects: it is a personal injury; it is a kind of rape.

As a secondary mischief whether they produce any alarm n the community

  1. As to any danger exclusive of pain, the danger, if any, must consist in the tendency of the example. But what is the tendency of this example? To dispose others to engage in the same practices: but this practice for anything that has yet appeared produces not pain of any kind to any one.

Reasons that have commonly been assigned

Hitherto we have found no reason for punishing it at all: much less for punishing it with the degree of severity with which it has been commonly punished. Let us see what force there is in the reasons that have been commonly assigned for punishing it.

The whole tribe of writers on English law, who none of them knows any more what they mean by the word "peace" than they do by many other of the expressions that are most familiar to them, reckon this among offences against the peace. It is accordingly treated in all respects as an offence against the peace. They likewise reckon forgery, coining, and all sorts of frauds among offences against the peace. According to the same writers it is doubted whether adultery be no a breach of the peace. It is certain however that whenever a gallant accepts an invitation of another man's wife he does it with force and arms. This needs no comment.


The eighteenth and early nineteenth century attitude in Britain toward homosexuality largely ignored Greek and Roman acceptance of sexual and intimate relationships between men. British students studied leaders such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, known to have engaged in homosexual relationships, but discussion of homosexuality was taboo in English society. In the margins of Bentham's writings he notes his fear of airing his views publicly, and his use of classical literature in discussing homosexuality throughout history is part of an effort to lend legitimacy to his arguments.

Bentham applies a utilitarian argument to homosexual behavior: if paederasty causes pleasure between two willing participants and causes no pain to others, then it is not an offense and therefore should not be punished. If one partner is unwilling, Bentham labels it rape, but between two consenting partners homosexual activity, in and of itself, without moral or religious context, he argues, is neutral behavior that brings pleasure and therefore he sees "no reason for punishing it at all."

Bentham viewed homophobia as a form of moral and religious superiority; by condemning paederasty and assigning it capital crime status, the condemner could view himself as somehow less sinful, ignore his own violations of religious law, and elevate himself above his own sin. Sexual sins such as adultery, Bentham argued, produced greater harm than paederasty; adultery could produce illegitimate children, for instance. This application of utilitarian thought to a morally-charged subject was unique in its time.

In 1883, the publication of John Addington Symonds' A Problem in Greek Ethics, which defended homosexuality, caused a controversy in England, although the author's first print run was only ten copies. British doctor and writer Havelock Ellis's writings on "sexual inversion" were banned from public reading until 1935; only medical students and doctors could access his works.

Sexual acts between two consenting adult males were finally made legal in Britain in 1967. Bentham's "Offences Against One's Self" was first published nearly two hundred years after it had been written, in 1978.



Bayer, Ronald. Homosexuality and American Psychiatry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization. Belknap Press, 2003.

Web sites

University College London "UCL Jeremy Bentham Project." 〈〉 (accessed March 31, 2006).