Thoughts on ‘The English Vice’

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New York needs a more European approach when it comes to sexuality

By Susan Braudy

I recently read that Christopher Hitchens’ upcoming memoir tells of his passionate love affairs with boys in boarding school in England. No big deal for the now-married, smart-as-a-whip pundit and gray eminence.

Have we missed the boat? I think so.

We post-Stonewall generation of Americans seem to believe that a man or woman is either 100 percent homosexual or 100 percent straight. This is despite the fact that a few years ago, Drew Barrymore casually declared herself bisexual, as do some students at all-girl colleges. Recently, Anna Paquin, the New Zealand actress who won an Academy Award for her role in The Piano, the film starring the great Holly Hunter, has declared herself bisexual and in a relationship with a man.

During my years as a Ms. editor and writer (workaholic that I am, I wrote more byline features than anybody), I became intensely puzzled about women’s sexuality. After much reading, I found the most satisfying hypothesis in the writings of researcher Alfred Kinsey, who believed that female sexuality was “plastic,” i.e., malleable. He believed that women were capable of sexual response to a person of either sex. Because of what he saw as our sexual passivity, he decided it just depended on who came on to us.

This satisfied me vis-à-vis the formerly married women I knew who were declaring themselves lesbians—several of whom shamefacedly had abortions after they came out.

But what about men? I assumed they were homosexual or heterosexual.

But for a few years now I’ve been facing the absolutely amazing Scotsman Craig Ferguson, late-night talk-show host extraordinaire and autodidact who writes high-brow, totally honest books and who can respond to anything with a pertinent joke—like Louis Armstrong riffing on a new melody.

Craig is obsessed with sex—and speaks of having had affairs with both sexes. I was beady-eyed for a long time, thinking he was homosexual and trying to hide it. When a female guest touches his knee, he mumbles “do that again, please.” And whenever he mentions Orlando Bloom he makes it clear he’s attracted to him big time. Craig recently married a third wife (much younger and richer). Is Craig lying to us? To his wife?

By way of explanation he says only, “Hey, I’m European.”

Then my brain sprang into action (finally). Craig means that “the English vice”—which is what the French call homosexuality and which is practiced by upper middle class and married Englishmen, as well as boys in English boarding schools, somewhat routinely—is simply that: a sort of vice that is practiced without stigma by otherwise heterosexual men. (Oddly, little is known about Englishwomen and their secrets or vices—the society is, alas, not designed for them; men dress better, have the right to sleep with men on the side and have exclusive men-only private clubs.)

In general, Europeans seem way ahead of us on this matter and other sexual issues. Yawning and in general unperturbed about distinctions regarding his own sexuality, Craig is probably wiser and more sophisticated and less hypocritical than we are—we who kvell and gossip every time a public person is outed as an adulterer, philanderer or homosexual—when in fact there’s probably almost no one who hasn’t practiced one of the three aforementioned sexual behaviors.

I believe bisexuality is our natural state and as we loosen up a bit, it will be become more and more commonplace. 


Susan Braudy is the author and journalist whose last book,
Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left, was nominated for a Pulitzer by publisher Alfred Knopf.

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