Benjamin Britten, as a boy lover, will need little introduction to many heretics here, especially after a new biography in this centennial year of the great composer’s birth, and all the other razzmatazz that attends celebrity.
So is there anything more to be said about him, as the year draws to its close? There’s the usual exclusion principle to note, of course, which makes it impossible to be simultaneously both an esteemed figure and a paedophile, or not an active one at least. Britten still just about makes the cut in this regard: his hebephilic, rather than truly paedophilic, preference for barely pubescent boys was always highly visible, but he was never metaphorically caught with his pants down (or theirs) even though he hugged them, kissed them on the lips, declared his love, swam naked in their company and even – shades of Michael Jackson – shared his bed with them.
No doubt he has been cut some slack because some of his most important works, especially the operas Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice, all strongly feature the theme of childhood innocence and appear to abhor its “corruption”. In this, too, his career is strongly reminiscent of Jackson’s. The pop megastar was a very different musician and personality but both artists surrounded themselves constantly with children, especially boys, who were featured extensively in their work. Both took boys to bed with them and both insisted – or had others insist for them – that it was all entirely “pure”, and they were protective, not predatory. The comparison is at times uncannily close: Here’s Michael’s little friend Brett Barnes: “I was on one side and he was on the other, and it’s a big bed.” And Ben’s beloved David Hemmings: “It was a very big bed.” Or what about the first time Michael slept with young Jordie Chandler? They had been watching a video of The Exorcist and the boy said been so frightened he had not wanted to sleep alone. Hemmings again: “I have slept in his bed, yes, only because I was scared at night…” No videos in those days: he had been scared, so it was claimed, by the crashing of waves on the seashore near Ben’s house!
Unlike Chandler, though, who very credibly testified that his relationship with Jackson became overtly sexual, Hemmings, who was decidedly not an innocent child, always protected Ben’s reputation. Young David, who played the role of the “corrupted” boy Miles in The Turn of the Screw, later went on record saying he flirted with Ben. A sexual advance would not have shocked him as he had already been sexually involved with a couple of boys and began a long heterosexual career as early as age seven, when he was getting his hands in naughty places with little girls – something it would be ill-advised for even a child to confess these days! But Ben, if we are to believe Hemmings, kept himself on a tight rein, so nothing illegal happened between them.
Britten’s close, but possibly unconsummated, relationships with many boys has long been uncontested, following Humphrey Carpenter’s candid biography in 1992 and John Bridcut’s even more comprehensively revealing one in 2007, Britten’s Children. The new biography by Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, adds little to the story of his sexuality except a sensational and almost certainly false claim that the maestro contracted syphilis, probably from his long-term adult partner, the singer Peter Pears. This claim “fell apart within about four days”, according to reviewer Philip Hensher, when a doctor who cared for Britten in his final illness went public to say that the diagnosis “does not fit with everything else … there is no serological, bacteriological, pathological or histological support for the diagnosis.”
The pox, mercifully, need not detain us, but Pears should. Bridcut writes that 13-year-old boys were Britten’s ideal, but he apparently also gained some sort of sexual satisfaction from his relationship with Pears, who was less complicatedly gay, having no apparent interest in youngsters. According to Carpenter, Pears described Britten as more masculine than himself in every way, except in bed, where the composer preferred the passive role. The biographer’s informant was John Evans, who later edited Britten’s letters, for a volume that would appear in 2009. After Britten’s death, Pears confided to Evans that Britten had “needed the active figure (Peter) to his passive, but he also needed to be active to a boy’s passive. And I’ve always had the impression that Peter meant that both types of relationship had been consummated – which left me absolutely thunderstruck.”
As well it might! One possibility that appears to have been overlooked by all the biographers is that Britten’s inhibitions, fostered in the cultural and climatic frigidity of his native England, might have melted quickly away in sunnier and sexually hotter spots abroad, as has happened to many a frustrated Brit. He spent a lot of time in the East, touring in, notably, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Ceylon. He wrote of seeing “the most beautiful people, of a lovely dark brown colour…wearing strange clothes, and sometimes wearing nothing at all.” He even notes that he became accustomed to boys “attaching” themselves to him.
Be that as it may, the revelation that Britten appears to have experienced two distinct sorts of homosexual attraction, passive in relation to the adult Pears, and active (psychologically at least) towards young boys, is surely worthy of thought and comment, especially as regards the current “politically correct” claim that gay men are no more likely to “molest” underage boys than straight men are likely to “molest” underage girls. It depends how you define “gay”, of course: the term tends to be used to describe adolescents who are attracted to physically mature males, but less often the other way around, when the preferred words usually change to “hebephile”, “paedophile” or just “child molester”. The language has now largely abandoned the older words “pederasty” and “sodomy” (no great loss in the latter case), which in the days of Oscar Wilde a century ago were applied almost indiscriminately to man-man contacts and man-boy ones.
What Britten’s case exposes is the falsity of the new language, which obscures an extensive “cross-over” phenomenon: “gay” men, such as he undoubtedly was, do sometimes like boys. In fact, whether we call it “gay” or not, men show a disproportionately higher homosexual interest in children than heterosexual. Research suggests that about a third of male paedophiles prefer boys, about a third prefer girls, and a third are attracted to both. The one third preferring boys is a very high figure given that only about 5% of all men in society are preferentially homosexual. Consider, too, Ray Blanchard’s experimental work: he has demonstrated that men typically have a significant degree of sexual response to their second age category preferences as well as their first: the erectile response of teleiophilic men (i.e. “gay” ones, preferentially attracted to adult males) to erotic images of pubescent boys is on average well over 60% of their response to such images of grown men. A key implication is that the gay men who loudly insist there is no connection whatever between gayness and boy love are making a politically expedient but factually flawed claim.
Enough with the technical stuff already! Let’s get back to Britten in this festive season (for which Heretic TOC wishes all readers well!) with a rousing operatic finale. Admittedly his opera Death in Venice is not that cheerful, but if his librettist Myfanwy Piper had had her way it would surely have cheered us up. The opera features child dancers taking part in “the Games of Apollo”. Bearing in mind that these children were meant to represent athletes, she suggested they should be attired just like the competitors in the games of Ancient Greece, which had inspired the theme – in other words, naked! Britten loved the idea but turned it down because, in Bridcut’s words, it might have attracted “unwelcome publicity”. One suspects that these days, alas, he would have more to worry about than sniggering reviewers!