The immortal onslaught of respectability

Lara Valgerdur Kristjansdottir


The ‘average’ European citizen seems to be in increasing need of consultation in the arms of charismatic and dominant populist party figures in reaction to our ever-evolving, unsettling world. These political actors present themselves as the voice of the people while aiming to restore traditional order as overwhelming progressive values and ideals have allegedly reached a tipping point in their spread through society. Their attempts are more than anything reflected in an obsession with what should perhaps classify as our private matter, our sexuality, body, gender and personal identity, which has gripped the political arena in today’s Europe.

Whatever progress our society achieves in the never-ending battle towards liberating and redeeming our own sexuality is increasingly placed under judgemental scrutiny, opinionated, and questioned by those proclaiming these developments as abnormal and even threatening. Within the political dimension, right-wing populist parties establish more restrictive boundaries of sexuality and gender while declaring narrower definitions of normality versus abnormality within the social order. They consequently propagate ideas that rights, recognition, and acknowledgment would pose a threat to the social order, as well as to the persona and image of the nation. As if the unleashing, everlasting and uncontrollable development of sexuality will eventually blow up the world as we know it and lead the nation into degeneracy.

The result is paranoia, as is seen in the proclamation of Poland’s Law and Justice Party’s proclamation of LGBT+ rights movements as a foreign import threatening the Polish nation. Sexual freedom and ‘gender ideology’ are moreover considered an attack on (traditional) families and children, menacing the sacred nucleus of civil society and cornerstone of social cohesion. As a matter of fact, the commitment of conservative parties to the ‘traditional family’ as a guiding principle, which objects gender mainstreaming projects and feminism, should in itself be seen as an attempt to counter the progression towards sexual liberty and freedom.

This anxiety in turn leads political parties to turn to measures of controlling and containing. For instance, by re-installing the ‘biological’ understanding of binary gender distinctions, reinforcing the idea of the heteronormative nuclear family as the sole model of social organization, cutting reproductive rights, as well as questioning the ‘true motives’ of sex education. Isn’t this all beginning to sound a bit like 19-century fears of sexual deviation and debauchery?

But how and why is the dignity of the nation placed within these efforts to control our private, individual concerns? Why are fundamental human rights being labelled by governments and political parties as invasive influences threatening national identity?

George Mosse’s essay Nationalism and Respectability significantly sheds light on the intertwinement of the history of sexuality with that of nationalism. The renowned author and cultural historian, an émigré from Nazi Germany, is considered one of the most creative, imaginative and provocative of his era. He contributed greatly to the fields of fascism, racism, antisemitism, nationalism and sexuality, as well as to the endowment of Queer/ LGBT+ studies, for instance at the University of Amsterdam where he had taught as a guest professor. His personal acceptance of his own sexuality reflected itself in striking scholarly creativity and productivity, conceivably in his preoccupation with the all-important historical factor of respectability, which he noted historians had somehow taken for granted.

It had not been considered respectable to be a Jew in the past, and certainly homosexuality is on the edge of respectability (always ready to fall off) even today.

There is nothing like a historical overview to enhance your visualisation and understanding of society’s issues, in this case the taboo and denunciation of sexual liberty, and Mosse’s findings will hopefully continue to stimulate thought and discussion in the many years to come.

His central observation entails that respectability, which existentially and politically defined the bourgeoisie as a class and served to maintain the status quo in their favour, and the ideology of nationalism developed simultaneously during the 19th century in Europe, as these were both responses to the age of motion and the masses. Not only that, but nationalism came to significantly succour the state and (bourgeois) society in controlling sexuality beyond those restraints already imposed by the church, by defining and underpinning standards of normality, and by taming sexual attitudes into respectability.


“As if the unleashing, everlasting and uncontrollable development of sexuality will eventually blow up the world as we know it and lead the nation into degeneracy.”

The ‘onslaught of respectability’, of fixed morals and manners, developed during a lifespan of one generation in the late 18thcentury. This principle served as part of a larger effort to stabilize a society facing continuous industrialization and revolution, and implied that sexual activity and disorderly passion exemplified menace to the social order. The modern state itself has in fact always declared interest in the domestic lives of its subjects, and has consciously interfered with political intentions, an example for which is the encouragement of the patriarchy’s growth by the Renaissance state. The subordination of wife and child to the male head of their family remains parallel to (and a cause of) the subordination of subjects to their state’s sovereign.

Behind the state’s continuous struggle to lay foundations of moderation and restraint to the free roaming of fantasy and desires, an ideal was required to declare normality and abnormality, and above all to contain sexuality. Luckily the development of an extraordinarily powerful ideological and political force was consolidating just in time to be of service to the state and the bourgeois-dominated society in its efforts.

Nationalism indeed became the most successful controller of sex, sexual attitudes, and behaviour, expressing ideals congenial to the bourgeois lifestyle, and serving as part of larger efforts to control and discipline the nervous age of industrialization and revolution. A fruitful, strong, and beautiful nation came to depend on ideals of restraint and control, chastity, and purity as the 19th-century obsession with order strictly opposed the uncontrollable passion of the individual;

‘The beautiful body as the personification of the beautiful nation was supposed to transcend its own sexuality.’

Indeed, the role of beauty and of the (male) national stereotype was to prevent disorder. The crucial social order was menaced by a sexual abnormality which was considered to be able to disturb it as a whole, and private vice was at once to become a public concern. Sexual unconventionality and a person’s stepping beyond the boundaries of respectability was consequently not only considered a sickness dangerous to individual health but to the health of the entire nation-state.


“Nationalism indeed became the most successful controller of sex, sexual attitudes, and behaviour, expressing ideals congenial to the bourgeois lifestyle, and serving as part of larger efforts to control and discipline the nervous age of industrialization and revolution.”

Although our public understandings of sexuality have thankfully evolved since the 19th century, when the term represented little beyond than that of higher-class, heterosexual males, we are still able to recognise a solidity and continuity of the state’s aims to restraint sexuality, establish, and maintain traditional norms and denounce sexual abnormality. The ample help of nationalism in this process identifies the nation as an ideal which requires personal attitudes and behaviour to reflect its own vitality, while all of this simply serves efforts to cope with the uncertainties of the ‘nervous age’.

‘Nationalism and respectability jointly provided a reference point in an unsettling world, a piece of eternity which could be appropriated by those caught up by the vibrations of modernity.’

Despite Mosse’s grammatical use of the past tense in his statement, we might not help noticing the resemblances it bears to today’s Europe. Particularly as conservative parties declare the importance of endorsing traditionalist (and respectable) understandings of the many aspects of our sexuality and identities, through the argument of evolving liberal values intimidating our stability, our social order and our nation. In spite of encountered backlashes, we must believe that whatever may be in store for us this coming year, or decade, will support our enduring efforts towards sexual liberty, freedom of restraint and judgement, and hopefully someday of the burdening standards of respectability.


First published Online, January 2021. Volume 16, Issue 2. Image: Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene, Simeon Solomon, 1864