Cover image for Sexual blackmail : a modern history
Sexual blackmail : a modern history
McLaren, Angus.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 332 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
HV6688 .M394 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Sexual blackmail first reached public notice in the late 18th century when laws against sodomy were exploited by the unscrupulous to extort money from those they could entrap. Angus McLaren chronicles this parasitic crime, tracing its expansion in England and the United States through the Victorian era and into the first half of the 20th century. The labelling of certain sexual acts as disreputable, if not actually criminal - abortion, infidelity, prostitution, and homosexuality - armed would-be blackmailers and led to a crescendo of court cases and public scandals in the 1920s and 1930s. As the importance of sexual respectability was inflated, so too was the spectacle of its loss.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The central premise of this carefully researched volume is that sexual blackmail-the attempt to extort money by threatening to expose sexual secrets-has a past. McLaren, author of Twentieth-Century Sexuality: A History and a professor at the University of Victoria, has delved extensively into court documents and news archives to furnish hundreds of examples of his subject. > From 18th century England to 20th century America, he details blackmail threats built around homosexuality, adultery, prostitution, abortion and interracial affairs. Sexual blackmail is a crime without much of a present, though, and so McLaren's work is unlikely to hit the sort of nerve that tips an academic book into mass readership. He mentions Autumn Jackson, who in 1997 was convicted of attempting to extort money from the comedian Bill Cosby by threatening to publicize her claim to be his illegitimate daughter. But that case was an exception, and the author shows persuasively that in an era of greater sexual tolerance, sexual blackmail has lost its bite. Unsurprisingly, President Clinton's political survival after his affair with Monica Lewinsky is cited to show how little we now judge a public figure's private behavior. McLaren's most useful cautionary tale is that blackmail flares up in times when widely practiced sex acts are most stigmatized. 12 b&w illustrations. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

McLaren (history, Univ. of Victoria, B.C.) offers a fascinating account of blackmail in England and America, showing that it both reflected and influenced society's sexual values. Initially, men could be blackmailed only with revelations of homosexuality (a severely punishable offense), but beginning in Victorian times, when sexual propriety became more important, the blackmailing of men and women for many kinds of sexual indiscretions (including abortion and interracial pairings) became more common. McLaren discusses different forms of blackmail, including breach-of-contract suits and alimony demands by "designing women." As he shows, restrictions on private conduct eventually were loosened because the conduct itself did no harm and the restrictions encouraged blackmail. He also muses on the fascination with blackmail and blackmailers in art and in real life, since it is a crime in which the victim may be no more sympathetic than the villain. A more permissive world has led to a decline in blackmail, but it still goes on today. Though the book is definitely academic in tone, the subject matter is intrinsically interesting for the lay reader. For academic and larger public libraries.-Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

To some today, the notion of sexual blackmail may seem archaic, as something associated more closely with an earlier time when sexual secrets were more likely to be a source of shame and fear. Nevertheless, sexual blackmail is hardly extinct and, periodically, high-profile cases of attempts to extort money from professional athletes or celebrities surface (for example, the case involving Autumn Jackson against her alleged father, comedian Bill Cosby). In this erudite and elegantly written book, McLaren (history, Univ. of Victoria, British Columbia) uses the topic of sexual blackmail as a prism through which to explore evolving historical attitudes toward sexuality. This form of blackmail seems to have first emerged in the 18th century, principally in connection with threats to expose alleged acts of sodomy or homosexual activity. Although homosexuals have been especially vulnerable to sexual blackmail, respectable and well-off men have also been targets of such blackmail in connection with illicit sexual liaisons, especially those resulting in pregnancy. Altogether, this book is an entertaining and provocative exploration of a significant but relatively little studied phenomenon. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Most libraries. D. O. Friedrichs University of Scranton

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Sodomy and the Invention of Blackmail
2 The Modern Mania for Morality
3 Womanizing across Class Lines
4 Entrapping the Jazz-Age American Male
5 The Homosexual Target between the Wars
6 Exploiting Racial Anxieties
7 Blackmail and the New Woman
8 Cautionary Tales of Adultery and Abortion
9 Disarming the Postwar Blackmailer
10 The Gay Movement's Attack on Victimization
11 From Blackmail to Tabloid Exposeacute