I’m not a very active Wikipedian, but I do put occasional effort into the entry on T.E. Lawrence who is perhaps better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”. Its coverage of his sexuality has been particularly contentious. This is a research piece designed to support my work on stabilizing this part of the entry.
[Update, January 8] New citation on masochism.
[Update, January 2] Introduce Altounyan opinion and rebrand section as “Friends’ Opinions”.
[Update, December 30] New evidence and some reorganization, but nothing that changes the story.
Background · I fell in love at an early age with Lawrence’s two major published works, Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The Mint, and have since read his translations, two volumes of his collected letters, and multiple biographies. I consider him one of the most interesting people ever to have walked the pages of history; of course this perception is aided by his having written up his own exploits in compelling style.
I think I can claim part of the credit for the initial elevation of the entry from a disorganized conspiracy-theory-riddled mess into something at least basically accurate.
The subject of Lawrence’s sexuality has consumed the corpses of many trees. Similarly the entry’s Sexuality section has been consistently unstable, and subject to considerable poorly-informed drive-by editing. In Wikipedia, when covering events which have been much-written about, and where all the protagonists are now gone, it ought to be able to resolve such disputes by recourse to the historical record and the core No original research and Verifiability principles.
I have, to that end, assembled here what I consider to be a reasonably exhaustive collection of verifiable facts concerning Lawrence’s sexuality, accompanied by references.
I don’t have copies of two of the key biographical works (both of which I’ve read), A Prince of Our Disorder and The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia. For the purposes of this essay, I spent an afternoon in public library with the first. Some of the citations to them are copied from reference notes in other works. The citations to the official biography by Jeremy Wilson are by chapter number, since I have it only in paperback. I shall eventually get around to more double-checking and updating this piece if that proves to be required. Having said that, I think the overall picture is consistent at least in the sense of telling us what we do and don’t know.
Abstinence · There is no reliable evidence for consensual sexual intimacy between Lawrence and any other person of either gender at any point during his life, and Lawrence explicitly claimed virginity.
Source: Letter to E.M. Forster, 21 Dec. 1927, in The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, selected and edited by Malcolm Brown; 1988 (“Brown”), p. 360: (in a homosexual context) “I couldn’t ever do it, I believe: the impulse strong enough to make me strong enough to make me touch another creature has not yet been born in me.”
Source: Letter to Robert Graves, 6 Nov. 1928, in Brown, p. 389: “Your last page, about fucking, defeats me wholly. As I wrote (with some courage, I think: few people admit the damaging ignorance) I haven’t ever: and don’t much want to.”
Source: Letter to F.L. Lucas, 26 March 1929, in Brown, p. 408: “For myself, I haven’t tried it, & hope not to.”
Homosexual Relationships? · There have been suggestions that Lawrence was involved in at least two homosexual relationships; his biographers have disputed these.
Source: C. Leonard Woolley in T.E. Lawrence by his Friends, A.W. Lawrence, editor, p. 89: “The Arabs were tolerantly scandalized by the friendship, especially when in 1913 Lawrence, stopping in his house after the dig was over, had Dahoum to live with him and got him to pose as a model for a queer crouching figure which he carved in the soft local limestone and set up on the edge of the house roof; to make an image was bad enough in its way, but to portray a naked figure was proof to them of evil of another sort. The scandal about Lawrence was widely spread and firmly believed.” Woolley himself thought the suspicion was unwarranted and argued this at length in the following text.
Source: Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence, by Jeremy Wilson (“Wilson”), Chapter 32: “It has been suggested, by writers who have seen only a small part of the surviving correspondence between Lawrence and Guy, that the basis of this friendship was homosexual.”
Source (contesting the first story), Wilson, Chapter 27: “The account is factually misleading: it is clear from the contemporary documents that Lawrence spent almost no time on his own at the Carchemish house, either in June or September 1913, since there was a stream of visitors. Even without visitors, he would not have been alone there since Haj Wahid and his family lived in the house permanently...” and so on for several paragraphs... “Lawrence’s letters from this period bear out this opinion entirely...”
Source (contesting the second): Wilson, Chapter 32: “None of the evidence cited as proof of a homosexual affair between Lawrence and Guy stands up to examination..."
Friends’ Opinions · Certain of Lawrence’s friends expressed the opinion that he was more or less oblivious to sexual feelings.
Source: The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by P.G. Knightly and C. Simpson (“Secrets”) p. 29: “Towards the end of his life [Vyvyan] Richards [long-time Lawrence collaborator on publishing projects] confessed the true basis for his friendship with Lawrence: ‘Quite frankly for me it was love at first sight. He had neither flesh nor carnality of any kind; he just did not understand. He received my affection, my sacrifice, in fact, eventually my total subservience, as though it was his due. He never gave the slightest sign that he understood my motives or fathomed my desires.’”
Source: E.H.R. Altounyan in T.E. Lawrence By His Friends (1937): “Preoccupation with sex is (except in the defective) due either to a sense of personal insufficiency and its resultant groping for fulfilment, or to a real sympathy with its biological purpose. Neither could hold much weight with him.”
Attitude Towards Homosexuality · Despite living in an era in which homosexuality was strongly disapproved-of officially, Lawrence was never recorded as expressing any negative feelings about it.
Source: Brown, General Introduction: “... in September 1929 ... Lawrence wrote of Sigfried Sassoon, fellow officer with Graves in the trenches: ‘S.S. comes out very well. I’m glad of that, for I like him: homosex and all.’”
Source: Wilson, Chapter 34: [In the context of commenting on E.M. Forster’s overtly homosexual The Life to Come] “Contrary to your opinion I incline to consider it quite fit to publish. Perhaps other people’s improprieties come a little less sharply upon one? It doesn’t feel to me nearly so bad as my true story.”
Source Seven Pillars features, prominently on the second page of Chapter I (1935 edition), the following:
“The public women of the rare settlements we encountered in our months of wandering would have been nothing to our numbers, even had their raddled meat been palatable to man of healthy parts. In horror of such sordid commerce our youths began indifferently to slake one another’s few needs in their own clean bodies—a cold convenience that, by comparison, seemed sexless and even pure. Later, some began to justify this sterile process, and swore that friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was welding our souls and spirits in one flaming effort.”
Source: 1935 Seven Pillars. This version contains a detailed table of contents, with a summary of each chapter, first in a few paragraphs, then page-by-page with short textual tags. The following passage in Book VIII, Chapter XCII, p. 508-509 bears the single-word tag “Sex”:
... One Indian had died of cold, and also Daud, my Ageyli boy, the friend of Farraj. Farraj himself told me so.
These two had been friends from childhood, in eternal gaiety: working together, sleeping together, sharing every scrape and profit with the openness and honesty of perfect love...
When looked at from this torrid East, our British conception of woman seemed to partake of the northern climate which had also contracted our faith. In the Mediterranean, woman’s influence and supposed purpose were made cogent by an understanding in which she was accorded the physical world in simplicity, unchallenged, like the poor in spirit. Yet this same agreement, by denying equality of sex, made love, companionship and friendliness impossible between man and woman. Woman became a machine for muscular exercise, while man’s psychic side could be slaked only amongst his peers. Whence arose these partnerships of man and man, to supply human nature with more than the contact of flesh with flesh.
Source: Letter to Charlotte Shaw, Nov. 6, 1928, cited in A Prince of Our Disorder by John Edward Mack, 1976, (“Mack”), p. 425: “I’ve seen lots of man-and-man loves: very lovely and fortunate some of them were.”
Dera’a · In both Seven Pillars and a 1919 letter to a military colleague, Lawrence described an episode in November 1917 in which, while reconnoitring Dera’a in disguise, he was captured by the Turks, heavily beaten, and sexually abused by the local Bey and his guardsmen. The precise nature of the sexual contact was not specified.
Some commentators have expressed doubt that the episode took place, and there is no independent evidence, but the multiple consistent reports, and the lack of outright invention in Lawrence’s works, make his account believable to his biographers. Mack considers both sides and introduces further independent evidence in favor of Lawrence’s version, albeit somewhat anecdotal: description of the treatment of Lawrence’s injuries by junior colleague as recalled 50 years later.
Source: Letter to W.F. Stirling, Deputy Chief Political Officer, Cairo, June 28 1919, in Brown, p. 165: “Hajim was an ardent paederast and took a fancy to me. So he kept me under guard till night, and then tried to have me. I was unwilling, and prevailed after some difficulty. Hajim sent me to the hospital, and I escaped before dawn, being not as hurt as he thought.”
Source: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, both the 1922 and 1935 versions, Book VI, Chapter XXX in 1935 version, 87 in 1922. The accounts in the two versions vary, but not significantly. This is the 1935 version.
...My plan was to walk around the railway station and town with Faris, and reach Nisib after sunset. Faris was my best companion for the trip, because was an insignificant peasant, old enough to be my father, and respectable.
...I was in Halim’s wet things, with a torn Hurani jacket, and was yet limping from the broken foot acquired when we blew up Jemal’s train...
... Someone called out in Turkish. We walked on deafly, but a sergeant came after, and took me roughly by the arm, saying ‘The Bey wants you’...
... They took away my belt, and my knife, made me wash myself carefully... Tomorrow, perhaps, leave would be permitted, if I fulfilled the Bey’s pleasure this evening. The Bey seemed to be Nahi, the Governor...
...They took me upstairs to the Bey’s room; or to his bedroom, rather. He was another bulky man, a Circassian himself, perhaps, and sat on the bed in a night-gown, trembling and sweating as though with fever. When I was pushed in he kept his head down, and waved the guard out. In a breathless voice he told me to sit on the floor in front of him, and after that was dumb; while I gazed at the top of his great head, on which the bristling hair stood up, no longer than the dark stubble on his cheeks and chin. At last he looked me over, and told me to stand up; and then to turn round. I obeyed; he flung himself back on the bed, and dragged me down with him in his arms. When I saw what he wanted I twisted around and up again, glad to find myself equal to him, at any rate in wrestling.
He began to fawn on me, saying how white and fresh I was, how fine my hands and feet, and how he would let me off drills and duties, make me his orderly, even pay me wages, if I would love him.
I was obdurate, so he changed his tone, and sharply ordered me to take off my drawers. When I hesitated, he snatched at me; and I pushed him back. He clapped his hands for the sentry, who hurried in and pinioned me. The Bey cursed me with horrible threats, and made the man holding me tear my clothes away, bit by bit. His eyes rounded at the half-healed places where the bullets had flicked through my skin a little while ago. Finally he lumbered to his feet, with a glitter in his look, and began to paw me over. I bore it for a little, till he got too beastly, and then jerked my knee into him.
He staggered to his bed, squeezing himself together and groaning with pain, while the soldier shouted for the corporal and the other three men to grip me hand and foot. As soon as I was helpless the Governor regained courage, and spat at me, searing he would make me ask pardon. He took off his slipper, and hit me repeatedly with it in the face, while the corporal braced my head back by the hair to receive the blows. He leaned forward, fixed his teeth in my neck and bit till the blood came. Then he kissed me. Afterwards he drew one of the men’s bayonets. I thought he was going to kill me, and was sorry: but he only pulled up a fold of the flesh over my ribs, worked the point through, after considerable trouble, and gave the blade a half-turn. This hurt, and I winced, while the blood wavered down my side, and dripped to the front of my thigh. He looked pleased and dabbled it over my stomach with his finger-tips.
In my despair I spoke. His face changed and he stood still, then controlled his voice with an effort, to say significantly, ‘You must understand that I know: and it will be easier if you do as I wish’. I was dumbfounded and we stared silently at one another, while the men who felt an inner meaning beyond their experience, shifted uncomfortably. But it was evidently a chance shot, by which he himself, did not, or would not, mean what I feared. I could not again trust my twitching mouth, which faltered always in emergencies, so at last threw up my chin, which was the sign for ‘No’ in the East; then he sat down, and half-whispered to the corporal to take me out and teach me everything.
They kicked me to the head of the stairs, and stretched me over a guard-bench, pommelling me. Two knelt on my ankles, bearing down on the back of my knees, while two more twisted my wrists till they cracked, and then crushed them and my neck against the wood. The corporal had run downstairs; and now came back with a whip of the Circassian sort, a thong of supple black hide, rounded, and tapering from the thickness of a thumb at the grip (which was wrapped in silver) down to a hard point finer than a pencil.
He saw me shivering, partly I think with cold, and made it whistle over my ear, taunting me that before his tenth cut I would howl for mercy, and at the twentieth beg for the caresses of the Bey; and then he began to lash me madly across and across with all his might, while I locked my teeth to endure this thing which lapped itself like flaming wire about my body.
To keep my mind in control I numbered the blows, but after twenty lost count, and could feel only the shapeless weight of pain, not tearing claws, for which I had prepared, but a gradual cracking apart of my whole being by some too-great force whose waves rolled up my spine till they were pent within my brain, to clash terribly together. Somewhere in the place a cheap clock ticked loudly, and it distressed me that their beating was not in its time. I writhed and twisted, but was held so tightly that my struggles were useless. After the corporal ceased, the men took up, very deliberately, giving me so many, and then an interval, during which they would squabble for the next turn, ease themselves, and play unspeakably with me. This was repeated often, for what may have been no more than ten minutes. Always for the first of a new series, my head would be pulled round, to see how a hard white ridge, like a railway, darkening slowly into crimson, leaped over my skin at the instant of each stroke, with a bead of blood where two ridges crossed. As the punishment proceed the whip fell more and more upon existing weals, biting blacker or more wet till my flesh quivered with accumulated pain, and with terror of the next blow coming. They soon conquered my determination not to cry, but while my will ruled my lips I used only Arabic, and before the end a merciful sickness choked my utterance.
I remembered the corporal kicking with his nailed boot to get me up; and this was true, for next day my right side was dark and lacerated, and a damaged rib made each breath stab me sharply. I remembered smiling idly at him, for a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me: and then that he flung up his arm and hacked with the full length of his whip into my groin. This doubled me half-over, screaming, or rather trying impotently to scream, only shuddering through my open mouth. One giggled with amusement. A voice cried ‘Shame, you’ve killed him’. Another slash followed. A roaring, and my eyes went black: while within me the core of life seemed to heave slowly up through the rending nerves, expelled from its body by this last indescribable pang.
... Then Nahi called. They splashed water in my face, wiped off some of the filth, and lifted me between them, retching and sobbing for mercy, to where he lay: but he now rejected me in haste, as a thing too torn and bloody for his bed, blaming their excess of zeal which had spoilt me: whereas no doubt they had laid into me much as usual, and the fault rested mainly upon my indoor skin, which gave way more than an Arab’s.
So the crestfallen corporal, as the youngest and best-looking of the guard, had to stay behind...
The subject of what sort of sexual contact took place has been much discussed. Several biographers assume that actual intercourse (presumably oral or anal) took place and refer to the incident using the word “rape”.
A letter from Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw of March 26, 1924 (Brown, p. 261-2) is often quoted, in which Lawrence writes: “For instance my night in Deraa. Well, I’m always afraid of being hurt: and to me, while I live, the force of that night will lie in the agony which broke me, and made me surrender.”
Malcolm Brown considers a letter from Lawrence from E.M. Forster, of Dec. 21st, 1927, conclusive; see his footnote on p. 359. Forster had sent Lawrence a copy of his short story Doctor Woolacott, which was published only posthumously (in the collection The Life to Come, and other stories) because of its homosexual theme. In the letter Lawrence writes “The Turks, as you probably know (or have guessed, through the reticences of the Seven Pillars) did it to me, by force”. Brown’s conclusion may be true but Doctor Woolacott doesn’t offer much support; while the relationship is clearly homosexual, it is a dying man’s fantasy relationship with a possibly-real ghost; no physical interaction beyond kissing and embracing is specified.
Finally, Lawrence himself claimed explicitly that the Turkish commander had failed to achieve sexual intimacy him. He describes the guardsmen’s during the subsequent whipping thus: (in the 1922 text) “The men were very deliberate, giving me so many, and then taking an interval, during which they would squabble for the next turn, ease themselves, play a little with me, and pull my head round to see their work.” (in the 1935 text) “After the corporal ceased, the men took up, very deliberately, giving me so many, and then an interval, during which they would squabble for the next turn, ease themselves, and play unspeakably with me.”
The OED reports that to “ease oneself” generally refers to defecation (supported, interestingly, by a quotation from Seven Pillars).
Clearly this is sexual abuse, but the details are unlikely ever to surface, and there is room for argument about “rape”. Lawrence’s admission immediately afterward in this text, of feeling, during a lull in the abuse, a “delicious warmth, probably sexual, swelling through me” might plausibly constitute the “surrender” of which he wrote to Mrs. Shaw.
Masochism · There is considerable evidence that Lawrence was a masochist. In describing the Dera’a beating, Lawrence writes “a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me”.
In later life, Lawrence arranged to pay a military colleague to administer regular beatings to him, and to be subjected to severe formal tests of fitness and stamina.
Source, for Dera’a: see narrative above.
Source, more on Dera’a: Secrets, p. 221: “The significance of the Deraa incident, whether true or false, is that it provides a classical example of a situation in which sexual pleasure flooding the whole body happens in a response to the infliction of both pain and humiliation. Lawrence’s description of the Circassian riding whip, with its ‘single thongs of supple black hide, rounded, and tapering from the thickness of a thumb at the grip (which was wrapped in silver, with a knob inlaid in black designs) down to a hard point much finer than a pencil’ is typical of the masochist’s preoccupation with details of the instruments of his punishment, and is well recognized in the literature on the subject. The conclusion seems inescapable that Lawrence did indeed experience abnormal reactions to pain and its infliction, and was well aware of the sexual connotations of this, and that accompanying these reactions was an inner drive towards degradation and abasement.”
Source, for beatings and so on: John Bruce, Sunday Times of June 23, 1968, discussed in Wilson, Chapter 34. Wilson points out that some of Bruce’s claims were not credible, but acknowledges there is independent evidence for the beatings.
Source, for same: A Prince of our Disorder, John E. Mack, 1976, Chapter 33.
Source, for harsh physical regime: Secrets, Page 199-200.
Mack and Brown both argue that the later-life masochism is in some part a symptom of psychological trauma following on his abuse at Dera’a.
Mack cites conversations with Lawrence’s brother, his correspondence, and also conversation with an unidentified colleague who witnessed one of the beatings: “The companion observed three beatings with a metal whip between 1931 and 1934. They were brutal, delivered on the bare buttocks, and a precise number of lashes was required. Lawrence submitted to them ‘like a schoolboy,’ registered obvious fear and agony, but did not scream or cry out. He required that the beatings be severe enough to produce a seminal emission.” p. 433.
S.A. · The dedication to Seven Pillars is entitled “To S.A.” and takes the form of a poem which opens as follows:
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house
that your eyes might be shining for me
When we came.
[“When I came.” in the 1922 text.]
The identity of “S.A.” has never been established; there are many theories, the most popular of which is that S.A. refers to Dahoum, referenced above, whose name was “Salim Ahmed” and also referred to himself as “Sheikh Ahmed”.
For an exhaustive study of the theories and evidence concerning “S.A.”, see An ‘S.A.’ Mystery, by Yagitani Ryōko.
What I Think · Yes, I know that this is supposed to be a research piece, but hey, it’s also a blog. It seems obvious to me, as a person who has read nearly everything there is by or about Lawrence, and based not only on this material but on a bunch of other intangibles, that he was gay but didn’t do much about it. No, I won’t try to insert that opinion into Wikipedia.