Lawrence of Arabia film posterT.E. Lawrence — also known as “Lawrence of Arabia” — was a British war hero, widely lauded in the early 1900s. He was the subject of a famous 1962 film biography that won seven Academy Awards (and was nominated for ten). One day in 2009, I was volunteering at the Leather Archives and I discovered that they have a file on Lawrence. Because he was deeply, unmistakably, provably a sexual masochist. Yeah!

There were a couple of in-depth magazine articles included in the file. One, authored by Jack Ricardo, was published in the July 1990 issue of Stallion. The other, by Joseph W. Bean, was printed in The Advocate on April 11, 1989.

Here’s an excerpt from Bean’s article ….

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In his years at Oxford (1907-1911), Lawrence may have had no actual sex life. Vyvyan Richards, a Welsh undergraduate who was very much in love with Lawrence and shared a great deal with him in other ways, believed “that he was sexless”. His sexuality was either so covert as to go unnoticed or consisted entirely of the vicarious satisfactions found in homoerotic literature.

… Anyone rash enough to accuse Lawrence of heterosexuality does so without the slightest trace of evidence. By the same token, anyone who denies that Lawrence was homosexual and a masochist does so by ignoring not only evidence but Lawrence himself.

… [Apparently a bunch of documents related to Lawrence's sexuality became widely available in 1968, including some personal stuff that had been held by his family.] There was, as it turns out, an actual conspiracy of silence about the parts of Lawrence’s life that, if they became known … “only … would benefit … the owners of the juicy Sunday papers” [in the words of old friend Mrs. Shaw]. … The new pieces of the Lawrence puzzle primarily filled in the years back in England, after his Arabian adventures. This final period turned out to be the strangest and suddenly the best-documented phase of Lawrence’s sex life. For a time he was attending flagellation parties — sexual but not strictly homosexual — arranged by a man called Bluebeard. When these parties came to the attention of the authorities, Lawrence risked his reputation by attempting to defend Bluebeard. He was unable to help.

Then, from the early 1920s until his death in 1935, Lawrence had at least four (and very likely other) younger men employed to beat him with birches, canes made of twisted twigs. [John] Bruce performed in this capacity for Lawrence for more than ten years, always under the impression that an older relative of Lawrence’s was ordering the beatings and requiring written descriptions of them. Bruce wrote out the descriptions and gave them to Lawrence, supposedly to be delivered to the “Old Man”. It isn’t hard to guess what purpose the detailed letters actually served, since Lawrence had no relative to deliver them to. [Bruce went to the "London Sunday Times" with this story in 1968, and the physical letters were found later by a researcher named Desmond Stewart.]

… [Dr. John E. Mack notes in some psychoanalytic essays about Lawrence that] Lawrence “required the beatings to be severe enough to produce a seminal emission.”

… [in a later account, the writer Maugham met] a sergeant who, when he was a lance corporal, had been invited to drink with Lawrence. The sergeant gave a detailed description of his night with Lawrence in an attempt to seduce Maugham. In Maugham’s Escape, the retelling ends by saying that Lawrence “then persuaded the lance corporal to whip him and then to penetrate him.”

… With his experiences at Bluebeard’s parties, Lawrence knew that his sexual tastes were not unique. For him, though, sex — even the most brutal SM scenes — was never just sex. Sex and masochism were both parts of a spiritual quest with Lawrence, parts of an endless straining toward balance, which he called “my way”.

“I long for people to look down on me and despise me,” he explains to Mrs. Shaw, probably never aware of the ancient tradition of truth-seeking masochism he had entered. “I’m too shy,” Lawrence explains, “to take the filthy steps which would publicly shame me.” … Less than 18 months before his death, Lawrence wrote to Mrs. Shaw, saying that he was ready to write Confessions of Faith. It was to be a complete account of his degradation “beginning at the cloaca [public lavatory] at Covent Garden” and including his last military experiences. In what is a very uncharacteristic burst of optimism, he explains that the book will take a long time to write but that it will encompass human “entry into the reserved element, ‘as lords are expected, yet with a silent joy in our arrival.’”

But before Confessions could be written, Lawrence died … the unfinished manuscript of Confessions is permanently lost.

At Lawrence’s funeral, Winston Churchill cried openly and said of him, “He was one of the greatest beings of our time … whatever our need, we shall never see his likes again.”

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When I first posted this in 2009, the S&M historian Peter Tupper commented that:

I’ve read parts of John E Mack’s “A Prince of Our Disorder” (1976), and seen the movie, so I’m hardly an expert on Lawrence. I think he definitely deserves a mention in the history of masochism.

Actually, Lawrence is one of those people who are way off the standard maps of sexuality. Mack’s book includes his letters and other writings in which he talks about the homosocial relations of working-class soldiers as “the truth behind Freud”, or how he envied the “absolutism of animals and girls” with soldiers, but he also wrote that to touch another or be touched was “defilement.”

I think Lawrence is of a kind with Arthur Munby, James Barrie, JRR Tolkien and others: Victorian or Edwardian Englishmen who had highly complex internal fantasy lives and personal mythologies that influenced everything they did.

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