After encouraging fathers to “punch” sons who exhibit stereotypically gay behavior, North Carolina pastor Sean Harris said on Tuesday that he should have chosen different words. In his April 28 sermon, Harris said, “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist.” Why do we associate a limp wrist with male homosexuality?
It probably goes back to ancient Rome. Ancientrhetoric teachers discouraged limp-wristedness during public speaking. This had nothing to do with homosexuality—the Romans didn’t consider gay sex, per se, unmanly. A limp wrist was thought to betray a more general lack of masculine control over the body and its various urges. In the 18th century, however, Europeans came to think of homosexuality as a character trait rather than an occasional behavior, and gay sex became the antithesis of manliness. Physiognomists, who believed that physical appearance and mannerisms were evidence of one’s character, appear to have picked up on the ancient Roman belief that real men had rock-solid wrists. During this time, limp wrists came to signify not just ill discipline, but various other supposed failures of manhood, such as homosexuality, exhibitionism, and foppery.
There are other theories as well. Some writers propose a sartorial explanation: 17th and 18th century women used to wear tight sleeves that restricted their elbows and shoulders, leaving only their wrists to gesture. Men with floppy wrists, therefore, appeared effeminate. Others point to European court portraiture of the 16th and 17th centuries, which often portrayed important men with delicate, limp wrists. (See this depiction of England’s King James I or thisself-portrait by painter Anthony Van Dyck while working for the House of Stuart.) As the ornamentation and leisure of courtly life fell out of favor with men, a limp wrist—often with the other hand placed on the hip in an “I’m a Little Teapot” pose—came to symbolize the unmanly homosexual stereotype. These explanations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; they might all have contributed to the development of the stereotype. MORE