In many ways, Thomas Edward Lawrence was the archetypal English gentleman: handsome, dashing and equally adept with a rifle as with a pen. He was an archaeologist, an officer in the British Army, an adventurer, a diplomat and an author – often at the same time – and would become immortalized through the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, a work based on his exploits during the First World War. But, despite the fact he wrote all about his exploits in numerous memoirs, essays and poems, his sexuality has continued to be open to debate, with many agreeing with the view of his contemporaries – that he was simply asexual.
Lawrence was born out of wedlock in August of 1888 in Wales. In 1914, his father inherited a baronetcy and, while he took the title, declined to move into the ancestral home. The family did move around, however, including a spell living in the county of Hampshire. It was here the young Lawrence received a strict Christian education, with teachers instilling in him the idea that no respectable woman would ever be interested in a man who was born illegitimately. Did this make Lawrence wary of any romantic endeavors from an early age? Some of his biographers certainly think so.
After making a name for himself as an archaeologist, Lawrence was called up by Military Intelligence when war broke out in 1914. Rather than being sent to the Western Front, Lawrence was sent to assist the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. It was his exploits in the Middle East, breathlessly reported on in the popular press, that made his name. But, unlike many war heroes, Lawrence didn’t care for any female attention. Nor did he appear to have any close male friends or possible lovers. Lawrence’s contemporaries simply concluded that he had no interest in sex at all. In today’s language, he was asexual.
Some scholars go so far as to suggest that Lawrence’s harsh childhood stunted any sexual development he might have had. Others suggest that his wartime exploits might have led to him shunning all sexual matters. In his writings, Lawrence describes how he was tortured and humiliated by the Ottoman Turks after he had been captured. It’s widely assumed he was a virgin at the time. Could this have left him free from any sexual desire? It’s possible Lawrence would have answered the question himself had he lived to an old age, but tragically he died in a motorcycle accident in 1935, aged just 46.