SNR Episode 19 - The Sex Episode
Books describing sexual social history in Britain and America before the 1960s (with link to Amazon.com page):
"The Lost Sisterhood - Prostitution in America 1900-1918" by Ruth Rosen, published 1982 by John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD, ISBN 008018-2664-0
"The £5 Virgins" by Michael Pearson, published 1972 by Saturday Review Press, New York, ISBN 0-8415-0197-1 (Published in Great Britain as "The Age of Consent")
"Devices and Desires - A History of Contraceptives in America" by Andrea Tone, published 2001 by Hill and Wang, New York, ISBN 0-8090-3817-X
I would also recommend reading H.G. Wells' "Ann Veronica", which isn't easy to find in print, but the text file can be obtain free of charge from Project Gutenburg. It documents the fact that parts of central London were so given over to the sex industry that a woman who walked by herself along certain streets, even in daylight, was presumed to be a prostitute.
Hello, and welcome to episode 19 of The Naked Soul. I'm Heather Gout. I want to start this podcast by apologising to Thomas Hardy, the Thomas Hardy, not someone who is currently living but the author of those Victorian classic novels “Jude the Obscure” and “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Tess of the D'Ubervilles”. Apologising to a dead author doesn't benefit him, of course; I'm really apologising to myself because until recently I had not read a single book written by Hardy. I suppose I might be able to blame it on the sheer number of books that exist these days, all highly recommended by one person or another and begging to be read. But if I'm honest, I have to admit that there is something about novels written before 1950 that often has me struggling to enjoy reading them. Is it me, or do they seem just that little bit longer than they need to be? No, really I think it has more to do with me, with the pace at which I have got used to having books and movies and everyday life move.
There used to be a New York literary agent who wrote a blog under the pseudonym Miss Snark (I'll post a link on the website-snrpodcast.livejournal.com). She (if it was a she) would invite aspiring writers to submit the first page of their book, provided they would agree to have it printed on the blog for everyone to read along with her comments. And on the basis of what – maybe four or five paragraphs of text – Miss Snark would pass judgement.
I don't know how she might have reacted to the opening lines of Thomas Hardy's “Tess of the D'Ubervilles”. “On an evening, in the latter part of May, a middle aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining vale of Blakemore, or Blackmoor. The pair of legs that carried him were rickety, and there was a bias in his gait which incline him somewhat to the left of a straight line. He occasionally gave a smart nod, as if in confirmation of some opinion, though he was not thinking of anything in particular.” End of quote – you can't say much in particular is happening, either. It was one of Miss Snark's guiding principles that 'Fast pace is everything', so the bucolic gentleness of Hardy would probably drive her nuts. It drove me nuts, for a while. But I said I was going to apologise. Having finished the book I now realise how cleanly he cuts open the sexual conventions of the time and leaves them exposed, like a display he wants his readers to examine and see if what they find is what they expected to see.
This isn't a book review podcast, strictly speaking, but if you haven't read Tess I've got to at least tell you this much about her: the man she legally marries never has sex with her, never lives with her, barely provides for her welfare and doesn't get to know her family. But she does love this man. By contrast, the man who does provide her with a home and looks after her relatives, has sex with her and fathers the only child she bears, never legally marries her. And Tess does not love him. And it's that messy arrangement of things which is so ahead of its time, because we might not think anything of a situation like that now, but Hardy was creating this piece of fiction in the late 1880s, when it was offensive enough for the book to be banned.
That said, Tess could still be offensive now, in certain quarters. Two weeks ago I was in the city of Norwich, and Norwich has a beautiful library building called the Forum. I can't resist going in there just to browse. I'd just finished the last podcast, when I'd been talking about Islam, so I was drawn to the religion and philosophy shelves. I saw a book with the title “Reading the Muslim Mind”; that piqued my curiosity. I skim read a few chapters. I suspected the author, Hassan Hathout, was a Wahhabist because the preface to the book had been written by a Saudi Arabian state minister. But also the tone and teachings of the book were very conservative. And because Hathout was also a medical doctor, he included a whole chapter about ethics relating to the body which had a lot to say about human sexuality. It contained the kind of religious pronouncements you might expect: that no sex outside marriage was acceptable, that homosexuality was forbidden, and that abortion was always wrong, though the author said termination could be allowed where there was a high probability that childbirth would cause the mother's death.
Religions, particularly the monotheistic ones, worry a lot about sexual behaviour. Worry about it to a degree suggesting that our life's happiness or unhappiness will be, in large, attributable to our sexual choices. And I agree that this is probably true, only not true in the way religion thinks it is true. And the only way I can think to explain this effectively is by going back to the starting point, the earliest myth of the three monotheisms, the story of the Garden of Eden.
Thomas Hardy must have loved this story. When I read his descriptions of English country landscape in Tess, they were so glowing, so worshipful, that his yearning for paradise was clear. But what he yearned for, and what he allowed to happen in his books were two different things. Now the book of Genesis is fairly uncompromising about this as well, if you think about it. Once the first human beings have been expelled from Eden the entrances are guarded to prevent re-entry – guarded by cherubim and a flaming sword. Nevertheless the whole of the Jewish and Greek and Arabic scriptures concentrate fully on getting back inside that garden – the whole point of the monotheisms seems to be to get people back to a perfect world, to Eden.
And of course there is the issue about the role of woman in causing the expulsion from the garden, and how this has provided such a firm foundation for historical misogyny. There was an alternative rendering of the myth, made popular in the 1980s by certain anthropologists and championed by neo-paganism, though it's fallen out of favour more recently, that Eden was in fact a prehistoric matriarchy which was spoiled by men. Which one is true?
Personally I subscribe to the theory that if you want to find the truth in myths, you don't look for it in history. Myths do not describe what actually happened in history, do not describe actual places or people or happenings even though they may make reference to any number of things we know existed. Myths are closer to dreams that way – you might dream of your mother but you wouldn't hold the real person responsible for whatever they do in your dream. Any anyway, the dream may or may not be 'about your mother'. I believe myths, like dreams, are a commentary on our internal, psychological history. I'm not saying the people who created myth were always aware they were doing this.
So if the Eden myth is talking about our psychological history, to what does it refer? Well we could look at ourselves and ask when, mentally speaking, could most of us say we felt safest and happiest and without much experience of the uglier side in life? I'd say that was a fair description of childhood. Adam reminds me of a child, in fact, in the way he names all the animals; he gets that grasp of his world by putting labels on each distinct object. And everything is fine in the Garden until Adam experiences that unique loneliness, that need for attachment which isn't just about companionship but frankly cannot avoid the urge for sex. And it's at that point in the story of Eden that things get complicated.
The woman gets blamed in Genesis. Modern goddess worshippers may blame men, but either way the point is being missed. The point is that paradise ends when we reach puberty. Sexuality complicates life, and for that reason religions torment themselves over sex, because they want to eliminate the complications and return to paradise. But it's not so simple. You can't just forbid certain sexual choices and guarantee everyone a happy life. All sexual choices guarantee some type of difficulty, sacrifice or hurt, even if the choice is never to have sex at all. There is no moral framework that will keep sex free from bad experiences. The only point you might argue successfully about sex is that the more choices you make, the more you elaborate your sex life, the more complications and difficulties you should probably expect to deal with.
That makes sexual choice less a matter of definite rights and wrongs and more a matter of wisdom and self-awareness. A matter of asking, 'How much complication can I actually manage?' or 'exactly what kind of complication suits me?' Conventional religious morality can make choices for us, and that may be just the level of complication we want. But it isn't a guarantee of happiness. That would be paradise, and we can't go back to paradise.
But I do think there is an argument, a moral argument and an argument for our happiness, if we became more prescriptive about our behaviour in terms of the way we make and maintain relationships. This, I think, is one of the points Thomas Hardy wanted to make when he created Tess. He wanted to stress how badly she was treated in her relationships with men, and how conventional morality ignored this, and focussed instead on when and with whom she had sex. If we judged all relationships by the level of unselfish behaviour, the sharing of power and the everyday courtesy expressed within them, wouldn't it be easier to pass judgement on any sex that might be happening, whether that was good or bad?
I think this is a more robust model for sexual morality, and I think it would guard just as well, perhaps better, against making or continuing with sexual choices that aren't beneficial. It would still mandate against child sex abuse, because the relationship there is so blatantly tyrannical and destructive. It wouldn't be much enamoured with serial promiscuity, because you couldn't call those encounters relationships. But also it would prevent a veil of respectability obscuring our judgement when a bad relationship exists between the legally married.
It would also put an end to all the nonsense that is stopping same sex partnerships from receiving legal recognition. If the issue is the quality of the relationship, and not what kind of sex is going on, then the gender identity or sexual preferences of the participants means nothing. But conventional morality regarding homosexuality is causing the kind of problems that angered Thomas Hardy back in the 19th century when he looked at the way Victorian England judged heterosexuality. You could boil down the whole of “Tess of the D'Ubervilles” to one sentence: 'When we make an issue about sex itself, we can undermine good working relationships and unwittingly encourage poor ones.'
I'm not suggesting that this 'relationship first' approach would eliminate bad relationships or by implication the bad sex that goes with them. But then neither do religious restrictions – they simply ensure that a higher proportion of those bad relationships happen to occur within marriage, where sadly they don't inspire anything like the same level of moral outrage. I'm only speaking from my own observations, of course, during those twenty years when I was among Christians and when I bought into the idea that worrying so much about sexual behaviour would make life better somehow. Now I look back and it seems we were so close to the truth and yet not. We treated bad sex as the cause of bad relationships, not the consequence of them. We ignored relationship altogether if we didn't approve of the sex that was happening within it. We were so much like Angel Clare in “Tess of the D'Ubervilles”, who was a clergyman's son and probably created to represent conventional Christian morality. But sex was always the bottom line. Sex was the issue that paralysed reason, where there was no possibility of an open analysis of the circumstances, where the drawbridge went up and the case was closed. I would love to read the whole of Chapter 35 of Tess out loud over the air, just because it captures this shut down approach and when I first read it my jaw dropped and stayed dropped and I knew then I owed Mr. Hardy a big apology. I should have read his books years ago.
But, you know, from all those years of hearing sermons I still have the voices in my head that argue with me while I write these scripts. I can hear all the harangues about the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution and all the damage that we in the modern West did to ourselves when we abandoned traditional ideas of morality. I'm not convinced. I can see that we had to deal with some complications, not the least of which was out of wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmissible diseases like HIV AIDS. I'm waiting to be convinced whether these represent any real change, or whether they merely demonstrate that we are now more open about our sexual complications than we used to be. If you're interested, I'll leave some details on the website of books about sexual social history. They'll be particularly about England and the United States, but I think they make a strong case that it's not our sexual behaviour that's changed since the 1960s, it's our inclination to conceal it.
This podcast is a little shorter than most – maybe I've been reading too much Miss Snark in preparation, and become all paranoid, worried I might be boring you! I must confess that I have been losing sleep lately, waking up before sunrise and not being able to drop off again. Those are the times, when it's quiet and you feel like the only person with their eyes open, that's when you only ever ask big questions. What I am meant to be doing? What's the meaning of life? Am I getting it? I've started to write down the ideas I've had but it's still early stages. I hope you'll join me to hear that podcast next time.