“Revolution,” like “tragedy,” is a bit overused; but there can’t be any doubt that we are in the course of, perhaps at the end of, a revolution in sexual mores. From Sweden there has just come a report that a government committee has recommended that children be legally free to make their hetero- or homosexual debuts at fourteen, that all legal prohibitions of incest be lifted, and that the word “homosexual” be dropped from the terminology of the law. As to what goes on, it is easy to say what has happened in our society, and I will attempt a short account presently, but it isn’t and can’t be clear how far behavior that is in one sense characteristic represents how most people conduct their lives.
Other questions even harder to answer are: how far the revolution has added to human happiness or misery, and if to both how the proportions are distributed; what the effects on civilization and culture will be; what the connections are between the revolution and other things that go on in the opulent societies of the West, things both good and bad. Finally, we must surely ask what we are now to think of what has been, in the matter of sexual morality, the central tradition of our culture; this comes from Deuteronomy and was given a circulation outside the Jewish tradition by the first Christians. It forbids fornication, adultery, incest, homosexuality, sexual connection with the brutes, and sacred prostitution (in our own day this last could perhaps be understood as sex as theater).
The content of the sexual revolution seems as follows.
- In sexual practice virtually everything is interesting and nothing is grave. It is still thought wrong to force people, especially the young, to engage in sexual practices against their will, though there is sometimes to be heard a Pecksniffian voice claiming that rape is really a protest against a repressive social order. Apart from this, pretty well anything goes so long as it doesn’t harm other people. What is to count as harm isn’t easy to determine, for sadism and masochism are interesting too. It is supposed, strangely, that what is harmful is immediately evident. Whatever gives sexual pleasure is all right; the burden of proving that it isn’t rests upon the objector.
- Masturbation is the prototype of all sexual activity, the most harmless, even the “best.” Proficiency in masturbation was a necessary condition of fitness for taking part in the Masters and Johnson experiments. Paul Robinson observes in The Modernization of Sex that “from its pathogenic status among the Victorians, masturbation has risen to the position of final sexual arbiter”; its rewards are held by some to be superior to those of any other sexual activity. In particular, female masturbation is the badge of sexual independence. Virtually all the sexual fantasies in Nancy Friday’s compilation are used in masturbation as well as in other activities. It is now commonly known that the nineteenth-century belief that (male) masturbation causes a variety of physical and mental ills is groundless. There isn’t absolute unanimity that masturbation is without bad emotional consequences, but most students of sex think it at least harmless, like chewing gum or back-scratching.
- Oral sex—fellatio and cunnilingus—is now a very big activity. Morton Hunt finds there is a great increase of these practices among the married. Such practices, once called perversions, live in a legal twilight in many countries. Even more noteworthy is the fairly wide acceptance of buggery between heterosexual partners. (It is curious that “buggery” is seldom used, though the vernacular terms for other acts and for the male and female genitalia are often used and their use is taken to be a mark of emancipation; but for “buggery” is commonly substituted the prim “anal penetration.”) The acceptance by so many of the practice of buggery makes very plain one of the messages of the sexual revolution: that there are now in sexual matters no common principles of decorum.
Homosexuality, male and female, is now thought to be a native sexual orientation, not a genetic endowment but in most cases as firm and as unalterable as though it were genetic. Homosexual men and women are often pictured as members of an oppressed third sex in need of emancipation.
In many cities of the Western world there are openly advertised emporia that stock curious “objects.” These are such things as vibrators (Morton Hunt has a sad and hilarious story about a lady whose Acapulco holiday was ruined because she had forgotten to pack her vibrator), dildos, boots, chains, underclothes of unusual cut, books, photographs, even (though these are perhaps more often procured by mail order) life-size plastic dolls in female shape with which the shy and lonely may cohabit. These emporia correspond in their own field to gourmet shops for lovers of rare foods, and it is characteristic of our time that the publication of gourmet books on sexual techniques reinforces the analogy.
Such periodicals as Playboy and Penthouse and their proliferating imitations should be mentioned. Their appearance both satisfies and stimulates demand. They represent big money and their proprietors have a strong interest in persuading readers to accept the picture of the sexually liberated human being they offer. Such periodicals are beginning to achieve a kind of respectability and are not too slowly moving into the picture of the normal American home, along with the Reader’s Digest, cola beverages, contraceptive pills, laxatives, instant coffee, and stuff to make the floor shine.
No doubt these six “notes” of the sexual revolution could be added to and subdivided in various ways; but as they stand they provide enough material for discussion. It is also clear that the revolution as I have described it is confined to Western, free, middle-class, capitalist societies of some degree of opulence. The governments of even the more prosperous socialist societies proscribe most of its manifestations as signs of a bourgeois corruption against which they wish to protect their citizens.
As for the poor societies, of whatever political complexion, these are delights they can’t afford. In them the much derided (in the West) machismo of the males keeps an uncomplicated heterosexuality as the predominant pattern; and even where, as in some of the Arab countries, male homosexuality is traditional, the business of procreation is well attended to. Here homosexuality seems not so much a way of life as a kind of gentlemanly relaxation. This is how it must have seemed to Maynard Keynes, who, before the First World War, wrote to Lytton Strachey to recommend Tunis as a place where “bed and boy” were not dear.1 (It is curious that in none of the books under review is Bloomsbury given even the modest place it deserves in the prehistory of the sexual revolution.)
In 1948 Lionel Trilling published in Partisan Review a comment on the first Kinsey Report. It is a classic statement, calm, judicious, prescient. Trilling was the first to remark on the bland assurance implied in the chosen title of the Report: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. A cross-section, not even complete, of North American males was to serve as material for generalizing about all human males. The article is still worth reading: indeed, it may be said to have gathered weight in the almost thirty years since it appeared. I wish to mention two of its points. First, there is what might be called the vulgar democratic (on the analogy of “vulgar Marxist”) view of social research.
We might say that those who most explicitly assert and wish to practice the democratic virtues have taken it as their assumption that all social facts—with the exception of exclusion and economic hardship—must be accepted, not merely in the scientific sense but also in the social sense, in the sense, that is, that no judgment must be passed on them, that any conclusion drawn from them which perceives values and consequences will turn out to be “undemocratic.”2
All the books under review (setting apart, obviously, Mr. Owen’s study of courtly love) are influenced in some degree by this assumption.
Then Trilling spoke of “the large permissive effect the Report is likely to have.” It was, in fact, as he saw, a powerful agent of revolution; it changed the sexual mores of the time. Its scientism, its half-concealed complacency toward mechanical models of the life of feeling and action, the bad faith which presented as a purely technical work what it was foreknown would be widely read by an audience quite unable to weigh its claims, all these gave it a unique authority wherever it was read. Without Kinsey’s work other writings about sexual matters would have taken a different form. Perhaps none of our authors except Father Ginder and Dr. Tripp takes Kinsey’s conceptual apparatus quite seriously—the idea of “outlet” in particular is much blown upon—but they are all of them influenced by Kinsey’s investigative techniques and “democratic” assumptions.
Morton Hunt’s Sexual Behavior in the 1970s is the outcome of a “national sex survey” (sic) conducted under the auspices of the Playboy Foundation. Thoughts of lung cancer research by the makers of cigarettes may trouble the mind; but I think we may accept without fretting Hunt’s assurance that no pressure was put upon him by any of the Playboy entrepreneurs or personalities to come up with what they wanted. What the survey shows is no doubt much the same as what the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research would have found had they conducted the survey (they were in fact invited to do so but declined).
The year 1966, in which Human Sexual Response by Masters and Johnson was published, is a critical date. Morton Hunt comments that the study “was considered obscene only by a few intellectual troglodytes.” This seems to mean that the principle that sexual performances should be studied by witnesses, photographed, monitored by machines, and that these performances should be between partners provided for experimental purposes, is not open to moral objection. There is a curious inconsistency—perhaps a remnant of the troglodyte mentality?—in the Masters and Johnson procedures: male subjects were sometimes provided with surrogate partners, that is, females with whom they had had no earlier emotional or sexual involvement; female subjects never.
Voyeuristic attitudes to sexual activity were being popularized at the same time, through X-rated movies and such spectaculars as Oh! Calcutta!; the works of the Marquis de Sade and Genet (these two were given awards for moral pioneering by unimpeachable authorities) were to be had in cheap editions; innumerable popular works combining descriptive material with how-to instructions were being published. Things went hard with the troglodytes in those years. We had left behind the period in which it could be a matter for thrilling moral dispute whether or not to put The Catcher in the Rye on reading lists for adolescents.
Morton Hunt is able to establish that since the time of Kinsey there have been some important changes in activities and attitudes: a decline in petting among adolescents and young adults and an increase in copulation; a blurring of the distinction—this had been one of the most emphatic and surprising of the Kinsey findings—between working-class and middle-class sexual behavior; a substantial increase in extramarital sexual activity among young couples under twenty-five—this seems to go with a lessening of guilt feelings and anxiety over adultery, whereas among older couples, even among the liberated practitioners of serial monogamy, adultery is still a grave matter; a slight but significant increase in sadistic and masochistic practices, and a notable increase in sadistic and masochistic elements in sexual fantasies.
Marital swinging, that is, group sexual activities—the swinging party blurs into the orgy—seems to fascinate Americans and there is a vast amount of folklore about what goes on in the suburbs, but it doesn’t seem to be increasing. The increased acceptance of fellatio, cunnilingus, and buggery has already been noted. Religion—Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, old-fashioned Protestantism—still has some restraining influence on the disposition to be sexually adventurous, but it does not seem decisive in the samples studied.
Like many books commenting on sexual behavior—Paul Robinson’s book is an exception—Morton Hunt’s is confused, in a way almost impossible to clarify except at tedious length, when it raises larger moral or anthropological questions. Hunt assumes that moral and anthropological problems are readily soluble. The following passage is not picked out as especially simple-minded but as altogether representative of his standard of analysis.
Merely because a practice has been observed in a number of societies does not mean that it has been functional for all those involved in it. Slave prostitution, the castration of captured enemies and the rape of the enemies’ women have all been fairly common in the annals of human history, but distinctly dysfunctional, biologically and psychologically, for the victims. Moreover, since such behavior is far from universal, it cannot be instinctive…but must be the product of specific social conditions; in any society where it is not sanctioned, its normality depends on the degree to which it is in conflict with the cultural norms of that society. What one can legitimately say, therefore, is that any sexual act that has been observed in many societies, and that has few or no adverse effects upon most of the persons involved in it or upon the societies themselves, may be considered natural or normal even when practiced in a milieu in which it is mildly to moderately deviant.
The Modernization of Sex is clearly written and often theoretically acute. In choosing Havelock Ellis, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson as the chief shapers of sexual modernism, and in paying attention to Freud but noting that in this connection his role is ambiguous, Robinson seems right. Freud is on the whole, from the standpoint of sexual liberation, a menacing figure. That energy which gives the Oedipal situation its power and is a perpetual source of ecstasy, pain, and guilt, all three tightly bound together, is plainly the tremendous and fascinating mystery hedged about historically with rituals and taboos. Freud thought the best we could hope for was to temper the sadness of human life. Others, Marcuse in one way, Norman O. Brown in another, have drawn from Freud’s description of infantile sexuality a message of sexual liberation (not at all the kind of liberation talked about in the how-to and gourmet books now current). This is to suggest that sexual repression is an option, and one we can avoid, not the necessary agony, the foundation and safeguard of all the institutions of civility, Freud thought it was.
Havelock Ellis was the first systematic student of sexual behavior to attempt something far-ranging and comprehensive. He was not preoccupied with the pathological, as were Acton and Krafft-Ebing; his books were filled with a winning, slighly dotty crusading spirit, and in this he is a true grandfather of sexual liberation. He is perhaps the last of the major writers on sex whose prose is elegant and easily understood. He was a cultivated man, with a humane education, who was interested in a variety of topics (he wrote a fine book on Spain).
Robinson gives us horrific specimens of the dense jargon of modern writers; it isn’t, very often, especially in the case of Masters and Johnson, a question of determining what has been said, but rather of finding out if anything at all has been said. Robinson follows his account of Havelock Ellis with a masterly, judicious, and penetrating study of the work of Kinsey. He seems to me to show, though I think he might not agree, that Masters and Johnson are the most effective revolutionaries of all. Their impenetrable jargon—Robinson misses this—is an important rhetorical weapon (compare the prose of the literature put out by the Church of Scientology); it softens up the half-educated public who are grown accustomed to the idea that what is important and improving is always framed in obscure incantatory prose, whose passion for “meaningful communication,” “new values,” “new parameters of significance,” is a kind of intellectual masochism, so that when something intelligible does come through it is embraced with sobbing relief.
Robinson is inclined to think Masters and Johnson conservative because, as he shows in a fine piece of exegesis, they are firmly loyal to what they think to be the domestic ideals of the post-Christian suburban middle class. But what Masters and Johnson want to bring about and what historically it will appear they did bring about may be different things. At any rate, they have fostered a vast industry of sexual therapy to propagate and nourish their distinctive attitudes. It is in their attachment to the therapeutic that they are distinct from Kinsey and closer to the aims of Havelock Ellis.
The combination of lucidity and analytical power in Robinson’s work is impressive. What I find disappointing is his failure (scarcely a refusal, for I don’t think he sees the necessity) to give a critical account of his own position. For example, he writes: “Masters and Johnson’s tough-minded, materialistic examination of human sexual response can be said to serve progressive ends. But their materialism can also become reactionary, especially when it results in transforming sex into labor.” I can see that progressive means good and reactionary bad, but I’m not clear what the criteria involved are. I suppose he doesn’t see any point in discussing whether or not a society which is “liberated” and hedonistic in its view of sexuality is superior to a sexually repressive and conservative society or in discussing how far these alternatives are the only choices open to us.
He sees, I think, that, in the past, modes of sexual behavior have been one thread in the web of culture, and that the pattern and integrity of the web depend upon the disposition of every thread; yet he isn’t inclined to speculate about the remoter consequences for our culture of deep changes in sexual mores. Like Hunt he seems to think moral questions are not too troublesome within the realm of sexuality and that sensible men get along well enough with a doctrine that makes the rightness and wrongness of actions depend upon their anticipated consequences. Consequences as they are anticipated are certainly among the criteria we use in deciding what we ought to do. But they can’t be decisive in crucial cases. First, in many situations, predicting consequences is an idle occupation just because we can’t know; to claim that we can is to play at being God. The decisions to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki are melancholy evidence of this; the torture of political prisoners to extract information from them, something that goes on all over the world under both “progressive” and “reactionary” regimes, provides another example. Secondly, whether or not a man has a given virtue (veracity, for example, or justice) is settled by noting how he behaves in some of those cases where calculation about consequences doesn’t seem to matter and might even appear, in an affair of such moment, ludicrous (Thomas More or Bonhoeffer or those doctors who in the death camps refused to perform medical experiments, even though they knew these experiments would be performed by others).
I may be wrong in thinking that Robinson’s cool approach to sexual theories—he calls rival theories ideologies in conflict—carries with it any information about the author’s moral attitude. The moral presuppositions of Havelock Ellis, Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson are pretty evident, and not to comment on them (beyond saying that sexual issues are “emotionally charged”) seems to imply that here, at any rate, they are not plainly open to criticism. It is also true that there is a deeply rooted view in the modern philosophical schools that what is the case, how the world is, what exists “according to nature” never imply anything about morality; and Robinson’s restriction of the field of inquiry would on this view be evidence of a commendable intellectual austerity.
It is at least conceivable that the attitudes and practices commended by the sansculottes and tricoteuses of the sexual revolution exhibit relations of manipulation and exploitation that spill over into other activities. For Nancy Friday, women’s ability to frame sexual fantasies is a badge of their liberation, a sign of their independent sexual power. It doesn’t seem to worry her that a persistent feature of many of the fantasies related is a sadomasochistic view of what is desirable in sexual relations. There are fantasies of rape, beating, violation by dogs and donkeys, intercourse with statues, fantasies of being tortured in concentration camps. The sadness and triviality of this book are almost unbearable. One can’t forget the girl of seventeen who relates that she has given up lesbian fantasies and fantasies of orgies, for, “Now I’m into emotion…”; or the woman who in the transports of the marriage bed calls out the name of her lover; fortunately, she tells us, “My husband is deaf in one ear!” One wonders about this last example, as about some other of the items in the collection; perhaps the striking impression of verisimilitude belongs to art rather than life.
The Homosexual Matrix defeats me. If Monsieur Homais could have written a book, this is the kind of book he might have written. Kinsey and Morton Hunt are vulgar democrats; Dr. Tripp is a vulgar encyclopédiste. His book professes to be an inductive study founded upon the observation of a group of fifty-two persons, eight of whom Tripp came to know well. These persons are mentioned in the first pages, then virtually disappear, though it may be that the confident generalizations that distinguish the book owe something, though we are never told what, to Tripp’s acquaintance with his sample. His evidence is largely literary and there is an extraordinary dependence upon the Kinsey volumes. They are cited as authoritative, even though they have been critically studied for almost thirty years and even though there is good reason to think that the sexual scene has changed a good deal since the 1940s. (A curious feature of Tripp’s references is that page numbers are given only when the reference is to a periodical.)
Tripp was closely connected with the original Kinsey research and plainly idolizes Kinsey. He shares many of Kinsey’s prejudices and has some of his own. Unlike most workers in this field, for whom Christianity, with its supposedly Manichaean streak, is the great poisoner of the wells of truth, Tripp thinks Judaism the most dangerously repressive moral system, Christianity being only a channel of Jewish influence. He doesn’t understand Judaism. For example, he writes: “The invention of the post-exilic Judeo-Christian tradition was to establish the claim that sex was only for reproduction and to label all other uses as perversions.” There is a confusion, shared by most writers in the field, here between the view that the function of sex is reproduction and the view, never maintained by any serious person, so far as I know, that the justification for each sexual act is reproduction. It has rarely been held that it is wrong as such for the involuntarily sterile or those past the age of child-bearing to copulate. In any case, Tripp might care to look at the Mishnah. According to Eliezer the Great, “the duty of marriage enjoined in the Law is: every day for them that are unoccupied; twice a week for labourers; once a week for ass-drivers; once every thirty days for camel drivers; and once every six months for sailors.”3 All this seems a bit excessive for reproductive purposes.
Tripp’s attitude to history is, to put it gently, careless. He tells us that “at the Council of Mâcon held near the end of the sixth century a major issue raised was whether or not women were human beings. After careful deliberation, and then by a narrow margin, it was decided that they probably are human.” Westermarck (no page numbers given) is the cited authority for this strange anecdote and Westermarck cites Gregory of Tours as printed in Migne. Tripp ought first to have used his common sense. He knows perfectly well what the Latin theologians then thought of the place of Mary in the scheme of salvation. He ought to have known that the bishops would have been familiar with and would have taken as authoritative the Roman martyrologies which included the names of such women as Cecilia, Anastasia, Perpetua. There is something excessively strange about the story. If Tripp had gone to Migne he would have discovered that Gregory tells us one bishop raised the question as to whether “human” should be applied to women in the same sense as to men (what his motives, logical or other, were in putting the question isn’t clear) and that his colleagues thought he was wrong.
Many women will find Tripp’s work offensive; most readers will find it at least curious. He has a chapter entitled “The Origins of Homosexuality.” One reads the chapter with growing disbelief. It is all about the origins of male homosexuality; there are a few parenthetical remarks about female homosexuality. Indeed, the whole book is predominantly about male homosexuality. There are some good things in the book, notably some interesting theoretical analyses, but most of the good things are rather the obiter dicta of a reflective man of some experience than the judgments of a social scientist. The chapter “The Question of Psychotherapy” contains much shrewd comment. He has a good argument to show that perfect rapport between sexual partners may deprive the relationship of strains and tensions that tend to intensify the interest of the partners in each other. Since he holds that there are deep differences between male and female psychology, he endorses the view that heterosexual partnerships rather than homosexual are likely to remain interesting and rewarding over a long period. His clarification of the concepts of inversion and transvestism is useful and discredits much of the folklore.
Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics v.7) remarks that “of political [here “political” has a greater breadth than in its modern use] justice part is natural, part legal—natural, that which everywhere has the same force and does not exist by people thinking this or that; legal, that which is originally indifferent, e.g….that a goat and not two sheep shall be sacrificed.”4 Aristotle doesn’t think it is easy to distinguish one kind of justice from another. He is claiming that we are compelled to make a distinction between what is required or forbidden simply in virtue of the culture we live in and what is required or forbidden in a more stringent sense. An ability to make this distinction may even be a mark of sanity. One who thought how we are to pick our teeth in public a grave matter would be deranged; so would one who thought the requirements of the Nuremberg Laws under Hitler were brute features of the national culture about which further questions couldn’t be raised. No decent or sane man, we should be inclined to say without formality, could have accepted such requirements as morally binding. It is also plain that what is in itself indifferent, e.g., whether to drive on the right or the left, may become a stringent requirement through agreement.
That is, there are three things: what is required or forbidden by a culture where falling in with the culture or not doesn’t seem greatly to matter; what is required or forbidden belongs to the culture but its being agreed upon makes it morally obligatory—I must keep to the right, I must keep poisons in blue bottles; what has prescriptive or interdictory force “but does not exist by people thinking this or that.” It is interesting that Aristotle, on the whole not very interested in absolutes, should have bruised himself against this problem. In the Biblical tradition there are three things a man may not do, even to save the city or his own life: he must not worship false gods, he must not spill innocent blood, he must not commit any of the sexual sins forbidden by the Law. Leon Roth remarks that these prohibitions “are specifically distinguished from ritual and social commandments,” that is, their force “does not exist by people thinking this or that.”5
It is very common now for people to find such a discussion boring and stupid. They are confident there is a hedonistic calculus that will get them out of their moral difficulties and they have a strong impression that somehow or other it has been shown, to all except a few religious freaks, that all moral requirements “exist by people thinking this or that.” To argue that there must be such a thing as being in the right if it is possible for a man to think he is in the right seems to them mere logic-chopping.6 It isn’t then surprising that in the works so far discussed there is no serious consideration of the moral problems that may be raised by changes in the sexual mores of our society; still less is the notion ever canvassed of the possibility of there being in this field absolute interdictions. Very occasionally, perhaps, this is discussed, but with derision, as modern chemists would talk about phlogiston.
It is as though somewhere in life there must be a happy corner where menacing authorities, sad consequences, agonizing choices, tragic blunders don’t exist or don’t count. Elsewhere in modern society everything is harsh, acrid, dark, and no one can wish away what is disagreeable. Once there were those who offered mescaline or LSD or other magical substances as the ultimates in happy corners. The dark and the acrid turned up there, too. Free sexual activity seems at first glance to offer a happy corner where all is sweetness and light. A second or a third glance leaves one a bit unsure. It may occur to us that the makers of the how-to and gourmet books, and the prophets upon whom they rely, are absurdly trying to make the erotic tractable and domestic. The student of the Song of Songs or of the Symposium isn’t likely to make this mistake, even if he offers no cure for our disquiets.
Christians and Jews have been pressed very hard in recent years. They are the only remaining public representatives of the old ethos set out in Deuteronomy. Orthodox Jews no doubt remain intransigent, but on the whole their witness is within their own community. Other Jews and many Protestants have been pushovers for the new ethos. Roman Catholics have been perhaps a little more resistant; but if the books by Father Ginder, Mr. Bianchi, and Ms. Ruether are in any way symptomatic, the Catholic attitude, at any rate in North America, is beginning to shift. Both books are important as symptoms rather than as new intellectual departures. Their standards of argument are poor and their understanding of history is defective.
Ginder is on the whole a very conservative priest, an unreconstructed Tridentine, except in one respect. He has come to doubt the common opinions of moral theologians in matters of sexual morality and here he attempts to say why. His writing is free from high-minded and mystifying verbiage and the tone is engaging.
He has one good general point to make: that the Church has been false to its own message where and when it has picked out for severe treatment sexual sins but has treated sins against charity and justice lightly. In the classic tradition of Catholicism, charity—agape—is the virtue, and the rich and the oppressors of the poor, the proud and the hard of heart, are those most in danger of damnation. In Anglo-Hibernian and in American Catholicism sexual sins came to fill almost the whole picture. For Catholics fornication and contraception were what liquor and gambling were for the Methodists and Baptists.
This is the Church speaking from the pulpit and in the pious press. In its functioning, and especially in the confessional, the regime was much less burdensome, and some actions—masturbation is the example most adduced by Ginder—were in practice, though not in theory, treated as peccadilloes. Ginder thinks the Church has in such matters been split-minded and ought to square her public doctrine with her tolerant practice. He argues that masturbation and premarital copulation are not sins at all; homosexual activities aren’t sinful either; and incest isn’t so great a matter as people used to think it.
What makes Ginder a singular case is the setting in which these views are advanced. He doesn’t in any sense belong to the Catholic avant-garde. He thinks abortion is always murder. He has nothing to say about war or racial problems. He seems to admire American society just as it is. If only the Church would change the established moral theology of sex, if only Paul VI would withdraw Humanae Vitae, a happy life would be there for all. (He even seems to believe, I can’t think why, that if the Pope changed his mind on contraception this would affect the population explosion in the Indian subcontinent; most rural Indians don’t even know the Pope exists.) He has no sense of the complexity of moral and anthropological issues, and no feeling for the immensely old human tradition of venerating the powers of sexuality and hedging them about with taboos, myths, piety; an attitude for which the sexual is not an extra, a relaxation, a consolation, a relief of tension, though it may also be all these things, but a part of the sacred order of the cosmos.
In the end the indictment of liberated sexuality of the kind praised by Ginder is that it makes sex trivial and empties life of its difficult mystery. Here is Ginder at his most reductive.
When stimulated by friction of one kind or another, the human sex organs produce pleasure, relieve boredom, relax visceral tension, and tranquilize the nerves.
This is a trivializing view—if it were right we could look forward to the invention of the sex pill which would do away with all the troublesome interpersonal business. He combines it with a belief that only sexual problems stand between us and the coming utopia.
[After the appearance of the first contraceptive pills on the market] for the first time in history, a happy society based on power over nature was within the grasp of men.
Lest we should fear that lots of happy, consequence-free sexual activity would eat away our moral feelings, he affirms that the United States is a great place.
Though more openly sensual and pleasure-seeking in their sex activities than past generations, modern Americans are more other-conscious in their relations than ever before.
He doesn’t intend the bitter truth in these words.
The Bianchi-Ruether volume starts off badly.
…the new awareness and activity against sexism in our culture constitute a probe to the underlying core of oppression that also manifests itself in totalitarianism, racism and militarism.
This is a representative sentence. It expresses a syndrome rather than a thought. It is assumed that there is a strong analogy and some kind of interconnection between “sexism” and “racism.” This is simply a muddle.7 It is to be feared “we shall get pictures of father ironing and little girls playing with trains long before we shall get much accurate and rational presentation of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples in children’s books.”8
As to probing “to a core,” and a core that manifests itself, these seem strange matters. We probe to find out if something is there, and if we find a core we expose it or leave it where it is. Perhaps Bianchi would consider which of the following alternatives to “core” he would choose: “root,” “foundation,” “cause,” “basis,” “principle”…. Given the kind of sentence it is, of course it doesn’t matter; this is what is so depressing and even frightening, for the corruption of language is the worst corruption of culture.
After this sad start we have to push our way through pages besprinkled with isms of all kinds and with identity, perspective, dimension, privatize, and such. In this respect Ms. Ruether and Mr. Bianchi share the same kind of prose. Ruether doesn’t think, as does Bianchi, that “deprecate” means “depreciate,” “tenuous,” “tentative.” Her infelicities are more complicated. My favorite is: “[about 1900] the contradiction between an intensified domesticity and a sexually repressive culture became so violent that the underside of Victorian society exploded in the Freudian revolution.” The idea of psychoanalysis as the great fart of late Victorian society has a crazy charm, but I fear this isn’t what Ruether is getting at.
The intention of From Machismo to Mutuality is to give a general historical sketch of relations between men and women “from remote pre-history, whose roots are lost in the mists of time” (sic), down to the present day of reckoning for sexism; and to follow this with proposals for the shaping of Western society in the light of Christian principles as these are understood by the two authors. The abolition of sexism involves the abolition or transformation of all other social institutions in the direction of a socialist-anarchist community.
History is a difficult matter, the balance of truth is hard to come by, generalizations may turn out to be ill-founded even where they at first seem most plausible. Even if history were not so hard to get right, a conscientious writer heeds Voltaire’s On doit la vérité aux morts. None of these maxims is heeded. Ruether’s chapter on women during the rise of industrial society is a model of how not to write a historical sketch. It is full of loose and often highly misleading generalizations—e.g., “With the loss of a servant class, who entered socialized work at the end of the nineteenth century”—and she writes down, in the vehemence of her anger against patriarchs and capitalists, statements that she would know to be false if she were to reflect for even half a second—e.g., “The very fact that children were produced by sexual intercourse course between the parents became the well-concealed scandal of every Victorian household” (my italics).
What a mean view of the past Ruether gives us! The kind of public—not very critical, eager to be au courant with new ideas, anxious over gnawing moral problems—Bianchi and Ruether write for deserves something richer and more nuanced than the chronicle of domestic slavery and human exploitation it is offered. The nineteenth century is one of the great centuries of Western civilization: we think of George Eliot’s calm intelligence, of the strongly lived, reflective lives of Newman and Mill, of such women as Josephine Butler and Florence Nightingale, of such historians as Maitland and Parkman, of Darwin. Ruether writes about the nineteenth century as the Enlightenment historians used to write about the Middle Ages. She may say she is concerned with one theme and can’t put everything in; the point is that most of her readers have no setting in which to place what she so bleakly and inaccurately tells them, and are therefore likely to stay in a condition of idiotic complacency about our life now.
Bianchi and Ruether have some sharp things to say about sexual liberation taken as a sign of liberation from all servitudes; in this they are shrewder than Ginder. They don’t at all commend sexual liberation in any of the popular contemporary senses. They view marriage in the way now fashionable in much Catholic writing: ideally it is a rather jolly and affectionate relationship of equal comrades who recognize each other as persons in their own right. This seems somehow not so much wrong as cerebral; and avoids what is deepest in the Jewish and Christian traditions of marriage: that in marriage the partners are one flesh. There is a lot of Gnosticism, a false spirituality, an excessive concern with what Lawrence called “sex in the head” (this is characteristic of the entire sexual revolution). The excessively spiritual attitude is perfectly exemplified in Bianchi’s comment on adultery (a coarse expression he avoids): “My own conviction is that the overwhelming majority of married people cannot cope creatively with extra-marital sex.” Presumably, their consciousness hasn’t been “raised.”
Bianchi and Ruether write professedly as Christians but they have little attachment to the concrete tradition. Ruether traces the “betrayal at the heart of the Gospel” back to the earliest times and fixes responsibility for this on the apostolic age. This is intelligible, even the ABC of the matter, if we too take ourselves to be traitors; but proclaimed solemnly, without humor or irony, as a condemnation of the apostolic age by the creative copers of the Western world, it is a bad joke.
Courtly love was one aspect of medieval asceticism, and yet it tempered it, deepening and complicating sexual feeling. The two most influential books on the matter are C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love and Denis de Rougemont’s L’Amour et l’Occident (published here as Love in the Western World). The origins of the cult are obscure and the features of its development matters of controversy; what there can be no doubt about are the large consequences of the cult as, through poetry and, later, the novel, the romantic sensibility came to be shared by more and more people. Mr. Owen has given us a useful popular history and a pleasant picture book. He sees that the really interesting problem about courtly love is its legacy rather than its origin. The most obvious facts of the legacy’s history no one could dispute over: Ronsard, Shakespeare, Cervantes, the novel from Clarissa to A Farewell to Arms or The Heart of the Matter, all these and much ephemeral stuff enlivened European culture.
The complex picture of male and female sensibility we find in the tradition isn’t easily judged. What is certain is that without the tradition we shouldn’t have had the heroic woman. As I think about Rosalind (As You Like It), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), about Elizabeth Bennet and Lucy Snowe and even Trollope’s Lily Dale, I become more and more dissatisfied with our stereotypes of female exploitation and oppression, and with such repeated general statements as that sexual feeling was not, in the Victorian age, supposed to exist in respectable women. Trollope was a popular novelist who depicted and even shaped les moeurs de province, and he is therefore good evidence for what people thought and felt in the mid-Victorian period. Now, it is plain that most of his heroines glow with sexual feeling. The liberationists judge the past badly and this coarsens their judgment of the present.
It is impossible to say whether or not there is in the Western world a growing synthesis of ideas on sexual behavior. There is evidence that the loosely associated ideas held by sexual liberationists are deeply affecting groups that have traditionally accepted the Biblical prohibitions of fornication, adultery, and the rest. Father Ginder’s book and From Machismo to Mutuality may represent what is going on in the minds of some religious believers in our society. How far such changes speak of a collapse before current fashion we need not determine. We must assume that there is a felt logical compulsion in any line of thought that ends with the acceptance of modes of sexual activity that have always been thought forbidden among orthodox Jews, most Protestants, and almost all Roman Catholics. Bianchi and Ruether stress as a premise of their argument a special view of the marriage relation and would, I think, argue that their view is a legitimate development of what is implicit in the Christian view of sexuality. Bianchi writes:
Mutuality for us men points towards a threefold acceptance that is denied in contemporary society. It means that we cultivate the feminine dimensions of our male selves, that we respect the diversity of homosexuality and that we come to live with women as diverse but equal others who do not exist for our aggrandizement but for our mutual growth as persons.
This rests upon what I have already called Gnosticism The belief is that in a union of love between two people, personal, nonsexual relations are fundamental and that to these relations, between males and females, males and males, females and females, there may be added sexual relations, as relaxation, play, signs of affection, on occasion as means to procreation. In the Biblical tradition, by contrast, it is the sexual relation between man and woman that constitutes the relation of marriage, and the love of friendship—this can exist outside marriage and without sexual relations—is an added grace that belongs to the perfection of marriage but isn’t constitutive of it. The sexual relation of marriage lies within the protection of covenant: the communally ratified exchange of promises establishing mutual and exclusive rights to sexual activity between the parties. Thus, for the partners in marriage conceived in this way, adultery resembles self-contradiction.
If Jewish-Christian prescriptions about marriage and sexuality are in retreat, this is in part a consequence of the secularization of social life. Pietas toward natural processes and established institutions is rare in our society and not often counted as a virtue. The absence of pietas toward some natural processes is beginning to disturb us; this is evident in the growth of movements to protect and purify the natural environment. Pietas toward sexuality, so strong a feature of the entire human past, seems much diminished. If there is sense in Freud, if anything of what Lawrence says in “Apropos of Lady Chatterley” and Fantasia of the Unconscious is to the point, too easy and familiar an approach to sex risks more than we can understand. The taboos of the past, the touch of hysteria men of today discover in past religious pronouncements on the topic, speak of the uncannily powerful in sexuality; and it seems an implication of what Freud thought that the ending of sexual repression could unravel the web of culture. This may be what the Marxist regimes obscurely understand. No high culture without guilt, as Philip Rieff would say.
A culture without guilt, in which all conceivable sexual practices are innocent, such is the happy arrangement many believe to be already practicable. There may be guilt over one’s inadequacies as a sexual performer (this is what Robinson has in mind when he remarks that the Masters and Johnson program tends to transform sexual activity into labor); but the great guilt and the dread that went with the violation of the taboos will have gone.
In such a culture it would come to be thought that all sexual mores essentially resemble those other things that are in themselves indifferent. (Of course, some sexual mores are plainly of this kind: the male-superior position in coitus would be an example of a local and temporal peculiarity.) But it may be that other things (the prohibition of incest, for example) can’t be settled “by people thinking this or that.” If everything is interesting and nothing is grave, satire cannot bite and tragedy gives way to the social illness of maladjustment. For many, human life under such conditions would lose its music. It may be that life can’t in any case be like this and that the hurt of guilt and the pity and terror of tragedy are ineluctably with us, as much in our sexual relations as in all other dealings between members of the family of man.
May 13, 1976
Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey (Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1968), Vol. II, p. 80. ↩
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (Doubleday Anchor, 1957), p. 234. ↩
The Mishnah, translated from the Hebrew by Herbert Danby (Oxford, 1933), p. 252. ↩
The Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Sir David Ross (London: World’s Classics, 1969), p. 124. ↩
Cf. Leon Roth, Judaism: A Portrait (London, 1960), p. 68. ↩
I think I got this argument from Professor G. E. M. Anscombe, in conversation. ↩
Cf. Ann Dummett, “Racism and Sexism: a False Analogy,” New Blackfriars (Oxford), November 1975. ↩
Dummett, p. 485. ↩