A FAVOURITE figure of popular writers was to depict the sexual appetite as a "biological urge": a mysterious uneasiness, dimly linked with the sun, which annually stirs the eel to his long trek from the Sargasso, sets the infusoria churning in the pond and makes the iris gleam more brightly in the plumage of the burnished dove. According to this simple notion, biology also accounted for the appearance of cars parked after sunset in dark lanes, the chairs standing in couples in the public parks and the nameless objects floating like bladderwrack in the river's scum.
But of course the treatment of sex as merely a biological urge is sadly inadequate. Sex is both more complex and more metaphysical than that. More complex because it can demand strange and highly unbiological modes for its fulfilment: not just any man or woman, but this man and that woman; not just the archetypal act but a specialized stimulus, a personal idiosyncrasy. More metaphysical, because it can be sublimated into creative activities or denatured into aggressive and destructive ones. The history of sex must pay heed to both these factors.
Psychology has given us some understanding of the forces which channel sex into specialized forms of expression, but its connection with violence remains essentially obscure. For many people, both topics exert an unending fascination, and the crimes which arouse the greatest public sensation are those in which they are combined. Each strikes chords which come from deeply buried levels of the personality. But while we openly admit the existence of the sexual mystery, we make no such clear recognition of the destructive urge, and avert our eyes from the fascination of violence and death. This horrid perturbation is the magnet which draws many of those who frequent speedways and boxing contests: but it can be seen in its purest form, perhaps, when a man is put to death by the law. In the eighteenth century there were many who travelled long distances to attend public executions, and the guillotine had its regular audience. Today, we no longer permit public executions, but the bare knowledge that an execution is taking place is enough to draw crowds. When Bentley was executed in 1953, people drove all night from places hundreds of miles distant to be present in the street outside the prison, for the meagre reward of seeing the death notice hung upon the gates. Some of those present told reporters that it was the fourth or fifth execution which they had attended. Most extraordinary are the reactions of the onlookers when the warder appears at the gates with the notice. A ripple runs through the crowd, which emits a noise-half-sigh, half-boo. An angry hand strikes the board, so that the warder cannot hang it on the hooks. At once there is a general outburst of violence: arms flail, noses bleed. Ten police officers link arms and form a cordon, against which the crowd charges again and again. Elsewhere other police officers are embroiled with members of the crowd, both men and women, punching, scratching and kicking. There is a crash of breaking glass. A shower of coins rattles against the notice board. For twenty minutes the battle continues, until the police and the warders manage to force the door shut. The crowd surlily begins to look for hats, shoes and coat-belts torn off in the scrimmage. A burly man who has not shaved observes:
"Pretty small crowd, all considered. Haven't missed one of these in fifteen years. Nice fresh June morning and a little more sun, that's what you want, really."
Even today — perhaps especially today — we do not like to look too closely at the irrational forces in the human psyche, and the averagely rational man, as he reads the account in his morning paper, perhaps comforts himself that there are always a few abnormal people in society. But the columns of the popular papers, those great hornbooks of the appetites, are proof enough of the universality of man's obsessive interest in violence, and of his equally obsessive interest in sex. Man has other appetites indeed, but they are controllable. He does not surround his appetite for food with the same prohibitions and taboos that surround his cravings for cruelty and lust, nor does he daily purchase printed accounts of the food consumed by others. With his conscious mind he builds an ideal of co-operation and restraint, and on this shining picture he concentrates his attention, secretly aware that if he pays any heed to the evil shapes which mutter behind him, he may become so fascinated that they will enslave him.
The history of civilization is the history of a long warfare between the dangerous and powerful forces of the id, and the various systems of taboos and inhibitions which man has erected to control them. Sometimes man has attempted to cap the volcano, but the molten matter has then forced its way out through fissures in the rock, and the damage done has been as great as if he had made no such attempt. Sometimes he has managed to control and render harmless the prisoned energy by providing adequate institutions for its expression. Rarely has he managed to harness it to do creative work. The purpose of this book is to survey these various attempts to control the irrational as they have been developed in western Europe and particularly in England during the Christian era. Or rather its purpose is to survey the treatment men have accorded to the sexual drive — but from this subject the study of violence cannot be wholly divorced. In the language of Freud, man has two inborn capacities, and each may manifest in a nobler or a baser form. There is Eros, which is love and creativity, but also lust; and there is Thanatos, which is hate and destruction, but may also become the power to control and manipulate for useful purposes. Often these two drives become fused: love can make a divine marriage with mastery, just as lust can make a diabolic marriage with pain. Sadomasochism is the reverse side of a coin whose obverse is creative achievement.
A century ago, duped and doped by a false analogy between evolutionary progress, which is progress in complexity, and a progress in the social, moral and aesthetic spheres, men could believe that it needed but time and effort to pass irrevocably from barbarism to civilized restraint. Today, we are beginning to realize that civilization is only to be maintained by a continuous struggle against the forces of destruction which beset it, just as the life of the body is maintained only by continuous expenditure of energy from disruption by the force of decay. And while history has demonstrated how easily the destructive forces can break out to create an Auschwitz or a Buchenwald — those same forces which also make a lynching or a scuffle outside prison gates — Freud has forced us to the painful realization that those forces are present within every one of us, as potentialities for good as well as ill.
Thus the story of how man has handled his sexual drives is also the story of how he has handled his creative impulse. His attitudes to these imperatives colour his whole scheme for society, his politics, his art and his religion. To compress this story within the covers of a single book, without entirely losing sight of these wider implications, is a task of alarming difficult and many omissions and over simplifications are unavoidable. For these I here apologize comprehensively and shall not do so severally.
To summarize sexual history is the more difficult for the fact that it is almost impossible to view it objectively. From earliest youth we are taught to approve and condemn, and these judgments derive from buried emotions, so that they are held with great force and passion. All judgment tends to be egocentric, but in this field unusually so: the very word moral is derived from mores, customs. The moral is what is customary And what is customary constantly changes. The range of possible variation is wide — just how wide the anthropologist have taught us. In the Trobriand Islands, for instance, adult do not mind if children engage in sexual play and attempt precociously to perform the sexual act; as adolescents they may sleep with one another, provided only that they are not in love with one another. If they fall in love, the sexual act becomes forbidden, and for lovers to sleep together would outrage decency.
It may be a healthy discipline, therefore, to study the processes by which the present system of attitudes has been developed. Our sexual codes represent a strange hodgepodge of fragments from different periods in history pre-Christian magic has mingled with Christian asceticism, Romantic idealism has mingled with Rationalist "common sense", to produce a strange and arbitrary amalgam. So far from being natural and inevitable, our existing sexual codes, seen in perspective, must appear grotesque — though not more grotesque than those of most other periods. But though they are irrational enough, when viewed from the standpoint of ethics, from a psychological viewpoint they display great internal consistency and accurately regret the conflicts in the human psyche.
In studying attitudes to sex, one precaution is especially necessary: we must always distinguish between the ideal held up by the dominant group in society as the proper, approved, way of behaving, and actual behaviour. Today, for instance, it is still part of the official sexual ideal that the sexual act shall only be performed by legitimately married couples, all pre-marital sexual experience being disapproved. Nevertheless, as many surveys have shown, the great majority of persons do have some Premarital sexual experience, and usually, it would seem, without experiencing any marked sense of guilt. These are not people who have rejected the whole sexual code: most of them will marry in due course, and some of them may feel quite strongly about certain other sexual regulations — say, those concerning homosexuality or the seduction of minors. Their private code simply differs in certain respects from the official code. Of course, a man may also fail to live up to his private sense of what is proper, and subsequently will experience feelings of guilt and shame. It is with this gap between behaviour and private conscience that the psychiatrist is frequently concerned; but in this book, I shall be concerned chiefly with the average gap between general behaviour and official ideal. This gap, as we shall see, has varied greatly in width from time to time: sometimes when standards have been at their most restrictive, performance has displayed the greatest licence.
These remarks may sound platitudinous, for it is difficult to envisage the curiously persistent character of officially maintained standards until some incident happens to dramatize them. As it happens, while I was first collecting notes for this work, an incident occurred which vividly illuminated the point at issue. The divorce laws of Britain do not recognize incompatibility of temperament as a reason for divorce. Yet it is no secret that a considerable proportion of the population, perhaps a majority, feel that when friction between husband and wife has become so acute that the whole relationship has become poisoned beyond recovery, then divorce may be justifiable. In such circumstances, there is an evident temptation to satisfy the demands of the law by providing the necessary evidence to prove adultery, and satirists have not been slow to point out that the law is actually driving people to adultery, or at the least to the pretence of committing adultery. Yet when it was suggested in court, recently, that collusion of this kind was not unknown, the judge administered a sharp rebuke, declaring that no such collusion was known to occur.
If we still entertained the delusion that men were rational beings, such an inconsistency between "private knowledge" and "public knowledge" would greatly astonish us. Since, fortunately, it IS more than fifty years since Freud began to transform the study of the irrational, and showed us in detail how far from rational we are, it will not astonish, but may serve to remind us of the nubbly and obstinate nature of the attitudes and motives we are about to examine.
In tracing the history of attitudes to sex, it is therefore constantly necessary to distinguish between the pretended position and the actual. This is the more difficult since the data about the actual position are consistently suppressed and distorted. Even today, when we are supposedly so emancipated, our history books continue to be written with a determined disregard for facts which the historian considers to be unpleasant. The best known social history of our day makes no reference to sexual matters, other than normal wedlock. Yet the belief that sexual desires and habits are something which can be placed in an airtight compartment, and sealed off from history without affecting the development of the story, is no longer tenable. Eros and Thanatos permeate every compartment of human activity, and a history which attempts to ignore this fact is not merely emasculated but unintelligible. The first purpose of this book is to demonstrate how closely attitudes to sexual matters interlock with other social attitudes and even dictate them.
Since the western world is still strongly under the influence of the tradition established by the mediaeval Church, let us start by examining that tradition in some detail, before attempting to trace the developments which sprang from it.