Pompeii wall painting
A review of Mary Beard’s Pompeii: A City Frozen In Time in The Spectator prompted me to think about the common accusation that Western, or Anglo-American, culture is “sexually repressed” and that the liberation of sexual desire, and of public discourse about sexual desire, represents social progress.
As many of my readers probably know, excavations of Pompeii revealed an extraordinary quantity of erotic art, particularly in the form of wall paintings. The society was apparently swimming in eros.
Libertarian John Wright’s take on the Pompeii art is to see ancient Roman society as superior to ours in the area of sexual liberation, while admitting that “politically…it was no paradise.” He celebrates the sexual liberation demonstrated in the marketing of adult toys by mainstream companies like Philips, and hopes that we will soon be able to enjoy the “best of all worlds,” presumably Roman sexual liberation and American political freedom.
(Updates: John responds to this article here, and to a comment I posted at his site here.)
Well, sexual morality is a subject as difficult as life itself, and I’m hardly qualified to talk about the many issues involved. But I can say with certainty that it is not as simple as the sexual liberationists think. 20th-century sexual liberation has unleashed dangerous and destructive forces in our society that threaten civilized life in serious ways. And while we will never go back to exactly the same attitudes and practices that were the norm a century or so ago, we need to seriously think about how to restore a workable sexual code based on traditional understandings of love, sex, and the family.
In the early 20th century something called “the sex problem” was extensively discussed. So far as I can gather, this term referred in the broad sense to the sex-related social problems associated with urbanization and population growth, including the timeless problems of prostitution, venereal disease, and illegitimacy; the “sex problem” was also linked with eugenics and the question of how the “race” could be improved by encouraging genetically superior individuals to reproduce. In the realm of private life, there was a widespread perception that many married men and women had very unhappy sex lives and that sexual taboos and the suppression of information were one of the big causes of this unhappiness. From this concern arose movements for sex education, birth control, and the like which ultimately contributed to a major transformation in sexual morality and practices.
It is hard to miss a pervading sense of anxiety over sexual matters in writings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consider the following epitaphs of two fictional women in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology:
Margaret Fuller Slack
I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life.
Mrs. Benjamin Pantier
I know that he told that I snared his soul
With a snare which bled him to death.
And all the men loved him,
And most of the women pitied him.
But suppose you are really a lady, and have delicate tastes,
And loathe the smell of whiskey and onions,
And the rhythm of Wordsworth’s “Ode” runs in your ears,
While he goes about from morning till night
Repeating bits of that common thing,
“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
And then, suppose:
You are a woman well endowed,
And the only man with whom the law and mortality
Permit you to have the marital relation
Is the very man that fills you with disgust
Every time you think of it—while you think of it
Every time you see him?
That’s why I drove him away from home
To live with his dog in a dingy room
Back of his office.
Here are some very unhappy women – and men. (I here right the wrong I committed recently when I introduced poor Benjamin Pantier in this blog without allowing his wife to reply!) If one believes Masters has succeeded in portraying an aspect of the lives of many actual people – and I do – it is not hard to see how the people of his time may have been amenable, say, to more liberal divorce laws or to making contraception freely available. There were simply too many miserable marriages. It also must have seemed reasonable to start calling for the greater availability of information about sex, since part of the problem seemed to have stemmed from severe ignorance about basic facts about sex.
We tend to stereotype the Victorian middle class as hopelessly prudish. While I don’t accept this notion in general, there certainly were some unhealthy ideas and practices regarding sex, for instance, a truly morbid fear and horror of masturbation, which was linked with almost every physical and mental illness in existence. Few people realize that the practice of infant circumcision, a completely needless trauma still inflicted on large numbers of boys born in America, began as a “medical” attempt to prevent masturbation. How much this has to do with “sexual repression” I don’t know; perhaps it would be more proper to blame the medical “technocracy.” In any event, there certainly existed “sex problems” in the English-speaking world that may have not been found elsewhere. (Any readers interested in the issue of circumcision can refer to the following website, liberal in orientation but accurate with its facts.)
A 1918 “sex manual”
For this article, I hoped to locate a 19th or early 20th century writer who could give a healthy conservative account of traditional sexual morality and thus show us the other side of the picture. However, most books on the subject seem in the first place to be by the liberals, the Margaret Sangers and Havelock Ellises, who lead up to the truly horrifying Alfred Kinsey, sexual pervert and child abuser and the father of modern sex research. It is harder to find people defending the old standards. (If any readers know of any examples, please let me know.) I was, however, able to find an interesting work by Scottish birth control advocate Marie Stopes, which was published, and also banned, in the United States. Her book Married Love (1918), although ultimately part of the movement to “reform” sexual morality, is still a whole universe away from modern books dealing with sex.
Stopes, who herself suffered from an unsuccessful first marriage to a man who turned out to be impotent, saw her mission as contributing to the greater happiness of married couples. She writes:
The only secure basis for a present-day State is the welding of its units in marriage: but there is rottenness and danger at the foundations of the State if many of the marriages are unhappy. Today, marriage is far less happy than appears on the surface. Too many who marry expecting joy are bitterly disappointed; and the demand for “freedom” grows: while those who cry aloud are generally unaware that it is more likely to have been their own ignorance than the “marriage-bond” which was the source of their unhappiness.
Stopes dedicates the book to “young husbands, and all those who are betrothed in love.” She seems to hold the not-quite-feminist assumption that it is men who need to take leadership in solving marital problems, and that as a woman trained in biological science, her role is to inform men about the ways that women differ from them, to enable them to help solve the sexual problems of the marriage.
Stopes’s book contains little reference to physical techniques, which would form the bulk of a similar book written today; she focuses mainly on the dynamics of intimacy between men and women. (Censorship considerations probably made this necessary in any case.) The major problem for middle-class married couples seems to have been a breakdown of intimate relations based on mutual misunderstanding, and the actual failure of one partner or the other to attain physical satisfaction. No doubt these problems still exist; but one can imagine them to have been more acute in the very different culture of 1918.
For instance, she discusses the problem of what was called women’s “contrariness” – their apparent inconsistency in responding to the advances of their husbands.
[The husband] observes that one week his tender love-making and romantic advances win her to smiles and joyous yielding, and then perhaps a few days later the same, or more impassioned, tenderness on his part is met by coldness or a forced appearance of warmth, which, while he may make no comment, upon it, hurts him acutely. And this deep, inexplicable hurt is often the beginning of the end of love…. (p. 39)
If the man responds by following the advice of books to practice “self-control” he may be bitterly disappointed:
And then, if he is at all observant, he may be aggrieved and astonished to find her again wistful or hurt. With the tender longing to understand, which is so profound a characteristic in all the best of our young men, he begs, implores, or pets her into telling him some part of the reason for her fresh grievance. He discovers to his amazement that this time she is hurt because he had not made those very advances which so recently had repelled her, and had been with such difficulty repressed by his intellectual efforts. (p. 41)
The classic problem! In other chapters, Stopes expounds on issues essentially related to the problem of mutual sexual fulfillment. For instance, she presents her own theory of a monthly cycle of desire in women along with practical advice on how a couple might adjust to each other’s differing sexual rhythms. She also discusses issues such as the effect of pregnancy and childbirth on marital relations.
The centrality of marriage in the West
It is no doubt the case that Stopes had an agenda going far beyond what she discusses in her book, and I am not here defending her as a political figure. Nevertheless, I find the book’s assumption that sex should properly take place within marriage, and that only within the context of marriage can sexual relations achieve their full potentiality, a refreshing expression of a view, once held as obviously true, that should be restored as a central understanding for our society. As a male, I also appreciate her recognition, absent in feminist denunciations of “patriarchal” marriage, that the husband is a human being who cares for his partner and is himself capable of being hurt.
I would say that people like Stopes were right in condemning certain “prudish” attitudes and the proliferation of silence and misinformation about sex during their time. There is a place for frank sexual advice and, I would dare say, certain forms of erotica and obscenity, in a healthy society, Judeo-Christian as well as any other. George Orwell, for instance, defended a type of mildly obscene picture postcard once popular in Britain as a kind of harmless outlet for a society basically centered on Christian marriage, an argument I have always found convincing, though I might be persuaded otherwise.
But we need to get back to the basic expectation that normal men and women will marry, have children, and find both romantic love and sexual fulfillment within the marriage relationship. This is a tall order, not easy to achieve – we might call it one of the central challenges of life – but without it, so many things that are precious to us (married or not) will crumble away, and indeed are vanishing from American life although not everyone has noticed they are gone.
In how many places, outside of the Christian “subculture,” could one find a statement like this made in the United States?
Every heart desires a mate. For some reason beyond our comprehension, nature has so created us that we are incomplete in ourselves; neither man nor woman singly can know the joy in the performance of all the human functions; neither man nor woman singly can create another human being. This fact, which is expressed in our outward divergencies of form, influences and colors the whole of our lives; and there is nothing for which the innermost spirit of one and all so yearns as for a sense of union with another soul, and the perfecting of oneself which such union brings. (p. 21-22)
The conception of marriage which combines physical with spiritual union is distinctive, though not unique, to the West. Universal availability of contraception, easy divorce, and a lack of barriers to unmarried sex are depriving us not only of the product, but the experience of getting there found in romantic love. When we see stories such as that of a college graduate auctioning off her virginity online (she is allegedly a Women’s Studies major planning to use the money for graduate work in Marriage and Family Therapy!) treated by the media as amusing, and when numerous people publicly express their approval for the act on the grounds that she is exercising “control of her own sexuality,” we know we are living in a seriously decadent society, whose young people are truly in perilous danger of making a wreck of their lives. Incidentally, if this “auction” represents a feminist fulfillment of a young woman’s autonomy, how exactly is she different from a teenage Thai girl who “voluntarily” sells herself as a prostitute to help her impoverished parents? For that matter, how happy and liberated were the many prostitutes of Pompeii?
I would comment in passing, though it is a topic for another essay, that the ideal of marriage should also not be elevated into a sort of individual self-fulfillment, such that those who fail to achieve it are seen as unhappy and deprived. David Burns says somewhere in his self-help book Feeling Good that “[Romantic] love is not an adult human need!” I think this is true. There is a difference between something being wonderful and desirable, and its being something we can’t live without.
Ironically, while dismantling the social constraints that make traditional marriage possible, we have raised expectations for romantic and sexual fulfillment so high that few have any hope of achieving it. I believe the idea of sexual “repression” is also fundamentally misdirected. Sexual behavior is not only a source of pleasure and joy, it is also a dark primeval force which is constrained in some way in every society. To someone like Alfred Kinsey, human happiness was related to the quantity of sexual activity enjoyed. It is true that there exists a sexual instinct which will find expression one way or the other, but human beings are also quite capable of being happy during periods of little or no sexual activity, and the level of desire, of course, varies according to the amount and type of stimulation present. To be surrounded by erotic art in one’s daily life, as were the people of Pompeii, is not necessarily a wholesome thing. Anglo-American culture’s relatively restrained sexual culture may be linked to some of its unique virtues.
Marie Stopes, Married Love or Love in Marriage, New York: Eugenics Publishing Co., 1927. (Edited edition of 1918 book.)