Sexuality in Western society: the story so far
Until very recently, the dominant view of sex and marriage in Western culture for over a century had been governed by two distinct, but nonetheless overlapping, frames of thought.
On the hand, the churches upheld and offered marriage as the proper context for sex and the basis of family life.
The theological justification for this was largely assumed rather than expressed. But if pushed, most Christians would have taken a position something like that expressed in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — that marriage was for the avoiding of immorality, the begetting of children and the mutual society help and comfort husband and wife ought to have from one another.
Yet even without the undergirding of religious belief, society generally took the ‘common sense’ view that, given the hazards of illegitimate children and venereal disease, sex was best kept within the bounds of marriage.
People might ‘push the envelope’ of this in personal practice or philosophical principle. The avant garde lived up to their name in being ‘ahead of the rest’, but few were willing to adopt a truly radical lifestyle.
‘Secular’ society and the Church thus agreed — one might even say colluded — in maintaining the status quo of marriage as a social ‘norm’.
The sexual revolution
All that began to change in the 1960s, which saw what soon became known as the ‘sexual revolution’. How much of a revolution it would turn out to be, few realized at the time.
It is important to recognize, however, that the success of this revolution was largely a result of advances in technology.
Human beings as a whole have always been keen on freedom of sexual expression. As we have noted, however, the exercise of that freedom entailed certain risks — specifically unwanted pregnancy and disease. Syphilis and gonorrhea, in particular, took a regular and deadly toll.
To mitigate these risks, various ‘prophylactics’ had been devised, but they were crude in the extreme, uncomfortable and even dangerous. Worst of all, they were of limited effectiveness.
People might envy the fictional exploits of Don Juan, but few were prepared to face the very real dangers of such a lifestyle.
And then, of course, there was the social opprobrium attached to sexual profligacy. To father an illegitimate child was considered bad enough, to be the child even worse, and to be the mother perhaps worst of all.
Today, the attitudes involved might seem cruel, and certainly they could be harsh. But before we rush to condemn, we must admit that this disapproval was itself ‘prophylactic’. In a society with neither effective medicines nor social services, prevention of illegitimacy and illness was the only realistic option, given that there was really no ‘cure’ for either.
The first step towards the sexual revolution was thus the invention of penicillin and other antibiotics. Just as recent medical advances have impacted on our fear of AIDS, so these early medicines turned previously chronic or fatal illnesses into an embarrassing, but relatively minor, nuisance.
Another major development was the increasing sophistication of the condom, which was effective against both pregnancy and disease.
It was the invention of the contraceptive pill, however, which brought about the collapse of secular resistance to the revolution.
It is hard to appreciate today that in the early 1960s people could hold a perfectly serious discussion about whether sex before marriage was wrong, without having to invoke religious belief to support their opposition. Contraception was still of limited effectiveness. Venereal diseases were still legally ‘notifiable’. And in any case, the ‘social memory’ of previous centuries meant that people disapproved of sex before marriage even when they could not give a reason for this.
When I myself went up to university in 1968, not only was male and female accommodation segregated, but men and women were not allowed to be in one another’s blocks after 11.30pm. In my first year, on a corridor of eight rooms, just one student had a girlfriend who regularly stayed the night.
‘The pill’ changed everything. Men no longer had to make embarrassing purchases at the chemists or barbers, whilst for women here was something which exceeded the eighty or ninety percent reliability of the condom. And a girl on the pill was ready for sex ‘any time, any place, anywhere’. The era of ‘sexual liberation’ had arrived.
Yet in assessing the developments since then, it is worth reminding ourselves that this massive social change still depends on human technology. Like the motor car, antibiotics and contraceptives allow us to adopt a lifestyle unimaginable to our ancestors. But as the advent of AIDS in the 1980s demonstrated, it is a potentially precarious lifestyle collectively and individually, that relies on our being able to overcome nature, rather than living in accordance with it.
At worst, contraceptives and antibiotics are to sexual promiscuity what the gastric band is to junk food, allowing society to offset the effects of a damaging lifestyle, even whilst it admits its powerlessness to address the underlying problem.
The gender revolution
Once the pill became widely available, sex before marriage soon became entirely acceptable. The long-standing ambition of a privileged intellectual few to overthrow ‘conventional morality’ was achieved remarkably quickly, once the natural barriers were largely out of the way.
But the revolution was never going to stop there, for the intellectual questioning of the nineteenth century was not just of sexual acts but of attitudes, particularly towards the nature and roles of the ‘sexes’.
One interesting manifestation of this occurred following the sinking of the Titanic, when a leading American feminist chided the female survivors of this disaster for following the principle of ‘women and children first’. How, she asked, could female emancipation ever be achieved when women accepted their own oppression in this way? [Note: I have read this, but lost the reference. I believe it was Margaret Sanger, but if anyone can give me a reference or quote, please do!]
The example may seem amusing, or even trivial, to us. But it is a reminder that this went far beyond issues of whether women could vote or become doctors. Nothing less than a complete reordering of social relations was envisaged, and if that required lives to be sacrificed, so be it.
The paradox of feminism, of course, is that the agenda for full equality is driven by a conviction that there is something special about women. But if women are special, then in some sense they are different. And if they are different, then it must be asked in what way they are ‘equal’ to men.
Such questions, however, do not seem to be at the heart of the drive for social change. Rather, the fundamental principle seems to be a distaste for gender distinctions as such.
Thus a recent programme on Woman’s Hour looked at the alleged shortage of female lead characters in programmes made for children’s television. The question was raised, however, whether given the lack of male role models in the environment of many young children, a male bias might actually be an asset for children. The response of one of the contributors, researcher Dr Helen Mott, was telling:
“It’s got to be really important that young children growing up, perhaps in female dominated environments, have access to positive male role models, but that doesn’t mean that they have to have access to a world view of men always taking the action and taking the lead and doing exciting things. It’s incredibly important that they see men in a nurturing and caring role and that is something we that don’t necessarily see much of. [...] So if we’re going to be talking about a bias towards representing male figures then I think its important that we focus on caring and nurturing male figures.”1
In other words, it might be helpful for children to be shown some male role models, but these should be ‘nurturing’ characters, not men of action or leadership — in other words, more like archetypal women than men.
Of course, critics will maintain that it is exactly this sort of stereotyping which needs to be addressed. But this is to beg the question. Is the stereotype artificially imposed and maintained? Or is it rather a reflection of a reality that women tend to be inclined towards nurturing, whilst men tend towards action and leadership?
Interestingly, Dr Mott lamented that stereotyping, evidenced by the ‘pinkification’ of girl-related things, is actually getting worse:
“... its only really this last generation where we’ve seen such a big diversification into what’s appropriate for girls and what’s appropriate for boys ... that’s very unhelpful for the project of gender equality.”
Yet this has happened despite decades of deliberate and systematic efforts in the opposite direction, which would surely suggest that, whatever they are, the forces generating gender ‘stereotypes’ run deep in individuals and society. Nevertheless, strenuous attempts to eradicate them persist and even receive government approval.
Sexuality and ‘orientation’
This anathema towards gender is striking when one observes the contemporary debate about male and female roles (though as we have noted, its relationship with a strongly ‘feminist’ ideology is somewhat paradoxical).
It also manifests itself in attitudes towards ‘sexual orientation’. But that is a phrase which demands careful examination.
Many years ago, I was asked by a group of students about my attitude to people of ‘different sexual orientation’. Almost without thinking, I replied that what they were talking about was surely not a matter of sexual orientation, but of disorientation.
Well, that was the 1980s, so I didn’t get into trouble at the college where I was then chaplain, but the thought has stuck with me.
In the present context, it is often forgotten that sexual behaviour is not, first and foremost, a matter of sociology but biology. And the reasons for this, of course, go back to the contraceptive revolution.
Without contraception, most fertile couples who have regular sexual intercourse will fairly soon find that the result is pregnancy.
Before the 1960s, therefore, when people thought about sex, they thought about babies. Some people thought about the joys of having one, others thought about the risks, but everyone had babies in mind when they contemplated having sex.
In the 1973 film That’ll Be the Day, David Essex plays a boy who for a time works in a 1950s holiday camp. In one scene he is about to lose his virginity with a girl he has finally persuaded into bed. As the action begins to hot up, however, they hear the sound of a baby crying in the next-door chalet, and for a moment they both freeze.
The audience knows what they are thinking and why, for a moment, they have stopped. But the equivalent couple today would hardly even pause for breath.
It was babies, as much as anything, which once made love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. But the success of contraception (and, let it not be forgotten, the availability of abortion), has unlinked them in our thinking.
And this has had a profound influence on our thinking. On the one hand, if we ask, “When are teenagers ready for sex?” we come up with a very different set of answers from if we ask, “When are young people ready for children?”
On the other hand, the total detachment of sexual behaviours from biological processes (like pregnancy and babies) allows us to think in terms of various sexual ‘orientations’, all of which are basically equivalent in the desire felt and the pleasure produced.
If having babies is not intrinsically a part of heterosexual sex, then how is homosexual sex really any different? This is a question which has been proposed recently by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, in suggesting that certain same-sex relationships are in all important respects identical to marriage. Indeed, the same point was made thirty years ago by the present Archbishop of Canterbury in an essay titled ‘The Body’s Grace’.
If sex is not about having babies, so the argument goes, then sexual desires and relationships can be evaluated purely on the basis of the pleasure given and the integrity involved.
But the intellectual argument goes even further. In the post-contraceptive world, sexuality is a pluriform, variable aspect of human living. An ‘either-or’ attitude to male and female is neither necessary nor accurate. Not only do we not need to be one or the other, we actually are not one or the other.
Here we move into the realm of ‘Queer Theory’. This offers a critique of culture from a ‘homosexual’ perspective, which suggests that things are really only understood properly when we reject the old polarizations of male and female.
This can be applied biologically — there are, after all, transgendered individuals who are a living embodiment of the principle that we are not ‘either-or’. But there are also bisexuals, gays, lesbians and those people who believe they really are a ‘person’ of one gender living in a physical body belonging to the other.
It is such people, Queer Theory asserts, who truly grasp reality as it is. The old ‘heterosexist’ world was an illusion, maintained for the purposes of some people controlling the lives of others. The future is bright, and it is a rainbow hue.
In the face of all this, what is a Christian to say?
1. BBC Radio 4, 17th February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/03/2006_24_mon.shtmlPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: