Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sex, reality and the state.

Below is an interesting press release from the University of Leeds. A new Ph.D. thesis by Jenny Skipp “examined, catalogued and categorised every known erotic text in eighteenth-century Britain.” Ms. Skipp was rather surprised to discover how vast a quantity of pornography was circulating in England at that time.

Not only was there a huge amount of it but it was far more widely available and consumed than previously known. As the University press release notes, “much of this work was cheap and widely available.” It was not restricted to just the upper classes as was widely assumed in the past (an assumption I myself have held erroneously before as well).

I find this interesting because the more fields I study the more I am convinced that the the bulk of Westerners (Americans in particular but not exclusively) have been rather wrong about many assumptions regarding sexuality. It is a myth of a gigantic proportions to assume that past Western generations were generally chaste and somewhat puritanical. That has never been the case. Even in Puritanical Massachusetts, under the Pilgrim, there was widespread debauchery. Enough to make the local bishop blush especially when he wasn’t directly involved.

Fundamentalist Christians, who in reality are very guilt ridden about sex and very anti-sexual (despite protestations to the contrary), have claimed that their view of sexuality was the dominant one and that in the 1960s evil “liberals” came along with the “sexual revolution” and introduced “Godless immorality” to the West. Having grown up with those people, and attending their schools, one thing I quickly realized is that if you were to assume the opposite of everything they say you have a very high chance of being right. They bamboozle themselves and others.

That their views of sexuality gained political power in the mid to late 1800s is not doubted. And at that point they used state power in an attempt to mould humanity as they believed to be moral. For them morality seemed to be almost exclusively centered on one’s genitals. And with the use of state power they tried, unsuccessfully, to constrain human sexuality into expressions they found acceptable --- which wasn’t a lot actually. As they are known to put it: one man for one woman for life. And within that relationship they limited, again by law, the expression of sex only to vaginal intercourse with the possibility of pregnancy.

The sexual revolution that began in the1960s was hardly a revolution. It was more like an evolution toward the sexual morality that dominated mankind as far back as recorded history. The methods and forms of sexual expression and freedom may have changed with technology but the general way people act is hardly much different today than it has been in the past. There have been some changes that are good. I think most people today are aware of the necessity of treating women like individuals with all the rights of a man. That would be a major change from the past.

But nothing that upsets the fundamentalist today is new. Sure you can get porn on the internet. But every new communication technology brought about new forms of porn. But it has always been there. I suspect if the camera were invented on Monday that by Tuesday the first pornographic photos had been created. Before photography they had etchings, paintings and drawings. Pompeii has some rather graphic murals on the walls from thousands of years ago. There are Greek vases that would cause a Baptist to fall to their knees in horror (or lust, depending on the Baptist.)

Sexuality is so much a part of our hard wiring that we really ought to be careful about legislating it. There are, no doubt, legitimate areas for state involvement. And there are areas where social groups ought to work to help people get control of their lives. But what ought to be legislated is far smaller than what is legislated. Sexuality which involves individuals who are unwilling, or unable to consent, is a proper issue for legislation. But the sexual/romantic lives of consenting adults is no business of the state.

That is not to say that I approve of every expression of sexuality that humans have been able to invent. I don’t. Such actions may be amenable to private social pressure, or charitable assistance for people needing it. It is one thing to say that the state should not be involved and quite another to imply that means you approve of it.

But the Christian paradigm of sexuality is one that is at war with reality. It is contrary to the evolution of the human species and human sexuality itself. It is not historically valid. It has never fit the facts. In many ways it is destructive. At the same time that does not mean it is wrong in every detail, only in its general theory. Nor is it necessarily wrong regarding the benefits to certain sexual values. There are many “Christian” moral values which I would hope that individuals would voluntarily adopt. But they must be voluntarily adopted and not imposed by the state.

Here is what the University of Leeds press release has to say about erotica in the England of the 1700s.

Sex and the 1700s
Prostitutes, perversions and public scandals – the stuff of the 21st century tabloids was familiar to readers three centuries earlier, according to new research from the University of Leeds.

And just as gaggles of modern day adolescents might pass round their copy of the latest lads’ mag, the reading of erotic literature was already a social activity 300 years ago.

Jenny Skipp’s three-year PhD study examined, catalogued and categorised every known erotic text published in eighteenth-century Britain: "I tried to get a grip on just how many were published, detail the various types of sexual behaviour portrayed and find out who was doing what – and to whom.” It proved a surprisingly rich field: "Most people have heard of Fanny Hill, but there was a huge amount of erotic literature published in the 18th century."

And despite earlier work suggesting that these texts were only for solitary consumption – at home, alone, and behind closed doors – Skipp’s work throws up a surprising image of how these works were used. "They would be read in public – everywhere from London's rough-and-ready alehouses to the city’s thriving coffee houses, which weren't quite the focus of polite society in the way we sometimes think,” she explained. “Some texts even came as questions and answers and were clearly intended for groups of men to read together, with one asking the questions and the others answering them.”

Much of the work is derogatory in its references to women. They are subordinates, courtesans, prostitutes, carriers of venereal disease and bearers of deformed children. "When men write this way, or read these texts, it gives them a context for asserting their authority over women," Skipp added. Yet some texts portray women altogether differently, discussing the nature of female sexuality or describing lascivious aristocratic females.

One group predominant in this literature is the Libertines – whose all-in hedonistic, smoking, drinking, swearing, pleasure-seeking lifestyle was typified by their subjugation of women. Literature aimed at this group, encouraging men to assert their dominance, translated the repressive attitudes of Libertinism further down the class structure.

And Skipp's analysis of the pricing of these works revises earlier studies to show that rather than being solely targeted at the gentry, much of this work was cheap and widely available. Though many from the poorer sections of society are considered illiterate because they were unable to sign their name, they may still have been able to read: "Many more people could read than write," she said. "In London, for example, we believe about 70 per cent of men could read."

The works range from books, down to single-sheet pamphlets. "The price and content of this material suggests it was available to merchants, traders, skilled and semi-skilled men and even labourers," Skipp went on. Its accessibility allowed sexual attitudes to percolate down the social strata.

Dr Simon Burrows of the University’s school of history, one of Skipp’s PhD supervisors, described the study as “pioneering work.” He said: “Jenny has shown that erotic texts are about much more than sexual fantasy. They can give us genuine new insights into cultural attitudes, sexual norms and social customs.”

And Skipp describes a literary quality to the writing which you might struggle to find in modern erotic fiction or top-shelf pornography. "It is very different to today's erotica," she said. "It is more humorous, more literary and more engaged with the wider issues of the life and politics of the times." Its metaphors mirror the passions of the age: "At a time when military power was equated with virility, armed conquest is often used as a metaphor for sex – in phrases such as 'unsheathing the weapon', 'storming the fort' and 'releasing the cannon'."
By the 1770s, the transcripts of adultery trials became a new source of titillation. To secure a divorce, a man would first have to successfully sue a rival for 'violating his property', before petitioning Parliament to dissolve the marriage. "There is something rather voyeuristic about these trials," said Skipp. "Often servants would give evidence while innkeepers would testify about lovers taking rooms together."

“The appetite for this kind of material shows readers were interested in gossip about their social betters and fascinated by the sordid details of marital breakdown – just like modern-day readers scanning the tabloids for a juicy scandal.

”The production of erotica was frequently stimulated by intrigues in the lives of well-known public figures – the aristocracy, politicians, writers, playwrights and actresses and occasionally the monarchy. The wives and mistresses were both celebrated and derided in erotic texts – they were the WAGS of their day.”

As Skipp said: “Eighteenth century readers were just as fascinated with public figures as we are today – especially when they had skeletons in their closet!”

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