Couples

Anne Summers

  • Rules of Desire: Sex in Britain, World War One to the Present by Cate Haste
    Chatto, 356 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7011 4016 X
  • Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose
    Faber, 272 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 05 711620 2
  • Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies by Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard
    Polity, 301 pp, £45.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 7456 0858 2
  • The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies by Anthony Giddens
    Polity, 212 pp, £19.50, July 1992, ISBN 0 7456 1012 9

The creation of identity, the invention and re-invention of the self, is as emblematic of the modern era as technological invention. Of the many revolutions our species has witnessed in the last two centuries, the one which has probably contributed most to the development of the ‘plastic’ self has been the process by which, in the West, family size has been permanently reduced. This has led to a decline in the mortality and morbidity of women of child-bearing age, and an accompanying, if not necessarily consequent reduction in the restrictions on their economic, affective and intellectual activities which law and custom once justified on physiological as well as theological grounds. Widespread changes in attitudes to marriage, and to the public and private relationship between the sexes, have followed; the cultural purpose and centrality of heterosexuality is being increasingly questioned.

The historical debate on the causes and ramifications of the sexual revolution is almost as contentious as that on the origins of the Industrial Revolution, but the two revolutions are not historically equivalent. One has the dignity of capital initials and has, incontestably, happened; the other is the subject of dispute and distress in the daily waking and dreaming lives of lovers, mothers, fathers, politicians, clergy. Here is a time-zone in which individuals can turn the clock back, for themselves if for no one else; where the edicts of a Stalin, a Ceausescu, or a Khomeini can stop the advance of the wave, if not for ever; and where many of those who consider themselves pioneers would welcome the news that there was not much more revolution to come.

Cate Haste’s unruffled approach in Rules of Desire would be more clearly signalled if her book were subtitled ‘legislation governing sexual behaviour in 20th-century Britain’. Her book is neither a cultural history nor an inquiry into the historical causes of the sexual revolution, but a commonsense overview of secular laws, church doctrines and political policies against a backdrop of statistical information on divorce, illegitimacy, abortion, sexual abuse and so forth. Haste shows how often legal reform has been preceded by the social changes for which it is frequently held responsible; but the currents of change are duly registered, rather than freshly evoked or explored. You will not find out why cinema seats were ripped up when Rock Around the Clock was showing, or about the exaltation, as well as the outrage that powered feminism at the end of the Sixties. You will not find much about what might be specific to ‘sex in Britain’ as opposed to anywhere else. Nor, to the author’s credit, will you find any cheap targets for mud-slinging or censure. The overall effect is monotone and rather shapeless.

The narrative is organised around a discussion of a set of prohibitions and the circumstances in which they have been relaxed, rejected or defied. This ties up the subject of sexuality in so many negatives that it is difficult to convey anything positive about the desires and interests at issue. And, except in her chapters on World War Two and its immediate after-math, Haste’s factual survey of an entire century leaves the reader with little sense of the myriad choices, decisions and negotiations within and between individuals which make social revolutions. A shorter time-span and a more restricted topic might have offered a more manageable opportunity to relate individual experience to statistical indicators.

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