Simply Doing It

Thomas Laqueur

  • The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain 1650-1950 by Roy Porter and Lesley Hall
    Yale, 414 pp, £19.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 300 06221 4

The Facts of Life is symptomatic of the tensions to be found in its sources: it is an elusive book, offering vistas of liberation and oppression. In all but their barest outline the facts of life are not really facts, and ‘sexual knowledge’ does not, by and large, come to be known; while ‘creation’ is so protean a notion here as to encompass everything from 18th-century advice on married love, to 19th-century soirées where women told men about their sexual lives, to 20th-century anti-venereal disease campaigns. The book’s object never really comes into focus. Knowledge, finally, of what? The repeated promises of teen and women’s magazines, month after month, to reveal ‘The Secrets of Sex in just Ten Minutes’ (this in January’s Cosmopolitan) suggest that maybe there is nothing to tell, only telling itself.

Roy Porter and Lesley Hall say they agree with Michel Foucault that ‘sex must be understood as discursively produced.’ (Actually, I don’t think they do agree, but more about that later.) If we take the point, then the history of sexual knowledge becomes the history of the making of sexual knowledge’s objects. As such, it has a certain narrative coherence for Foucault but scarcely, if at all, for Hall and Porter. We learn nothing from them of progress or deterioration, only of ‘a talking shop of discourses and an ebb and flow of opinion’. There is no tale of emancipation here – feminist historians have shown that within patriarchy this is a self-serving male illusion; and no well-worn labels either.

The book’s subject, then, is ‘writings dedicated to imparting to the public teachings about sex – together with their authors, contexts and impacts’. And the story Porter and Hall tell is fairly traditional. Admittedly, it is difficult to know how sex advice books were read in the 18th century. There was never in England quite the association of political liberty with a naturalistic account of sex and sexual pleasure that there was in France. The radical John Wilkes’s venture into sexual literature is so marginal that it doesn’t figure here at all; the conflation of liberty and libertinage in Don Giovanni’s famous aria would have fallen on uncomprehending ears. We do not quite know, as Porter and Hall point out, how to take the prefatory warnings from authors that only the pure of spirit should read this or that piece of literature, or the wish that no one’s innocence be injured by doing so. Perhaps we are really dealing here with soft-core porn disguised as marital advice or warnings against masturbation. But with the stunning exception of the invention of onanism and its associated pathology, the world of 18th-century sexual-counselling literature seems unthreatening enough.

Aristotle’s Masterpiece – not by Aristotle at all but an anonymous, very long-lived, much re-edited, 17th-century mélange of folk wisdom, medical knowledge and social commonplaces – and the French physician Nicolas Venette’s The Art of Conjugal Love provided pro-natalist, heterosocial, guilt-free guides to better sex within marriage for the artisanal classes and their betters of the middling sort, respectively. Both extolled the naturalness of sex and mutual sexual pleasure; both saw sex as being essentially biological and cared little about libido, guilt or, more generally, the relationship between sex and the inner life. There is nothing here on perversion, or on sex as being either liberatory or oppressive, and little about sexual dangers, except when carnal pleasures break out of the marital corral. Sexuality, in short, did not yet constitute the human subject in any deep sense. One simply did it.

Masturbation is the worm in the bud of this cheerful picture – the much reprinted, anonymous Onania, which gave onanism its modern meaning and offered scores of admonitory tales of death and debilitation, is only the most famous book in a burgeoning field. Porter and Hall do not speculate as to why a heretofore little noticed practice should have become the paradigmatically pernicious, dangerous, guilt-inducing extra-marital form of sexuality. They view it primarily as a foil to the world of Venette and the pseudo-Aristotle, and as an exemplary case of how hard it is to read some of this literature.

A sort of boisterous good cheer returns in the world of the medical quacks: James Graham, for example, offered his ‘celestial bed’, a king-sized arena of sexual delight, to voluptuaries (so said his enemies) or to infertile couples (so said he, not a little disingenuously). The steep price of bliss kept the bed out of wide circulation. Sexual knowledge in the Enlightenment is, within its limits, pretty innocent stuff.

Not so in the 19th century, when the perils of all but the most restricted forms of sexual expression were everywhere proclaimed. What happens in new editions of Aristotle’s Masterpiece is emblematic: ‘The pursuit of erotic pleasure that figures so largely in earlier editions has given way to prudence ... desire has been unveiled as dangerous, and sex has been replaced by the higher ideals of “family affection” and sentimental companionship.’ Whether this was because of Malthus, who had made reproduction seem dangerous, or whether more general cultural trends – Evangelicalism or new secular standards of respectability among the working class, for example – Porter and Hall do not really say. But the story they tell is familiar: a new moral climate has set in, and it is not a pleasant one.

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