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.

Such an opportunity was available to June Rose, and unfortunately she has missed it. There has been a need for a new study of Marie Stopes for some time, one which could relate the by now familiar personal biography to her professional work for the Society for Constructive Birth Control. In the Stopes clinics working-class women learned to control, not just their fertility, but the boundaries of then relationships with their husbands. The case reports regularly returned by clinic staff were minutely perused by its founder and chief, and many of them can still be consulted. A life of Stopes makes it possible to investigate the sexual revolution both collectively, through the testimony of these numerous unknown foot-soldiers, and individually, for their champion was a famously determined self-publicist and legitimator of her own desires. Disappointingly, however, we are once again given little more than the story of Stopes’s romantic, litigious and literary adventures within a framework differing only in minor details from that established by the late Ruth Hall in her 1977 biography. It is particularly surprising to find that in some quarters Rose is thought to have ‘discovered’ that Stopes was a eugenist: Hall made this perfectly clear, and it has long been a commonplace of the academic literature.

For Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard, the revolution is a long time coming. They believe that the changes in social and personal behaviour charted by Haste and exemplified in Stopes’s career are merely epiphenomenal. Familiar Exploitation analyses the appropriation and continuing under-valuation of female labour inside the home, on the basis of studies of middle and working-class families in Britain, and farming families in France. They include managerial, psychological and emotional skills, as well as the conventionally recognised burdens of shopping, cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and nursing. They conclude that the under-valuation of women’s work in the home influences the way that their labour in the market place is perceived, and ensures the continuation of the differential between male and female wages. A cycle has been established by which single women are often unable to keep a roof over their heads and provide for their own old age, much less support children or other dependents; this drives them into marriage (which entails more housework) in order to survive, and perpetuates the patriarchal system indefinitely. They argue that women should not be condemned for the compromises and bargains they strike, that the feminist project should not be faulted or despaired of, but that ‘we have to accept that some things will not change in our lifetime.’

Delphy and Leonard insist that only a materialist analysis offers fundamental insights into the present and future state of gender relations. However, even judged by their own criteria, the arguments of Familiar Exploitation must be found wanting. The picture of industrial capitalism given here does not confront the extent of the decline of the manufacturing sector, and the rise of male unemployment, in the developed economies. The authors do not consider the possibility that the need for two-income households is felt as much by men as by women, and that shifts in the wider economy might produce shifts in bargaining power in the division of labour within households. Nor do they examine some of the implications of their assertion that, while more and more wives go out of the home to earn, their domestic and public status remains largely unaltered. They show that wives, particularly if they have children, are unlikely to receive the traditional perks of breadwinning: far less often than men will they be nursed in sickness, cooked for on a regular basis, listened to and sympathised with at length at the end of a hard day, or conceded an absolute right to time away from family responsibilities. It could be argued, however, that these differential rewards are becoming increasingly evident, precipitating the rise in the divorce rate and in the number of single-parent families, which Delphy and Leonard’s analysis almost entirely ignores. The perception of the emotional inequality – as much as any material deprivation – embedded in the traditional unwritten contract is surely an important factor in women’s growing tendency to withdraw from it.

Anthony Giddens describes the sexual revolution as ‘the transformation of intimacy’: a massive and far-reaching process which dates least from the eve of the industrial and political revolutions of the 18th century, and which is by no means at an end. His essay on third revolution is part of a larger inquiry into the nature of modernity. He is concerned with exploring the functions of sexual relationships – and of obsessions, both personal and intellectual, with sexuality – in contemporary Western societies, with mapping out some of the temporal and structural relations between all three revolutions; and with asking where we might be going and whether we have any reason to be travelling hopefully.

The Transformation of Intimacy is a work of theory, respectful of social and demographic data, whose theses derive force from the richness and variety of the sources on which they are based. Giddens engages with the arguments of Freud, Reich, Marcuse and Foucault, and with recent research on 18th and 19th-century family history. With great originality and insight he applies these findings to contemporary transatlantic advice literature. According to Giddens, the defining features of modernity are the emergence of internally referential systems of values and the privatisation or ‘sequestration’ of personal experience, together with the ‘socialisation’, usually but not invariably by means of technological or scientific advance, of the natural world. Fewer external constraints and systems of validation are brought to bear on our personal behaviour, either in communal space or generational time. Coincident with these developments is a diminished sense of transcendence, of experience beyond immediate, mundane and man-made routine. This conceptual structure is most powerfully and convincingly applied to sexuality.

Giddens describes the growth of the idea of romantic love over the last two and a half centuries in terms of the diminution of the role played by kinship networks and the wider community in the process of contracting marriages. The idealised union has come to depend on its intrinsic qualities, without reference to external claims. This development has been emphasised by the near universalisation of efficient methods of contraception, which has freed men and women from the biological determination of their affective ties. Individuals have come to regard sexuality as an aspect of identity which can be modified at will. Giddens’s term for this is ‘plastic sexuality’. The rise in divorce and the claims of the homosexual community to social, political and cultural parity can be connected to this. Giddens coins the term ‘pure relationship’ to describe both a vector and a goal of thus historical trend.

The transformation of intimacy takes place within this pure relationship: Giddens describes it as a striving towards communication, and towards a state of equality which consists in the recognition of mutual autonomy. This makes it possible to pursue the goal of erotic pleasure in a non-exploitative context, without oppressive role-playing or the projection of individual fixations. While birth control is seen as a key factor for heterosexuals in this development, Giddens also stresses the importance of the growth of ‘separate spheres’ – crudely, the separation of domestic and paid labour – in the era of industrialisation. The increased isolation of women in the home heightened the salience of the maternal relationship; there was a progressive ‘feminisation’ of the emotional domain. Women’s demands during this period for romantic and mutual love represented an important stage in the movement for equality. The acceptance of this ideal by men was a necessary, if not a sufficient precondition for the cultivation of marriages free from traditional roles; another has been the increasing assertiveness of homosexuals in exploring and rethinking the nature of intimate relationships and ‘the couple’.

Giddens believes that the greater importance of the female parental role in the modern period has affected the male child by exacerbating both the condition of dependency and the process of rupture and alienation which is inseparable from the creation of adolescent identity and adult autonomy. The tensions underlying modern masculinity derive from a state of unacknowledged dependence, and may have contributed to the rise of the feminist movement; they are certainly aggravated by it. With the achievement (pace Delphy and Leonard) of many of women’s egalitarian demands, and the loss of biological power implicit in the adoption of birth control, both man’s assertive and his recessive self suffer from a lack of nourishment. The sense of deprivation is heightened by the opacity and contradictory nature of its source.

For the participants, ready or not, in this brave new world, Giddens holds out the possibility of greater freedom, self-knowledge and pleasure. In line with his theories of social and historical reflexivity, he considers that the democratisation of sexual and personal life may react on and transform our institutions and political economies. But he is not overconfident about this: his book conveys overwhelmingly the dangers of anomie and alienation, and he is strongly aware of the prospect of increased violence by men against women. He converges here with Delphy and Leonard in considering this an extreme form of behaviour which is implicit in the present structure of gender relations. But where Delphy and Leonard relate male violence to their general theory about the appropriation of the female (quoting some particularly horrible case histories), Giddens situates it in the experience of modernity: men’s emotional dependence on women has been increasing over precisely the same period as women have been achieving autonomy.

The great sexual revolutionaries of this century – Ellis, Carpenter, Stopes, to speak only of Britain – were all prophets of joy. They revolted against the traditional separation of flesh from spirit and body from mind which was fostered by Christianity and which frequently survived the immediate loss of conventional faith. They sought to heal this divide, and to rescue sexuality from the category of the impure. An essential part of this project was to dissolve conflicts of sexual interest between men and women. What is depicted by Giddens in his account of ‘plastic sexuality’ is an extraordinary reversal of these prophets’ hopes. The unification of body and soul has meant the disappearance of the soul into the body. As bodily desires have been invested with spiritual significance, sexuality has become the preferred mode for the expression of the integrity, morality and identity of the relational self. And the pursuit of happiness has divided men from women.

The revolutionaries’ dream has become a nightmare. How can we hope to find personal integrity and the meaning of life through intimate relationships with other, equally fragile human beings – relationships which, almost by definition, must collapse under this enormous weight of longing and interpretation? ‘The reflexive project of self,’ Giddens points out, ‘has to be undertaken in the context of routines largely devoid of ethical content ... the feeling that one is worthless, one’s life empty and one’s body an inadequate device follows upon the spread of modernity’s internally referential systems.’ We have become despairing narcissists who must use each other as mirrors: angry and terrified when we see the wrong reflection or – even worse – nothing at all. It is little wonder that so many of us spend so much of our time looking for someone to blame.