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.

Danger now lurks everywhere and doctors are increasingly prominent in creating ever more terrifying abysses of anxiety. Whether William Acton’s famous observation that women generally experience little sexual desire is typical remains much debated, but there is no question that he was in the forefront of making male desire, whose existence was not in question, a cause of morbid reflection. Men who read the popular or professional medical literature were greeted with vivid images of their sexual organs drooping from varicocele, generally attributed to masturbation; or of their whole bodies wasted by the leaking of sperm either from too much sexual activity or, via nocturnal emission, from too little. There were also the threats of venereal disease and of prostitution, as evidence of social collapse. And doctors could drive each other into riffs of meta-anxiety by criticising colleagues who wrote about or treated the sexual problems that this literature exacerbated. Sexlessness seemed the impossible road to corporeal well-being.

Things lighten up by the 1890s, when sexual science, both biological and social, recovered some of the benignity of the 18th century. ‘Perversions’ were naturalised if not condoned and a great effort was made to teach people about sex, to find out what they knew and did, and to use this knowledge to improve individual and communal well-being. The evidentiary base began to expand enormously. Darwin may be seen as the beginning of a tradition – progressive and uncensorious – that construes sex as a natural phenomenon. Sir Patrick Geddes and J.A. Thomason’s popular volume, The Evolution of Sex, and Havelock Ellis’s massive Studies in the Psychology of Sex, as well as a host of more technical studies and the amateur anthropology of the Men and Women’s Club all brought sex under the sign of ‘science’. Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds presented homosexuality as an admirable inversion, a sort of in-between sex with many good features. Radical feminists like Elizabeth Wolstenholme argued that menstruation is the unnatural result of male sexual appetite and that in a natural, healthy state women, like the lower mammals, would not be constantly available to the opposite sex. In short, every view found its biological correlative.

Social science meanwhile investigated birth rates, revealing certain intimacies of the bedroom, and there were more and more studies of sexual mores, of the epidemiology of venereal disease and so forth. Many recommended that action should be taken: birth control or its prohibition; propaganda to keep soldiers from consorting with fast women once it became clear that most of them did not get venereal disease from prostitutes. Sexology and its allied sciences, Porter and Hall conclude, had numerous agendas, some liberatory, others oppressive. All, however, created radical new ways to remake sexual knowledge.

Although Marie Stopes had a number of predecessors, her Hygiene of Marriage and Theo van der Velde’s Ideal Marriage represent real breakthroughs. In the first place they revised ideas about the naturalness of married sex by construing women as naturally sexual but dormant. Men, on the other hand, are sexually awake and meant to awaken their partners; but they are incompetent. Enter, on an unprecedented scale, the sex guide, to enlighten the ignorant female and instruct the hapless male. Stopes’s book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and she received tens of thousands of letters.

Porter and Hall’s survey shows how hard degrees of sexual knowledge are to gauge. The evidence of men who reported to Mass-Observation that they knew nothing about sex until they entered the Army is adduced to show how ignorant men generally could be. But this is inconsistent with reports that in the Army they heard incessant sex talk; everyone but the man interviewed seemed to have been in on the secret. Similarly, women report not knowing where babies came from until they were married; perhaps this is true but they learned quickly and it is odd that in a print-saturated culture such ignorance was so widespread. No one seems clear about what sexual knowledge was, or about who had it. There may or may not be a particularly British form of it; perhaps, the authors suggest, although without much conviction, in Britain it takes a particularly earnest and prurient form.

Porter and Hall provide almost no evidence about working-class or ‘plebeian’ sexual knowledge and for this reason, among others, I wish they had included Richard and Jane Carlile and their Everywoman’s Book. (Richard Carlile, who had been a chemist’s boy and tinner’s apprentice, sold or printed a variety of ultraradical, republican newspapers in the 1810s, 20s and 30s; Jane ran the print-shop during the many years he spent in jail.) The Carliles produced not only the first full treatment of birth control in English but made the first real effort to oppose, systematically, and outside the literature of libertinage, the view that intercourse is permissible only within marriage and only when subject to Malthusian constraints. In short, they advocated free love. They struck at the heart not only of bourgeois morality but of bourgeois political economy as well. What could be condemned elsewhere as libertinage appears in their work as liberty: of the body and of the citizen.

Focusing on the Carliles would have allowed Porter and Hall to show how deeply legitimate sexuality was linked to reproduction and hence to the problem of population as articulated by Malthus. They suggest that the Essay on Population cast a pall on the 18th-century advice to be fruitful and multiply, but that doesn’t go far enough. As Catherine Gallagher has argued, the Essay completely reverses the relationship between the healthy individual body and the body social. Rather than being mutually supportive they are suddenly at odds: the fecund individual body reproduces beyond the ability of society to feed its progeny, leading ultimately to overpopulation and the correctives of death and starvation. Any effort to raise wages would only raise the false hope that the resources existed with which to feed the extra mouths resulting from earlier marriages. More children would increase the labour supply, depress wages and in time restore population equilibrium. Birth control information of the sort the Carliles proffered thus attacked a pillar of what seemed to be a God-given economic order.

Intercourse self-consciously practised outside the reproductive regime seemed during the Victorian era and well into our own century to be an intolerable threat to the proper management of pleasure and desire. The prototypical prosecutions for indecency in the 19th and well into the 20th century were not of what we would call pornography but of information about birth control. The condom was regarded as an invitation to whoredom, all the more so because it was more effective than the vinegar-soaked sponge advocated by the Carliles. Birth control outside of marriage might prevent conception but it would also prevent payment of the wages of sin. Within marriage it was simply onanism by another name.

Porter and Hall are perhaps right to sidestep the question of why masturbation came to be regarded, in the early 18th century and for at least the next two hundred years, as clinically dangerous, and, if not actually pathogenic, then so morally degrading as to make its benignity a matter of regret. (Sir James Paget, one of the few Victorian physicians who did not think that auto-erotic practices resulted in lunacy, wished that ‘so nasty a practice; an uncleanness... an unmanliness despised by men’ had more terrible consequences.) By doing so, however, they fail to consider how persistently the problem of pleasure – of the pure gratification of desire – haunts all sexual knowledge. The Carliles advocated free love and sexual experimentation before marriage; they thought special places should be set aside for the young to try sex out; they regarded chastity as an unhealthy, vaguely Roman Catholic condition. In short, Everywoman’s Book was wildly radical. But on the subject of masturbation they were utterly conventional, seeing it as an abominable practice that led to madness, sickness and death. Like infantile sexuality, which terrified readers of Freud (as Adam Phillips argued in these pages), not so much because it belied innocence but because it suggested the possibility of pure, purposeless, pleasure-seeking, masturbation represented a desire that was antithetical not just to this or that social vision but to civilisation in any form.

The central problem of this book is that the history of sexual knowledge is so elusive. As Porter and Hall say, it is less like the history of astronomy than like the history of dance – a form regulated by oral and written traditions whose ‘truth’, i.e. the correctness of steps, depends on groups, contexts, cultures. In one sense, this is not true. There are advances in what seems to be sexual knowledge: Eustace Chesser writing in the Forties does not, as did the advice-givers of the 1870s, suggest that the best time for a young couple to marry and first have intercourse is in the middle of the bride’s menstrual cycle because then conception was least likely. By 1930 it was known when, generally speaking, ovulation occurred.

That said, there is something persuasive about the analogy with dance. In the sense elaborated by Norbert Elias, the moderation of sexual behaviour, the rise of public modesty and of new standards of respectability constituted the civilising process just as did the contortions of the body demanded by ballet or the controlled steps of the minuet. The lower orders might bounce around wildly to drum or hurly-burly: their betters mastered more refined forms or watched as the body performed aesthetic representations of new standards of order and politeness. Underlying the tensions of 19th-century sexual knowledge is the fact that the commitment to bodily regimentation followed a putative class gradient, so that sexual boundaries were regarded as defining social and cultural boundaries.

The fact is that sex has never been simply about itself; since St Augustine it has been as much, or more, about the state of the soul as about the conditions of the body. There may be moments, represented by Aristotle’s Masterpiece or The Art of Conjugal Love, when a largely naturalistic view of sexuality has dominated, but the tension between this and views that regard desire as windows on the soul or psyche is never absent. Sexual knowledge is peculiar in that it seeks some sort of public representation of an intimate truth. This means that we have a hard time finding out certain supposed facts about what people do or do not know sexually; from Ellis’s complaint that his interviewees showed a ‘certain natural reticence to reveal facts of so intimately personal a character’ to the failure of Chesser’s survey of some 6500 women by 1500 doctors to ‘contain and make respectable an innately messy and problematic subject’, we never quite get the data we want. More important, whatever data we get never seem to answer our important questions.

What we really want to know is not something that social or biological science can teach us much about. Sex and sexuality are representations of our inner being and our multiple cultural links to the world we live in. Sexual knowledge is thus like knowledge of Hamlet. We can know a lot about the play’s textual traditions, performance history and historical context, but what we care about are, at their core, problems of interpretation. Knowledge of 16th-century marriage customs will not resolve the question of whether Gertrude betrayed Hamlet’s father for Claudius or whether, and in what circumstances, Hamlet believed her to have done so. When we are curious to know how many times a week or month other couples make love, the question is really how many times do they do what I, or we, imagine as making love. Surveys cannot rend this interpretative veil and hence the answers they provide are always incoherent, partial, ambiguous, unsatisfying.

Another symptom of this epistemic condition is the peculiar asymmetry of sexual knowledge. There is, manifestly, sexual disinformation: that syphilis is carried on toilet seats; that Aids is transmitted through casual contact; that menstruation is an expression of general corporeal plethora; that masturbation leads to insanity. Knowing the truth about these matters – and here there has been real progress – undoubtedly relieves much anxiety and makes for better public policy. But it does not lead to sexual knowledge in the sense of knowing something affirmative about human sexuality. Neither the facts of reproductive biology nor those of epidemiology translate readily into the facts of sexuality, much less of desire; they very rapidly become something else: the languages of interpretation.

On the one hand, Porter and Hall say repeatedly that they accept Foucault’s major insight – that sexuality is not a biological given but is discursively constituted – while failing to follow through on what such a view entails. On the other, they explicitly reject a generally liberatory Freudian view.

Central to Foucault is an attack on Freud’s so-called ‘repressive hypothesis’. He makes three points. First, ‘sexual knowledge’ was not repressed during the 19th century, but grew explosively. Porter and Hall accept this. For Foucault, however, it is beside the point whether hundreds of working-class autobiographies are silent about sex, and certainly not ironic, as Porter and Hall suggest, that a century which so much feared perversions read about them eagerly in the luxuriant reports of a Kraft-Ebing or a Havelock Ellis. In fact, the impulse to maintain secrets even when writing in a self-revelatory genre and the impulse to make public, through medical writings, the most intimate sexual fantasies of anonymous patients are both part of what Foucault understands as the discursive creation of the sexual subject.

Foucault argues that through sexual knowledge a new sort of power is exercised, power over a biologised body. Medicine, law, demography, sexology, sociology, i.e. the disciplines which create sexual knowledge, are also the agents for disciplining the subject they collectively produce. In the modern world of sexual knowledge we follow norms not, according to Foucault, because the constable comes around as an agent of the state to make us do so, but because supposedly liberatory discourses only imbricate us further in the discourses which produced us. Whether we are for or against birth control, all talk on the subject assumes the norm of reproductive sexuality; whether we condemn or celebrate masturbation, our discourse places us squarely in a world where heterosocial sexuality is the standard. Foucault, unlike Porter and Hall, thus has a story; they may not know why people write about or investigate sex but he does. And the bottom line is that knowledge does not make us free but is pursued as an exercise in power. (If there is a way out it is not through sexology but through subversion.)

On the other hand, Porter and Hall explicitly reject Freud’s model even if their sympathies seem to lie in a more radical version of his liberatory story. Freud does not believe that knowledge liberates us from all constraint but he does hold that repression of fundamental libidinal energies produces dis-ease and that by excavating the painful repressions of this energy we can arrive at a state of sublimation, a state in which libido is no longer directed destructively against the self or civilisation but is directed into the productive activities of love and work. Sexual knowledge is thus the story of how desire is socialised, painfully but not disastrously.

Porter and Hall deny this telos in the hope of achieving something better, as if there could be a sexual knowledge of pure, socially unfettered, self-invention. Modern marriage manuals, even if now in video form, are ‘still offered’, they say, ‘as a support for legitimate monogamy’; and whatever the ‘emphasis on the desirability of personal, individual, self-fulfilment’, sex is ‘still being presented in terms suggesting that the best sort consists of mutual pleasure and satisfaction in a meaningful relationship’. Surveys suggest that people still believe ‘in the importance of some kind of central, monogamous relationship,’ even if ‘cheating’ is more tolerated than before. People think longer acquaintance makes for better sexual relations; heterosexuality is still the norm. Perhaps I am over-reading but all these stills speak of the hope of one day going beyond normative sexuality, of a time when there will be no ‘sexual knowledge’ and the polymorphously perverse has triumphed. I remember such hopes from the Sixties.

Ultimately, sexual knowledge is not about sex at all but about desire. And although desire makes itself felt through the body it is a condition of the soul, of the self. This is the great insight of Augustine. Thus there may be a knowledge addressed to the care of the body; there may be an ars erotica; there is a history of the public representation of desire; and there is an enormous and growing trove of information on how we and other creatures reproduce. But there’s no such thing as ‘sexual knowledge’.