Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Thus the story of how man has handled his sexual drives is also the story of how he has handled his creative impulse. His attitudes to these imperatives colour his whole scheme for society, his politics, his art and his religion. To compress this story within the covers of a single book, without entirely losing sight of these wider implications, is a task of alarming difficult and many omissions and over simplifications are unavoidable. For these I here apologize comprehensively and shall not do so severally.

To summarize sexual history is the more difficult for the fact that it is almost impossible to view it objectively. From earliest youth we are taught to approve and condemn, and these judgments derive from buried emotions, so that they are held with great force and passion. All judgment tends to be egocentric, but in this field unusually so: the very word moral is derived from mores, customs. The moral is what is customary And what is customary constantly changes. The range of possible variation is wide – just how wide the anthropologist have taught us. In the Trobriand Islands, for instance, adult do not mind if children engage in sexual play and attempt precociously to perform the sexual act; as adolescents they may sleep with one another, provided only that they are not in love with one another. If they fall in love, the sexual act becomes forbidden, and for lovers to sleep together would outrage decency.

It may be a healthy discipline, therefore, to study the processes by which the present system of attitudes has been developed. Our sexual codes represent a strange hodgepodge of fragments from different periods in history pre-Christian magic has mingled with Christian asceticism, Romantic idealism has mingled with Rationalist “common sense”, to produce a strange and arbitrary amalgam. So far from being natural and inevitable, our existing sexual codes, seen in Perspective, must appear grotesque – though not more grotesque than those of most other periods. But though they are irrational enough, when viewed from the standpoint of ethics, from a psychological viewpoint they display great internal consistency and accurately regret the conflicts in the human psyche.

In studying attitudes to sex, one precaution is especially necessary: we must always distinguish between the ideal held up by the dominant group in society as the proper, approved, way of behaving, and actual behaviour. Today, for instance, it is still part of the official sexual ideal that the sexual act shall only be performed by legitimately married couples, all pre-marital sexual experience being disapproved. Nevertheless, as many surveys have shown, the great majority of persons do have some Premarital sexual experience, and usually, it would seem, without experiencing any marked sense of guilt. These are not people who have rejected the whole sexual code: most of them will marry in due course, and some of them may feel quite strongly about certain other sexual regulations – say, those concerning homosexuality or the seduction of minors. Their private code simply differs in certain respects from the official code. Of course, a man may also fail to live up to his private sense of what is proper, and subsequently will experience feelings of guilt and shame. It is with this gap between behaviour and private conscience that the psychiatrist is frequently concerned; but in this book, I shall be concerned chiefly with the average gap between general behaviour and official ideal. This gap, as we shall see, has varied greatly in width from time to time: sometimes when standards have been at their most restrictive, performance has displayed the greatest licence.