Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

These remarks may sound platitudinous, for it is difficult to envisage the curiously persistent character of officially maintained standards until some incident happens to dramatize them. As it happens, while I was first collecting notes for this work, an incident occurred which vividly illuminated the point at issue. The divorce laws of Britain do not recognize incompatibility of temperament as a reason for divorce. Yet it is no secret that a considerable proportion of the population, perhaps a majority, feel that when friction between husband and wife has become so acute that the whole relationship has become poisoned beyond recovery, then divorce may be justifiable. In such circumstances, there is an evident temptation to satisfy the demands of the law by providing the necessary evidence to prove adultery, and satirists have not been slow to point out that the law is actually driving people to adultery, or at the least to the pretence of committing adultery. Yet when it was suggested in court, recently, that collusion of this kind was not unknown, the judge administered a sharp rebuke, declaring that no such collusion was known to occur.

If we still entertained the delusion that men were rational beings, such an inconsistency between “private knowledge” and “public knowledge” would greatly astonish us. Since, fortunately, it IS more than fifty years since Freud began to transform the study of the irrational, and showed us in detail how far from rational we are, it will not astonish, but may serve to remind us of the nubbly and obstinate nature of the attitudes and motives we are about to examine.

In tracing the history of attitudes to sex, it is therefore constantly necessary to distinguish between the pretended position and the actual. This is the more difficult since the data about the actual position are consistently suppressed and distorted. Even today, when we are supposedly so emancipated, our history books continue to be written with a determined disregard for facts which the historian considers to be unpleasant. The best known social history of our day makes no reference to sexual matters, other than normal wedlock. Yet the belief that sexual desires and habits are something which can be placed in an airtight compartment, and sealed off from history without affecting the development of the story, is no longer tenable. Eros and Thanatos permeate every compartment of human activity, and a history which attempts to ignore this fact is not merely emasculated but unintelligible. The first purpose of this book is to demonstrate how closely attitudes to sexual matters interlock with other social attitudes and even dictate them.

Since the western world is still strongly under the influence of the tradition established by the mediaeval Church, let us start by examining that tradition in some detail, before attempting to trace the developments which sprang from it.