Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

15. Modern Morality (circa 1973)

THUS far I have sought to be the historian, chronicling and interpreting, but now that we have reached the top of the hill, and have brought the story up to our own times, let us look back and see where we stand in relation to the landscape as a whole. While we cannot hope to be completely dispassionate, perhaps we can use the perspective we- have gained to see our own codes of sexual behaviour a little more objectively than we usually do.

In general character, it is quite evident, the present period inclines to the matrist side. In the past two thousand years the pendulum has swung twice from matrism to patrism and back, and it is now swinging towards matrism for the third time. Perhaps it has reached a point a little more than halfway. Such a statement is necessarily rough, for, as always, some sections of the community lag behind the others: it looks as if the lower income groups regularly tend to be more matrist than higher ones — which may be a way of saying that patrists are more likely to possess the self discipline and ruthlessness required for attaining power or making money. The status of women seems to provide a fair index of society’s location on the patrist-matrist scale: by this criterion the age is noticeably matrist. The battle for women’s rights is usually regarded as having started in the seventies of the last century, but the beginning of the reaction can be put as early as 1840, when an innocent wife was first granted custody of her children. Today, even though women do not generally receive the same rate of pay as men, they have nevertheless obtained a very considerable measure of social and political equality. In the United States, indeed, the movement has gone yet farther, and there seems to be a tendency to put women on a pedestal in a way which echoes the days of the troubadours. There are circles which accept as a social ideal the notion that the favour of the woman can only be won by gifts and humble service, and that, after marriage, the man must work strenuously to maintain her in luxury and idleness.

Of the many other signs of a retreat from patrism it is hardly necessary to speak: not only are sexual mores more relaxed, but all the secondary signs are present, such as approval of research, disapproval of the use of force, and a greater interest in the support and nutrition of the weak than in matters of chastity. Needless to say, puritan taboos on the theatre and the novel have been largely abandoned. Attitudes to homosexuality are always especially indicative: the first signs of a more tolerant attitude are found in the works of Ulrich (1867), and today the greater part of the public is inclined to treat it as a misfortune rather than as a sin, although British law still prescribes a penalty of not less than ten years’ imprisonment.

The great outburst of literary and creative activity which marked the opening decades of the century is also noteworthy, for it looks very much as if artistic productivity reaches a maximum at a point midway between patrism and matrism — as it did in the Elizabethan age. Under extreme patrism, spontaneity is too strongly repressed; under extreme matrism, there may be insufficient discipline to school and direct the creative urge.