Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In Britain, the divided character of the age — as between matrism and patrism — is expressed rather neatly in the political sphere, where there are two parties substantially identified with the two main attitudes. The party of the left is on the whole a matrist party, laying stress on supportive activities and especially concerned to see that everyone is adequately supplied with food and medical care: it tends to support the claims of women and to oppose the use of force. It is also the party most ready to make innovations — for instance, to experiment with new forms of public ownership of industry. The party of the right is, on the whole, a patrist party, more anxious to conserve what has been found valuable in the past than to experiment, readier to use force, less tolerant of sexual freedom. Such a generalisation is necessarily rough; conservative policies are not in practice markedly patrist, for if they were, the conservatives would fall from power, as the liberals already have; and with the passage of time even a socialist party develops its conservatisms. But the distinction becomes very evident whenever a psychologically crucial issue is put to the vote, without obligation to vote on party lines. The debates on the reintroduction of flogging for certain offences, and on the abolition of the death penalty are cases in point, and serve to sort members of parliament quite visibly into patrists and matrists. Parliament may not be a very effective device for the rational discussion of social policies, but it is quite a reasonably effective device for seeing that policies conform to the current state of psychological prejudice.

But while each chapter of history bears certain resemblances to the corresponding periods which have preceded it, it also displays significant differences. Some of these are purely technical in character, such as the steady improvement in the techniques of contraception, and in the techniques for manufacturing contraceptive devices. The invention, in the early thirties, of the latex process for the manufacture of condoms is undoubtedly a landmark in social history, and has drastically altered the circumstances attending sexual activity. In the United States, sales of condoms are stated to exceed 1.5 millions daily, to say nothing of the growing use of occlusive caps and contraceptive jellies. (128) This has not led, despite the fears of patrists, to any proportionate change in either birth-rate or marriage-rate, although it may have contributed to the decline in illegitimacy rates since Victorian times.

Another factor, whose importance we can hardly yet evaluate, is the tremendous increase in vicarious experience and especially in vicarious sexual stimulation. Printed and illustrated books and magazines are available to whole populations for the first time in history, while the cinema and television provide substitute erotic experience of unusual vividness. What the ultimate effect of such an enlargement in the fantasy life of whole populations may be it is probably too early to say. Still more generally, social and economic changes — such as the rise in the standard of living and the increase in the expectations of life — must certainly be having powerful consequences in the sexual life of the age. The former may increase the total amount of sexual energy developed; the latter, if it increases the average age difference of married couples, may reduce fertility. Either would have far-reaching consequences, and there can be little doubt that the full effect of such changes has still to be appreciated.