Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

When existing opinion is mobilized by an active pressures group, as was the case with the feminist movement of the last century, the law may be changed very considerably. But there are many cases where such a lobbying is difficult: for instance, it is comparatively easy to unite feminists, all conscious of suffering under disabilities; it is much harder to unite opinion in favour of a change in the divorce laws, since many of those who in principle favour a change may never be personally affected. It is obviously ye more difficult to lobby for a change in the laws concerning homosexuality. Hence it is not surprising that, in the last hundred years, the laws discriminating against women have been completely transformed, the law of divorce has been modified a little, while the laws concerning homosexuality have actually been made more severe.

Probably the most astonishing and unexpected of these legacies from the past is the continuation of the Victorian taboos on verbal and symbolic references to sexual matters. While the public at large has become much readier to discuss sexual matters freely, the legal position has become steadily more restrictive. We have already seen how, in the nineteenth century, the laws against pornography were reinterpreted to apply to literary and even political works; but, before the turn of the century, they could not be applied to suppress doctrines which some might regard as immoral, provided that they were decently expressed. As the Digest of Criminal Law said in 1877,

“Obscenity and immorality in this wide sense are entirely distinct from one another”.

But in 1907 this view was upset when a prosecution was brought against Hubert Wales’s book “The Yoke“, in which a mother seduced her son in order to protect him from an undesirable female.