Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

After the first World War, these laws were given still further application by extending the notion of publication to include the lending of books by one private individual to another and even the submission of a manuscript to a printer. Thus in 1932 a sentence of six months’ imprisonment was imposed on a man who submitted to a printer a translation of poems by Rabelais and Verlaine. (47) Then in 1935 they were extended to include scientific works, hitherto regarded as privileged. Fines were imposed on the publisher of Edward Charles’s The Sexual Impulse; more than twenty persons of public repute, including Professors Malinowski and Flugel, were prepared to appear in court to state that the book was a scientific work. It must be borne in mind that among the works which have been adjudged pornographic in recent years are not only Rabelais and Pierre Louys, but works of value to scholars such as Sinistrari’s great treatise on witchcraft, the whole of the twelfth book of the Greek anthology, Lucian’s Dialogi Meretricii and even a mediaeval mystery play, Ludus Coventriae A. On one occasion the police attempted to seize and destroy copies of Plato’s Symposium, and only abandoned their intention of prosecuting when advised that they would make themselves ridiculous.

This really quite astonishing state of affairs can be explained, I think, by the fact that patrists tend to seek positions of authority; as a result, certain professions, such as the police and the judiciary, remain unmitigatedly patrist even in a non-patrist age. We must never forget that representatives of the unfashionable modes continue to be produced and to maintain minority points of view. Thus in 1935 a Public Morality Council was set up which exactly paralleled the reform societies of the eighteenth century. Such bodies are helped by the English preference for letting obsolete statutes fall into disuse rather than remove them from the statute book: reformist societies have found that their best course is to insist on the rigorous application of statutes which are frequently many centuries old. The Lord’s Day Observance Society continues the seventeenth century Puritan policy of enforcing ancient laws against Sunday recreation, and in children’s playgrounds the swings and see-saws are still padlocked at weekends. Every week, the National Vigilance Association informs the police of cases of homosexuality, books which it deems obscene, and other matters. Only when these activities threaten powerful business interests is serious opposition offered. Thus, when Sunday observance laws were invoked against Sunday film performances, an even older statute was found excepting films from these laws.

The strength with which the patrist outlook persists in police and legal circles may also be noted in the way in which laws, originally intended for some other purpose, are invoked to punish sexual offences. A few days before I wrote these lines, actions were brought under the Aliens Order against two unmarried women (not aliens) who had spent the night at an hotel with two American soldiers, registering as married women: they were committed to prison. A few days later, a firm which had allowed a boy to carry naphtha in open buckets, which led to an explosion in which he was killed, was fined £10. It would seem that the attitude of mind which, in the Middle Ages, regarded fornication as a more serious crime than manslaughter, still finds echoes today.

But the past influences us in a more far-reaching way through our basic assumptions, which change very slowly and almost unnoticeably. The best example of this is perhaps the assumption of monogamous marriage, which has become so much a part of our thinking that to challenge it does not come in question. So much so, that we fondly suppose it always to have been the custom, and think of it as something especially endorsed by the Christian religion. Yet, as we have seen, this is by no means the case. It has taken about a thousand years to embed this assumption in our thinking, and no doubt a thousand years from now it will have vanished again. The idea may be shocking, but the delightful illusion that social change culminates in us can no longer be sustained.