Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The claim that sex might be holy, not sinful, is still the thing which arouses the deepest anxieties of the patrist. Chidley’s autobiography, bequeathed to Ellis until such time as it could safely be published is still unprintable. And it was the suggestion that sex should be treated in this way which, apparently, led to the condemnation of Charles’s book The Sexual Impulse. I must therefore make it clear that I am simply recording the facts, not advocating anything of the sort myself. I am attempting to make the reader see the arbitrary character, anthropologically speaking, of his basic assumptions, and that is always a disconcerting experience. The same end can be achieved equally well by using a comparative rather than a historical approach. If we consider the European tradition against data gathered by anthropologists from other cultures, we begin to see that, with all its variation, it has remained rather consistently within a single octave from the whole gamut of possible behaviour. And this is true not only in the superficial sense that the sexual customs and institutions of other societies differ greatly from our own but also in the profounder sense that the irrational anxieties which underlie them differ also. Europe has nothing to show which corresponds to the Marind Anim’s fear that no one will find normal intercourse sufficiently attractive to engage in it, or the continual Balinese anxiety that marriage will fail because of impotence. At the same time, anthropology shows that even the most eccentric of its taboos is not unique, for the chemise cagoule has its counterpart in the “chastity blanket” with its single hole, which the American Indian must obtain from the elders of the tribe whenever he wishes to have intercourse with his wife.

If I have done my work properly, it will now be clear to the reader how muddled and arbitrary our system of sexual-morality is. In fact, it is not in any consistent ethical sense a morality at all. It is essentially a hodge-podge of attitudes derived from the past, upon which is erected a shaky and inconsistent system of laws and social prohibitions. Some of these fragments from the past date from before the introduction of Christianity; some are magical in origin, others are based on faulty science; yet others have grown up by reinterpretation of old laws, originally passed with quite a different purpose. That we have retained these ancient regulations is due to the fact that they effectively express the prejudices of the dominant group. For the great majority of the prohibitions which regulate our sexual conduct are, or were, taboos — that is, prohibitions introduced to relieve unconscious, irrational anxieties. (This is not the less true just because they have been supported from time to time by a great parade of scholarly justification.)

To say that our prohibitions are mostly irrational in origin does not mean that they are necessarily worthless: for instance, no doubt excellent psychological and social reasons could be adduced for discouraging intra-familial incest. But our uncritical acceptance of the legacy of the past causes us to accept the worthless along with the good, while our failure to recognize the irrational anxieties behind many of these prohibitions invests infractions of them with an undue horror, causing us to apply the rules too severely and to punish infractions with undue severity.

The English, of course, love to believe that the blind process of rule-of-thumb adjustment and evolution produces the best results in the end, and it is always possible to gain a reputation for wisdom and far-sightedness by concluding that, with all its defects and apparent inconsistencies, English morality is, after all, the fairest and most decent code of living that the world has yet produced. Such was evidently not the case in past centuries; the casebooks of psychiatrists and the records of the courts suggest that such complacency may still be out of place today.