Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

(Similarly, in the first World War, French army chaplains attributed military reverses to sexual promiscuity, just as, more than two millennia previously, the Israelites attributed their defeat by the Philistines to the same cause.) Historically, of course, this is a ridiculous claim: as we have seen, periods such as the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, which were periods of unusual sexual freedom, were periods of great achievement and expansion. What the patrist means in making this claim is not that a permissive code will destroy society, but that it will destroy the sort of society he desires. With these forebodings, the patrist usually couples laments about “the decay of family life“, which he likewise feels to be a threat to the whole social structure. He claims the sanction of religion for this view, conveniently forgeting that Jesus repeatedly urged people to forsake their parents, as He did himself. Here, too, though the patrist’s fears make nonsense — sociologically, he intuitively perceives that the paternal family is the microcosm in which patrist standards are inculcated, so that its preservation is essential to his morality.

The patrist, of course, claims the sanction of Christianity for his whole code of morality. But, quite aside from the fact that the ecclesiastical code has little relation to Christ’s teaching as we know it, it is not even true that there is a consistent code of Christian behaviour which has always been taught by the Church. The authorities have repeatedly changed their minds about what was, and what was not, sinful, and in no sphere has this inconsistency been greater than in that of sex. As we have seen, at various times the Church has accepted polygamy, while at others it has declared monogamy essential; it has permitted divorce for many reasons and has also prohibited divorce completely; it has accepted trial marriage and has also insisted on complete premarital inexperience. It has held that priests may marry and that they may not. It has held that if a priest’s wife dies, he may not marry again, and also that he may. It has held that it is better for a priest to fornicate than to marry, and also the reverse.

One may thus wonder what patrists have in mind when they appeal— as The Times did, for instance, just after the Coronation of Elizabeth II— for a return to Christian morality. Perhaps it is easier divorce ? For in England today, fewer causes are admitted for divorce than was the case in the tenth century. What they really mean by this phrase, one suspects, is the morality of about one generation earlier than their own— in this case that of late Victorian England. Certainly no one would be more taken aback than those who make such an appeal if they really found themselves subject to the mediaeval code, with its fasts and flagellations, or to Puritanism, with its ban on Sunday walking and its seventeen compulsory weekly sermons.

We have seen how patrism gives rise to violence and neurosis. But the extreme patrist is not interested in the social and psychological costs of his attitude: since he maintains that sex is a sin— and one which evokes penalties after death so severe that earthly misery does not matter— he draws the conclusion that all attempts to minimize and suppress it are justified. It is therefore an interesting point that even this argument for repression can be controverted. For today it is clear to anyone who studies the subject that sexual energy cannot be reduced or annihilated; if denied outlet in one form, it soon finds it in another. Moreover, in these substitute forms it is more insistent and obsessive in character than when normally expressed. This was the problem which the fifteenths and sixteenth century popes began to apprehend, when they found sex emerging in convulsions and dreams of incubi, and which they then tried to stop by the threat of burning, declaring that it was a sin to remember a lascivious dream. Thus, even if we accept the Christian assumption that sex is inherently wicked, so that the most moral age is that which reduces its expression to a minimum, it still remains true that restrictive periods are more immoral, because more sex-ridden, than permissive ones.