Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The problem is therefore whether the notion of “the spirit of the times” can be reduced to a more precise form. Presumably this spirit represents the highest common factor in the attitudes of every individual member of the society, when due allowance is made for the fact that some people are more influential than others. Now psychology has, in recent years, cast a flood of light on how the attitudes of individuals are built up and has shown that certain early experiences—the extent and quality of maternal care and teaching, especially—tend to set the personality in a particular mould, which later experiences elaborate but do not radically modify. At the same time, the cultural anthropologists have shown that the attitude systems of the individuals who make up a society are not randomly assorted, but tend to cluster round a particular position (or positions) at any given time; this is because the formative experiences of childhood tend to similarity at any given period. At one period severity may be in vogue; at another, children may be taken from their mothers at an early age, and so on. Hence it is not an undue simplification to speak of there being a “Typical Personality” (if we define Personality, for present purposes, as the sum total of attitudes) in a given period. Thus it becomes possible to classify the “spirit of the times” in terms of the prevalence of certain elements in Personality, and to draw on the very considerable fund of existing knowledge about the formation of personality.

Furthermore, personality is, in principle, internally consistent: people do not, in general, display one attitude to, say, political matters and a contrary one to religious matters: if they are authoritarian in one they will be authoritarian in the other, and so on. But no type of attitude is more fundamental and more indicative of the trend of Personality than are attitudes to sexual matters —for, as Freud has so elaborately demonstrated, our earliest attitudes are those formed in the microcosm of the family, and these are largely sexual in character. Hence the study of the changes in sexual attitudes is the very first step, the ‘sine qua non’, of all coherent historical research.

It is therefore very strange and most lamentable that historians have almost entirely avoided such study, and have maintained something like a conspiracy of silence about such facts as they do know. Look at the most erudite of social histories and you find that they make no mention of sexual matters—apart, perhaps, from a summary of the marriage and divorce laws—and this remains true even when suppression of the facts creates a wholly false impression of the period and makes many events quite mysterious. The most obvious example of this is probably the paederastic practices of the Greeks: even a basic work of reference such as Holm-Decke-Soltau’s “Kulturgeschichte des Klassischen Altertums” omits all reference to it. Pauly-Wissowa’s “Realenzyklopaedie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft“, which gives twenty pages to the hetairae, gives but three to it. Plato’s observations on love are frequently quoted without disclosing that he was referring to homosexual love and the difficulties which Xenophon had with his army are left mysteriously vague. School histories are naturally bowdlerized even more thoroughly, and many students leave school without discovering that Henry VIII was a syphilitic—with the result that his marital affairs remain quite incomprehensible—and even without being told of such a major historical event as the arrival of syphilis in Europe, as a result of which (according to some estimates) one third of the population of Europe died within a few years.

The assumption of historians seems to be that sexual manners are something which exists in a watertight compartment, almost independently of historical trends as a whole, and that it would no more throw light on the general problem of interpreting history to open this compartment than it would to study the development of, say, cooking.