Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Anthropologists have recently made a distinction between “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures”. By shame cultures they mean societies where the main pressure for conformity to social rules is fear of public scorn: the Japanese, for instance, feel deeply about “loss of face” and, as is well known, will often commit ceremonial suicide rather than face public criticism for having behaved in an improper manner. In our own society, on the other hand, people frequently act for reasons of conscience-even when it means flying in the face of majority opinion, as in the case of conscientious objectors. And, although few people are quite immune from a dislike of public scorn, yet, at a pinch, many will brave it in order to carry out some plan which is dear to them. It looks as if the process by which the individual adopts principles of behaviour and makes them his own-and so forms a conscience as we know it-is by no means universal.

On this basis, then, we must observe that the pre-Christian Celts constituted a shame culture. Fear of loss of public approval was of great importance: approval was, as it happened, granted chiefly for bravery and physical valour: a girl would not accept as a lover, still less marry, a man who was not a warrior with great feats to his credit-conversely, the outstanding warriors were besieged by women and could take their pick. (This was a crude standard, of course; it does not mean that the standards of shame cultures are necessarily crude, as the examples of China and Japan serve to show.) In such societies, while there may be much sense of humiliation among those who fail to shine in the approved sphere, there cannot be guilt. In contrast, the Christian reformers were outstandingly dominated by guilt; they cared nothing for the opinion of others which they constantly defied, but were tortured by the pangs of their own conscience. They attempted, and to some extent they managed, to impose a guilt to culture upon the whole Society, even though they occasionally made use of public humiliation as an additional means of securing their ends.

But the existence of irrational guilt does not, by itself, provide us with a sufficiently comprehensive explanation of the changes in sexual attitudes which we are about to see. For instance, it does not sufficiently explain the authoritarian character of puritans, nor the low status which they assign to women. Here psychoanalytical theory can help us, for Psychoanalysts have shown how children form their ideals of behaviour, in the first instance, by modelling themselves on their parents; and how these ideals are appreciably different, according as they imitate the father or the mother, or both. Since we tend to adopt the standards of those we love, and reject those of people we hate, the course of the child’s development depends very much on the nature and direction of the love, relationships which he or she develops towards the parents. These may depend upon how the parents themselves behave, but they can also be affected by external factors, such as the prolonged absence of a parent because of illness or military service.

In copying parents, it must be remembered, children do not see them as they really are. The father is likely to appear wiser, more powerful, more authoritarian, than he would seem to adults, while the mother, however ineffective she may really be, is likely to seem supportive, a source of love and help and sustenance.

Thus there are broadly two extremes between which personality is liable to vary. The male child who models himself on his father, to the exclusion of his mother, is likely to develop a system of values, and a pattern of behaviour, marked by the masculine virtues; the child who models himself on his mother is likely to be quite different in type. We recognize this rather simple fact when we speak of a child as being “a mother’s boy”, and psychoanalysis claims no credit for the discovery. What it has done, however, is to work out the consequences of these two alternatives in much more detail than has been done before.