Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

1. Eros And Thanatos

A FAVOURITE figure of popular writers was to depict the sexual appetite as a “biological urge”: a mysterious uneasiness, dimly linked with the sun, which annually stirs the eel to his long trek from the Sargasso, sets the infusoria churning in the pond and makes the iris gleam more brightly in the plumage of the burnished dove. According to this simple notion, biology also accounted for the appearance of cars parked after sunset in dark lanes, the chairs standing in couples in the public parks and the nameless objects floating like bladderwrack in the river’s scum.

But of course the treatment of sex as merely a biological urge is sadly inadequate. Sex is both more complex and more metaphysical than that. More complex because it can demand strange and highly unbiological modes for its fulfilment: not just any man or woman, but this man and that woman; not just the archetypal act but a specialized stimulus, a personal idiosyncrasy. More metaphysical, because it can be sublimated into creative activities or denatured into aggressive and destructive ones. The history of sex must pay heed to both these factors.

Psychology has given us some understanding of the forces which channel sex into specialized forms of expression, but its connection with violence remains essentially obscure. For many people, both topics exert an unending fascination, and the crimes which arouse the greatest public sensation are those in which they are combined. Each strikes chords which come from deeply buried levels of the personality. But while we openly admit the existence of the sexual mystery, we make no such clear recognition of the destructive urge, and avert our eyes from the fascination of violence and death. This horrid perturbation is the magnet which draws many of those who frequent speedways and boxing contests: but it can be seen in its purest form, perhaps, when a man is put to death by the law. In the eighteenth century there were many who travelled long distances to attend public executions, and the guillotine had its regular audience. Today, we no longer permit public executions, but the bare knowledge that an execution is taking place is enough to draw crowds. When Bentley was executed in 1953, people drove all night from places hundreds of miles distant to be present in the street outside the prison, for the meagre reward of seeing the death notice hung upon the gates. Some of those present told reporters that it was the fourth or fifth execution which they had attended. Most extraordinary are the reactions of the onlookers when the warder appears at the gates with the notice. A ripple runs through the crowd, which emits a noise-half-sigh, half-boo. An angry hand strikes the board, so that the warder cannot hang it on the hooks. At once there is a general outburst of violence: arms flail, noses bleed. Ten police officers link arms and form a cordon, against which the crowd charges again and again. Elsewhere other police officers are embroiled with members of the crowd, both men and women, punching, scratching and kicking. There is a crash of breaking glass. A shower of coins rattles against the notice board. For twenty minutes the battle continues, until the police and the warders manage to force the door shut. The crowd surlily begins to look for hats, shoes and coat-belts torn off in the scrimmage. A burly man who has not shaved observes: “Pretty small crowd, all considered Haven’t missed one of these in fifteen years. Nice fresh June morning and a little more sun, that’s what you want, really.”