I was not sure whether to write to you about sex. You are my grand-daughter and I felt a bit uncomfortable at first. Yet I think I should try, since it is clearly something you will wonder about a great deal, especially at this time in your life. We have discussed almost everything over the years so I feel we can look at this personal issue without embarrassment.
If it does make you feel worried at all, imagine that you are just one of the eighty or so first-year undergraduates at Cambridge to whom I used to try to provide a simple survey of the huge varieties of sexual behaviour and attitudes among human beings. I tried to treat it in a matter of fact way. I did this to put their own lives into context and to relieve them of some of the guilt which certainly I felt as a growing boy.
What can I say about the patterns of sexual relations?
In the era before effective contraception, a sexual relationship outside marriage was not only widely regarded as sinful, but dangerous as well. The woman, in particular, took a huge risk. To have an illegitimate child often led to disgrace, even imprisonment in a mental asylum, or a life of prostitution and perhaps infection with a venereal disease.
I was brought up on the edge of that period and the idea of having sexual relations before I married was still considered sinful and dangerous. You will know how things have changed and how the age at which these things happen has dropped alongside the fall in the age of sexual maturity. There is little that I can say here that you cannot learn from good books, frank talks with friends, teachers, your parents and others. Perhaps the most important thing is that if you make decisions which you regret, you should as quickly as possible admit them to more experienced people and work out a good remedy.
Another thing to say is that sexual relationships have long been regarded as the very height of human experience. Sexual symbolism is widespread in the bible, as in the Song of Solomon, and in the writings of great religious mystics. By bringing together our senses of touch, smell, sight and sound , and uniting them in a mounting moment of pleasure, we seem for a moment to reach a reality and happiness that transcends this mortal life. To miss this dimension is very sad.
Yet most of those who have thought deeply about the matter have also stressed that for sex to really satisfy it should be part of a wider relationship. It is both an end in itself, but also part of a communication with another. If it occurs within a context of trust, commitment, long-term and deep friendship, it will attain heights which fragmented and momentary bursts of pleasure cannot.
Another comparative point is to remind you of what a peculiar civilization you come from. In the majority of societies, sexual relations have been embedded in social relationships. It is socially wise or stupid to be engaged in them at certain times or places or with certain people. The Gods are sometimes involved if a taboo is broken but generally sex is not really much to do with religion.
We can see this, for example, in Japan. Sexual relations there are mainly seen as a form of bodily function, alongside eating, drinking, working, defecating. They are pleasurable in themselves and there is nothing to be ashamed about them. The body itself has not been historically a sexually charged object.
In much of the west, however, there has been an association of sex and religion. God is concerned with the ‘cleanliness’ not only of our bodies but also of our minds. To read the tortured autobiographies and novels in the western tradition with their constant deep sense of guilt and conflict, is to be in a different world to the literature and art of much of India, China and Japan which openly celebrates sexuality and its pleasures.
It is a matter of balance. You will be aware of the way in which those who are trying to sell you drinks, cars, clothes, cosmetics, are constantly trying to use the power of sex to sway your mind. You will notice how television and other media are obsessed with the subject. Much of your conversation is about it. You may be disgusted or intrigued by all this. You will certainly need to be wary of this constant pressure and try to stand back from the insistence to treat your body as primarily a sexual object.
On the other hand, you should also be aware of the still remaining traces of a guilt-ridden Christian civilization, with its anti-female bias, its concealments of the shameful side-effects of sexuality, its trading on guilt and embarrassment. If you accept that we are sexual beings, that the survival of the species depends heavily on making sexual intercourse a delightful sensation, that we can sometimes express our most intense love through such behaviour, then you will not loathe your body.
All of this is made more difficult for you by various things. Though there is overlap, men and women are different and their desires and pleasures in sex are not the same. Be frank with your partners and do not through embarrassment cover up hidden conflicts of aim or achievement. Furthermore, as Bob Dylan put it, ‘the times they are a changing’. The liberation of sexuality in western societies is one of the greatest social changes I have witnessed in my lifetime. At my boarding school we were not allowed even to talk to girls. Now my boarding house is a girl’s house in that same school!
Relaxation of standards, better contraception, all this has brought new pleasures and reduced anxiety about the consequences of sex. Yet it has also put new strains upon you, made it more difficult to say no, threatened you with new dangers (sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS). There is both a gain of experience and a loss of innocence.
Are homosexual and lesbian relations natural or cultural?
Almost all of us are physically attracted at some stage in our lives to someone of the same sex and almost all school-children go through the a stage of love for a person of their own sex. The attitudes towards this and the statistics are often not in line. Twentieth century estimates suggested that more than four in ten men in the west have had same-sex relations leading to orgasm and that more than one in twenty of adult males are exclusively homosexual. Amongst women, about one in five females in the United States have had physical relations with other females, and half have had ‘intense emotional relations’.
In the past, for instance in ancient Greece, the love between men and boys is thought to be deeper than that between man and woman. We find it referred to in the Bible and in great love poetry.
Yet in other societies, including England for long periods, same sex relationships were looked on as perverted and deeply sinful. They were regarded as unnatural, shameful and subversive. The case of the writer Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for his relations with other men, is just one example. In many parts of the world, for instance China, it is still not easy to talk about same sex relations. Yet some people, whether by nature or upbringing or a combination of the two, clearly end up more attracted to members of their own than the opposite sex.
Recently, the question of marriage between same-sex persons has been much discussed in Europe and America and is now allowed in an increasing number of countries. This is a really dramatic change and it is causing a huge debate, particularly in the United States, since it is claimed to subvert the true nature of marriage.
What is the incest taboo?
You may well have heard of the myth of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother and was hounded down by the gods. Another Greek legend, of the love of a father for his daughter is known as the Electra complex. The other common form is sexual relations between brothers and sisters, sibling incest as it is known.
Many have thought that the prohibition of such relations and the horror that surrounds the breaking of the taboo is universal. Indeed, some have argued that it is this rule which distinguishes us from animals (who often avoid close kin but do not seem to have a ‘taboo’) and hence is the start of human culture. And it is indeed true that, because it confuses the patterns of power and the flow of blood in the family, it is almost universally banned.
Yet most myths of origin tell of incest between brother and sister and it was relatively common in ruling dynasties such as the pharaohs of Egypt. There are even cases where many ordinary people married their true brothers and sisters and had children together, as in Roman Egypt.
The important thing to realize is that almost everyone during their life will be sexually attracted to someone else among their close relatives. The art is to understand this temptation, but not to give in to it either. As many have pointed out, the confusions caused by having sexual relations with a father, mother or sister or brother can cause very deep problems. Yet it is often the horror of others which turns a temporary and often minor deviation into something enormously destructive.
For example, the religious reformer Luther was told that through an accident a man had unknowingly impregnated his own mother and he was then asked whether those involved should be told of what had happened. This was a decision made all the more difficult because the young man had fallen in love with, and wanted to marry, the woman who was simultaneously his sister and his daughter. Luther advised that they should not be told and be allowed to marry.
How sacred is marriage?
In the majority of human societies in history people have had several wives or several husbands, or both. In other parts of the world it is the custom to marry only one person at a time, though in practice many people have several marriage partners, one after another. In Christianity, in particular, it is thought that, once married, a person should not have sexual relations with anyone but his or her partner. Adultery, a strangely old-fashioned sounding word nowadays, was a serious offence.
Again the attitudes and the statistics are in conflict. Twentieth century investigators thought that about half of married males had intercourse with women other than their wives during their marriages, and recent analyses of the DNA of new-born infants has suggested very high rates of children not being the real blood children of their supposed father.
It has been usual in almost all societies where there was a rule that sexual relations should be contained within the married pair for there to be a ‘double standard’. Men could have other liaisons, but if women did so they were in real trouble. This is particularly marked in a belt of societies which include many Catholic and Islamic nations, much of traditional India, China and Korea. A woman caught in adultery was to be driven out, or even stoned to death. A man was treated much more leniently.
What about masturbation?
A number of societies have looked on sex with oneself, masturbation, with horror. In the Christian Old Testament, it was called ‘the sin of Onan’, who ‘spilt his seed upon the ground’. In Victorian England it was often thought of as degrading and even medically dangerous – leading to blindness, loss of hair, even madness. This fear continued well into the twentieth century.
This is all rather peculiar. To start with, while those who masturbate may think that they are a lonely, perverted, minority, almost everyone does so at some point in their lives. A set of famous surveys in America in the twentieth century showed that over nine out of ten males and seven out of ten women masturbated to orgasm at some point. In early adolescence, the average was two and a half times a week among males, and it is very widespread among unmarried women.
Although I have never visited a real or virtual sex aids shop, I suspect that it would show the vast ingenuity of humans in dealing with a very widespread demand for self-gratification. With this near universality, it seems strange that it should have been so frowned upon.
Yet the horror is not universal. Anthropologists have found societies, for example in the Himalayas, with a much more relaxed attitude. In some societies boys or girls go out in groups and masturbate as a form of communal activity. In others there is no disapproval of the practice.
In Britain in the past, the pressures leading towards masturbation were very pronounced. People were forced to marry some ten years or so after reaching sexual maturity, many did not marry at all, yet there was a ban on sexual relations unless one was married. At the same time there was a strong attitude of horror. The result was a deep sense of guilt.
Is sex in the head or in the body?
Almost five hundred years ago the philosopher Montaigne noted how variable human culture is. He described how in one nation ‘if a tradesman marries, all the other tradesmen invited to the wedding anticipate him with the bride.. and yet in that place strict fidelity is recommended during marriage.’ Elsewhere ‘there are public brothels of males, and even marriages between them.’ In some countries ‘fathers lend their children, and husbands their wives, for the enjoyment of their guests, in return for payment.’ There were countries ‘Where a man may, without scandal, get his mother with child, and fathers consort with their daughters and sons.’ Anthropologists have discovered examples of all of these and many other variations which seem bizarre to us. This sets one wondering what, exactly, sex is about.
One of the strangest things about sex is that it seems to be as much a mental as a physical matter. We know that the powerful urge to mate is biological. Yet the object of our attention, what arouses us, seems to be so variable. In our own experience we know that we may be thinking of entirely different things when suddenly the curve of an image, the movement of an eye, the flash of a piece of flesh can quickly arouse us.
It is a recognition of the way our minds cannot control our bodies which suggested to the medieval church authorities that women should cover their hair in church in case members of the congregation, and, so it was alleged, even the angels, found their thoughts turning to lust.
Such a belief can be seen in the covering up of the bodies and faces of women in many parts of the world today. The incredible lengths to which societies have gone to put women into purdah or seclusion in many societies are well known. Sometimes they are walled in, to such an extent in upper class Korean families that the only chance women had to see outside the walls was to invent swinging and jumping games which gave them a swift glimpse of another reality. Sometimes, as with the millions of Chinese women whose feet were broken in childhood, they are crippled to prevent them from wandering off and becoming the objects of men’s lust.
Yet what modesty consists of is enormously variable. One of my favourite stories is of a nineteenth century American visitor to Japan. When he tried to help two young Japanese ladies over a fence, as he would have done in his country, they fled in embarrassed confusion. But when he came to the next town, he was called by them with great warmth to go into one of the communal bath houses where the naked young ladies were bathing totally at ease.
What becomes clear is that while the sexual drive is strong, it is almost entirely subject to the invisible mental categories which tell us what is attractive and what is not interesting. Sex is an appetite very similar to that for food. Some like steak, some like vegetables, I hate prunes and marmalade while you, Lily, like both.
It is the same with sex. Some fall in love with people much younger than themselves, some with rubber dolls, some with their pets or other animals. The extraordinary images we hear about on the internet have made us aware that even the most lurid fantasies of psychiatrists are dwarfed by the ramblings of human desire.
What attracts us and what is allowed is fairly arbitrary, but there are always rules. This is one reason why the anthropologist Robin Fox declared that ‘sex is in the head’, and it is why I would like to move on now to the last letter on a specific topic, namely the way in which our minds control us without our being able to do much about it. Let’s move from sex to money, time, space and language.