Bifurcated libidos

Banishing the Beast - The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes - Talk Dirty to Me - Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature
September 1, 1995

Perhaps the most unfortunate term in the feminist lexicon is "sexual politics", as it conflates a number of issues that are logically separate and should be treated as such. Without wishing to emulate Empson and his seven types, I might just point to a few of the different senses. To begin with, the underlying assumption is that sexual relations must always primarily rest on a struggle for power. But this begs important questions. Is it really the case, as Adler argued, that the sexual instinct is merely camouflage for the deepest human drive - the lust for power? Or is the power instinct itself merely a secondary manifestation of libido, as Freud thought? Secondly, what are the political implications of sexuality? In Civilization and its Discontents Freud elaborated his famous thesis that culture and society rest on an unacknowledged basis of instinctual renunciation but that, to use a well-known phrase, "there was no alternative".

Neo-Freudians like Marcuse later argued that capitalism used this unexceptionable thesis as an excuse to extract an unjustified "repression surplus" from One-Dimensional Man. But in general social theorists have accepted that unbridled sexuality, libido off the leash, so to speak, would lead merely to anarchy. Even Marxists acknowledged this. Marx's contempt for bohemia is well known, as is the bifurcation in the late 1960s between political revolutionaries of the 1968 vintage and the apolitical "make love not war" brigade. LSD advocates like Timothy Leary claimed that the hippy project, if implemented, would revolutionise society far more radically than Marxism. In an abstract sense he was right, but he was merely espousing a brand of political impossibilism.

Sexual permissiveness, then, has political implications that go far beyond the alleged struggle for power between a man and a woman in a bedroom. There is a politics of sexuality which is the most interesting sense of "sexual politics", based as it allegedly is on biology and the survival of the fittest. Right-wing support for certain aspects of "sexual liberation" suggests strongly an Adlerian perspective, in which the political structure of the farmyard is replicated, with a few male individuals having access to the most desirable females, while the lesser males are on short commons. If you are Howard Hughes, you have a harem; if you are John Doe, you get nothing. As for the issue of political change versus la boh me, the question for women is whether sexual permissiveness works in their interest or is a barrier to true sexual equality.

There is also a sense of "sexual politics" that connotes the division within feminist thought itself. There is a "conservative" faction in feminism that loathes pornography, favours censorship and inclines to the view that "free love" or sexual permissiveness will inevitably favour men and increase women's subjection. There is also a "radical" group that wishes to embrace sexuality in all its manifestations, to empathise with prostitutes, to revel in pornography, all again in the name of liberation - a kind of Rimbaudesque dereglement de tous les sens. By yet another twist, illustrating the snares of the word "politics" when applied to sex, conservative, pro-censorship, anti-pornography and pro-sexual apartheid campaigners like Andrea Dworkin count as "radical" feminists; those who are pro-pornography and embrace the sexual radicalism people like Leary spoke of are often considered not just "conservative" but "Auntie Thomasinas" by some of their "sisters".

Four recent books illustrate this dilemma over sexual permissiveness and the many different meanings of "sexual politics". In his study of Restoration literature, focusing mainly on the work of Aphra Behn and the Earl of Rochester, Warren Chernaik poses the dialectic between the urge to rebel in the name of sexual gratification and the recognition that evil is, as in Shakespeare, the absence of order. Behn and Rochester suggest that both sexes are alike in sexual desire but that unbridled libido would threaten society as its foundations and undermine church, family and State - the later Freudian perspective. At the same time, Behn and Rochester both took the Adlerian perspective that sexual relations were fundamentally a struggle for power. How to reconcile these competing imperatives? In a subtle and close reading of the poetry and plays of Behn and Rochester, Chernaik suggests that both looked to Hobbes as the final arbiter. Given the Hobbesian premise of a war of all against all in the state of nature, Behn and Rochester both seem to have concluded that woman's best bet, to avoid being the victim of male libertinism, is to turn hedonist herself.

This prescription was too strong for the Victorians. In the collective Victorian unconscious was a fear and horror of female sexuality. The official ideology of the Victorians (though they would not have used such terms) was that women had to be protected against the devouring, rampant phallus. It has long been thought that this was a mere projection, that the real motive for keeping women in quasi-Islamic "seclusion" was not to protect them against the phallus but to prevent the emergence of the sexual tornado Tiresias hinted at. Anyone who doubts this should read the notes to Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights, where the theory of woman's innately lustful nature reaches pathological proportions.

On the other hand, Victorian worship of the sanctity of marriage was not humbug. Victorians, on the whole, genuinely felt that patriarchy was an ineluctable part of the social order and that, if you removed the building block of marriage, society itself would fall apart.

In his book Michael Mason is concerned to subvert the old cliche of Victorian morality as a subspecies of Puritanism. In many recent books this cliche has been replaced by an equal and opposite revisionist cliche that the Victorians were, in essence, just like us. True, they had no reliable methods of birth control and their women had no votes, but their attitudes ran a spectrum much like that between Wilhelm Reich and Mrs Mary Whitehouse in our own times. The great merit of Mason's book is that he subscribes to neither cliche, but instead provides a nuanced class-by-class dissection of the multifarious Victorian response to sex. The demerit is that he introduces so many caveats, provisos and qualifications that no single general argument stands out clearly.

However, on one point he is very clear. Both the working class and the early feminists opposed "progressive" views on sexuality. Mason rebuts the "hegemonic" argument for working-class respectability - that it was an idea serving the interests of the dominant class which the working class took up in "false consciousness". Instead, he sees working-class prudery as part of a spontaneous drive for political advancement. The 19th-century feminists were opposed to free love and sexual liberty, arguing in the manner of the contemporary feminist Sheila Jeffreys that sexual liberation did not serve women's interests and never could, no matter how society was reorganised. Mason is very sympathetic to that feminist thought which says that sexual fulfilment may not be the highest good and in certain cases (he mentions paedophilia) may not even be a good at all.

In her book Lucy Bland discusses attitudes to female sexuality from the 1880s to the interwar years. At the core is the Men and Women's Club - a society founded by Karl Pearson, a 28-year-old professor of mathematics, in which men and women read papers illustrating the very different views on morality, marriage, prostitution, family planning and female emancipation entertained by both sexes. Some of the discussions have a very modern ring: the men all concerned with abstract solutions, the women with feelings.

A leading topic was how to deal with "the beast" (male lust). Feminists thought that the beast would be defeated once women attained positions of authority: as judges, magistrates, police officers, jurors and, crucially, as voters. Their male interlocutors thought that the "beast" was aroused kraken-like from its slumbers by sexually provocative "women of a certain kind".

The Men and Women's Club folded in 1889 when irreconcilable differences arose over priorities. The women wanted to address the issue of why men continued to resort to prostitutes, all the time asserting that the higher values of love and sympathy were a thousand times more important than sexual gratification. The men interpreted "morality" to mean eugenics: how in practice could healthy stock be bred in the future. The promising cross-gender discussion turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf.

Bland says that her book began life as a thesis, and the rather dry treatment is typical of the more desiccated groves of academe. She is in general sympathetic to the Sheila Jeffreys thesis on sexual liberation. Sallie Tisdale, an American journalist, most emphatically is not. But her book is in every sense a world away from Bland's and indeed from Mason's and Chernaik's. Where they are careful and scholarly, she is wild and egocentric, and seems positively to revel in cliche. The buzz-words are predictable: clitoridectomy, blowjob, vagina dentata, cunnilingus, dildo, etc, etc.

The core of the book is the familiar argument that feminism should embrace pornography, not condemn it. But there is not a single topic here that has not been far better discussed elsewhere. A promising section on the difference between the penis and the phallus comes to nothing because Tisdale has not read enough; the obvious sources here are Jung and Lacan. Tisdale seems to think that "proof" of some dubious assertion is provided by a ragbag of anecdotes.

Yet it is the author's egomania rather than her foolishness that is most objectionable. We hear of her alleged dialectical triumphs in verbal encounters with television interviewers. The narcissism continues: "When Reich died I was a few years old.'' Tisdale admits she is against censorship principally because she is afraid something she writes might be censored. Personally I would welcome the introduction of cultural commissars if it meant that books like this were not published.

Frank McLynn is author of Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England.

Banishing the Beast: English Feminism and Sexual Morality 1885-1914

Author - Lucy Bland
ISBN - 0 14 017449 4
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 410

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments