Writing about sex can be a perilous business. For centuries, sex occupied only subversive and maligned positions in human discourse. As a result, forms of thought about it and the language used to express them are today only uncomfortably deployed, with uncertainty and self-consciousness. Not having a mainstream literary canon going back to antiquity, focused on this subject, to lean on in our thinking, we cannot draw upon generations and generations, centuries upon centuries of unashamed, analytically serious thought and reflection about this vital, central aspect of our lives. Stranded by history, word is placed against word with little precedent, with few voices to guide. Meanwhile, many, often with guitar in hand, think this is just how things should be – that we should remain silent, shun our mind forged manacles, yield up the logos to Venus’ ineffable, oceanic vastnesses.
It is not that sex, as Larkin suggests, did not exist before 1963. It’s that beforehand, or thereabouts, it was not spoken of in public in the open, unselfconscious ways it has been since. Its subterranean nature was a fixed feature of its place in society. Obviously, sex was something you could do - provided you did it in the right way, with the right person. Indeed, even if you didn’t like it, it was something you had to do, provided you were not an ascetic, so the human race wouldn’t die out or at least so you wouldn’t scandalise your parents. But in any case, if you spoke about it at all you did so with reluctance. Or if, on the contrary, you spoke about it enthusiastically, with the concerted desire to shock, you rested on the laurels of a goldmine, knowing that to shock couldn’t be easier. Generally, you knew fields were explored not fit for Grandmother; fields banished from innocence and ease.
To an extent, this sheepishness endures, remaining a potential source for embarrassment and humour amongst the more reserved. But today the chuckles gurgling around prudishness, so easily aroused even into the 70s, grow ever more diminished, harder to generate, increasingly anachronistic, as the prudish themselves decrease, or retire to the pavilion.
Given this liberation, one would have thought writing about sex couldn’t be easier. Yet I wonder whether this supposition rests on the assumption that all that one might have to say about it is that that we should not be shy about our instinctive desires. If one wants to say anything else, new forms of restriction arise, forms of inhibition emanating not from the forces of reaction, but ironically from the forces of liberation that had supposed it was only traditional perspectives that could put a muzzle on proceedings.
Today, the effort to gaze too deeply into the enigma that is sex can raise suspicions. Indeed, the very notion that it is an enigma at all might be very strenuously rejected. It might be supposed that nothing is more natural, familiar and straightforward; moreover, that anyone claiming that sex is enigmatic necessarily must hail from the reactionary camp. That he must be wanting to re-impose a veneer of mystery and lofty spirituality over its friendly simplicity in order to put it back behind its walls, so as to refortify or resuscitate some traditional morality perceived to depend upon it’s exile from public discourse.
Being caught between the rock of traditional moral perspectives on the one hand and the hard place of modernity’s often mindless celebration of its achieved sexual liberations on the other, is not a comfortable place to be. Not if one wants just to think for oneself and approach the subject as one sees fit. Each side may put you down as dangerously close to the enemy encampment. The liberal camp might eye you with suspicion for the reasons mentioned above. It might also, patronizingly, think that while, curiously, not a conventional ‘sex denier’, you are actually a repressed person who just can’t face up to the fact. Someone who needs to get out more, see more action, realize the clear lesson that the only sex talk that really needs to happen is about how much you enjoy doing this or that with him or her. While the traditionalist camp might sniff in the aura of your words, particularly your lack of moral certainties and judgementalism, suggestions of that same old permissive drift of doom that justified Sodom and Gomorrah.
In this then, as in so many other fields, the game of discourse has been rigged beforehand. The pitch has been queered, as I like to say. The compartmentalizing knives of dualism and dichotomy, of the duty to be oppositional, to take sides in accustomed battle orders, to nail your colours to the mast, have been sharpened.
Which is why I say that writing about sex can be a perilous business. As co-opted as it has become by what are essentially politicized, grand interpretations of existence, it is a likely thing that you too will be co-opted and denied your space, denied your voice, eaten up as cattle fodder by the imperatives of somebody else’s narrative.
I am supposing that some may imagine that behind these words lurks an unspoken desire to confide something personal. If this is so, this confirms in-itself the tendency to co-optation and misinterpretation in these matters.
Although sex is not the weather, and means more to us than it, it remains interesting that we cannot easily talk about it as if it is were like the weather, and as innocent and unassuming; that we are often so aware that around it gather grand forces and energies of consequence that hook it into matrices of signification that belong elsewhere, and speak of our more general, fundamental orientations.