To those of us still stunned by last summer’s sorry sexual spectacle, there’s some comfort to be found in looking to the past. As three recent books make clear, the struggle to define, control, judge and give meaning to human sexuality — arguably our most powerful drive — has occupied and preoccupied us for centuries.
According to writer M.L. Bush, we can trace modern notions that sex should be fun to a seminal — it seems an appropriate word — essay by Richard Carlile, one of the early 19th century’s leading British radicals. Carlile, born in 1790, was a former tinsmith who was radicalized by reading Thomas Paine and transformed into an activist by the 1819 massacre of working-class demonstrators at Peterloo. Outrageous by nature and a staunch republican, libertarian and atheist, he usually managed to offend everyone, and his publication of Paine’s Age of Reason landed him in jail for blasphemy. While there, he wrote "What Is Love?," which appeared in his anti-monarchist journal The Republican in 1825 and was republished a year later as "Every Woman’s Book." Until now it has been unavailable for nearly a century.
Feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham has praised the essay as "a classic text of sexual radicalism," and within its limitations — Carlile only approves of sex between heterosexual partners; even masturbation is taboo — it surely is that. Against a prevailing ethos that saw sexuality as a dangerous, male-driven force to be controlled and used only for the purpose of making babies, Carlile spoke up for equality, pleasure and freedom. Lust was a natural human hunger felt by both men and women, he argued, and there was nothing shameful about it. In fact, he believed, it was repression and abstinence that caused social problems — unnaturally chaste women often became invalids, and men denied access to the good women they loved degraded themselves with prostitutes and seduced servants.
Even more striking was his advocacy of serial monogamy over till-death-do-us-part fidelity: Because Carlile believed that love was desire, and that desire couldn’t be legislated, he urged couples to stay together only as long as they truly wanted each other. (The institution of marriage, he declared, was "a system of degradation and slavery.") Finally, at a time when no one even dared talk about birth control — which existed only in the form of abortion and, when that failed, infanticide — he offered instruction on the mechanics of withdrawal and use of a dampened sponge in the vagina to ward off conception.
The book, originally printed with a frontispiece featuring a full-frontal nude and unashamed Adam and Eve, was clearly both heartfelt and meant to shock. In fact, it evoked widespread hostility — among other epithets, Carlile was called "the pedagogue pander of lust." (It didn’t help that Carlile also took the opportunity to go after his other archenemy, Christianity, denouncing religion as "an unnatural vice, [that] can only be properly classed with sodomy and bestiality.") But not surprisingly, it was widely popular among women. "Every Woman’s Book" also made Carlile money and got him out of his own loveless marriage into a new relationship; ironically, the birth control advocate’s new love was pregnant within a year.
Though not quite "the most important political pamphlet that has ever appeared," as its none-too-humble author called it, there’s no question that it mattered: Within six years of its publication, for instance, three new works of contraceptive advice were published. This Verso re-release is overly long — only hardcore Carlile scholars need to read two very similar versions of the essay, including editing changes large and small. Still, it’s fascinating as a historical document. With his message to love often, well and freely, and his insistence that no couples should have more children than they wanted, no women suffer pregnancies that endangered their lives, and that "sexual intercourse . . . be made a pleasure independent of the dread of a conception," Carlile was perhaps the first voice of the modern era.
In the 1950s, scientific understanding of reproductive biology led to the creation of a form of contraception so foolproof it surely would have dazzled Carlile. The story of the development and aftereffects of the birth control pill, which for the first time in human history completely separated sex from conception, is a rich, complex and fabulous one. Unfortunately, On the Pillis the kind of book that gives academics a bad name. It reads as if its author, Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, sat in a library for several years dutifully reading every mainstream article ever written about her subject, then dutifully organized and spewed the information back. Forget analysis. Forget opinion. Forget primary sources. Forget writing — at times, her prose clunks almost audibly: "The changes sweeping the nation included the so-called sexual revolution, characterized by the liberalization of sexual attitudes, mores and behaviors."
These are not only aesthetic quibbles. Watkins’ reliance on secondary sources — her seeming belief that nothing can be true if a study doesn’t prove it — leads her to utterly ludicrous assertions, such as "no data have ever supported [the] assumption" that the pill created the sexual revolution. Clearly, the author never talked to anyone who spent time in a circa-1970 college dorm where scores of nice middle-class girls happily humped like bunnies. Nothing but dependable birth control could have made such scenes possible at a time when unintended pregnancy meant a trip to Tokyo if you were rich and lucky and a back alley if you were not.