At this point, I want to take a minute to examine the way people were living, and how that affected their attitudes to sex. Again, the same caveats as the last column: these are very broad brush strokes, things happen gradually and are always more complicated than a brief run-down can accommodate.
So, in medieval times, people live much more communally than now, and this includes sleeping. Everyone sleeps together in the hall. Even if the lord and lady of the manor have a separate room – a solar – they will share it with their servants and children. There is no concept that you have a room that you go to to sleep – or have sex – in private.
In the Renaissance, the bedroom becomes something of an audience chamber for your closest friends and advisors – rather like your room in a student flat, you take your friends in there to talk. Bathing and dressing would happen with an audience.
By the Georgian period, this starts to change. Even for the middle classes, houses become big enough, and easy enough to heat, that children have their own rooms, and so do servants. The bedroom becomes a private place. By Victorian times, well-mannered married couples sleep alone, in adjacent rooms.
It’s important to note that this progress to privacy for sleeping – and for sex – lagged behind for the lower classes. So in that same Victorian period, the working class were still living in dismal two-room dwellings, and having sex in the same room where their children slept.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive enough to expect that bed has ever been the only place to have sex, but also if you’re working a twelve or sixteen hour day, bed may be the only chance you get.
Another strand of the weave. In 1805, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called Intimations of Immortality. In it, he explores the idea that children have purer souls: they’re more innocent and closer to God, and have a purity of vision that people lose as they grow older. At the time these ideas are actually pretty controversial, and he enters a spirited debate with Coleridge. By the mid-Victorian period, the sentimental idea of childhood innocence is pretty much standard. We still cling to it now, even those of us who’ve actually raised children. It is, however, fairly recent, and came out of an age when the children of the working class were being sent up chimneys and down mines.
So, now our children are sleeping apart from us for the most part, and we believe they have a special purity that is tainted by adult things.
At the same time, social and technological advances – notably the printing press and universal schooling – were making visual and written art available on an unprecedented scale. Along came Fanny Hill, and non-political censorship.
The Americans were particularly keen on sexual censorship, as championed by Anthony Comstock. Comstock’s battle against pornography included his championing the banning of anatomy textbooks and birth control information. One noted distributor of “marriage manuals”, Ida Craddock, explicitly blamed Comstock in her suicide note. (Much as I hate to say so, in Comstock’s defence, it seems likely Craddock was not of entirely sound mind.)
Comstock’s aim was to protect those of “weaker mind”:
the assumption always was that if you were well-educated, if you were upper class, you could consume erotica, you could consume pornography, with no ill effects. And there’s a sort of built-in prejudice against what we assume to be sort of uneducated minds, and this was the way Anthony Comstock sort of characterised the danger. He thought that the real problem was that what he called ‘immature minds’ might stumble across material like this. And of course he launched these campaigns to stamp it out. And what he meant by immature minds were the minds of children, the minds of immigrants, because they were always suspicious and to him they were always lower class. And women, who were thought to be weaker, so that they had to be protected.
So. No more porn on the walls. But it’s better, right? Our children are free to be children? Because the sight of consensual pleasurable sex is somehow deeply, inherently damaging to children. “Sexualising” children is bad. Sex is a deeply private thing – and that’s not at all because we regard it as shameful.
From Not in Front of the Children “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth:
Intellectual protectionism frustrates rather than enhances young people’s mental agility and capacity to deal with the world. It inhibits straightforward discussion about sex. Indeed, like TV violence, censorship may also have “modeling effects,” teaching authoritarianism, intolerance for unpopular opinions, erotophobia, and sexual guilt. Censorship is an avoidance technique that addresses adult anxieties and satisfies symbolic concerns, but ultimately does nothing to resolve social problems or affirmatively help adolescents and children cope with their environments and impulses or navigate the dense and insistent media barrage that surrounds them.
Now, these days in New Zealand we censor for a few remaining reasons: drug use, violence and sex. Is it really completely outrageous to ask, what real demonstrable harm is done by depictions of sex? By encouraging a culture where we’re almost unable to speak about sex at all, where we censor it from relationships and put it in the “porn ghetto”, are we really doing our children more good than harm?
I’m actually asking that question, as a Big Fan of evidence-based policy-making. All I really want people to take from this is the idea that censorship is not a natural state, and that our “society” has not always been more repressive than it is now.