A BOOK ABOUT SEX BEFORE ITS TIME
1993 was, though coincidentally, the thirtieth anniversary of what Philip Larkin termed ‘Annus Mirabilis’ – the year 1963 – which stood for the dawning, at least as he saw it, of the socio-sexual changes of that tumultuous era known since as ‘The Sixties’. I must admit to having overlooked the anniversary: my aim was to follow on a previous oral history, THEM, which had dealt with the memoirs of a selection of first-generation immigrants to the UK. Now I was turning to sex. The aim was also to tip the hat to slang’s use of the monosyllable, which has euphemised the penis, the vagina and their conjoint intercourse as it since the 17th century.
The book was only sporadically reviewed and those notices it received were less than kind. Literary editors being, then as now, eager for ‘controversy’ sent it only to those most likely to condemn: ideologically conditioned feminists. It was suggested by one that I had used the interviews as a stimulus and that while disguised by microphone and machine I had pleasured myself with brisk games of pocket billiards. Another, having savaged it, admitted when we met at a festival that she hadn’t actually meant what she had written but ‘it was what was expected’. There were no royalties.
What was also expected, I knew, was some kind of taking of sides, some kind of moral stance, some kind of obeisance to current bien-pensant attitudes. I saw no point in this: my goal was to permit people from as many positions on the sexual spectrum as I could find – and my failing no doubt was not to range far further – to talk as freely as they felt capable. I had no wish to judge; I don’t believe I ever pondered the idea. The brief paragraphs with which I prefaced sections of intercut speakers and those that introduced the longer interviews devoted to a single individual, may be interpreted as hinting at my opinions, but their intent was disinterest. In any case, a large number of my interviewees opted for anonymity, and the descriptions I allotted them had little to do with the reality of their lives. It was up to them, and not me, to put forward their point of view.
Twenty years ago I noted in the introduction that for all the talk of sexual revolution the 1890s were not quite so far as proclaimed from those of the next century: Victorian values, with which we had been force-fed throughout Mrs Thatcher’s reign, were subtler and far more nuanced than a simple shorthand for repression. My professional focus is now wholly on slang – quite coincidentally I began my major dictionary, eventually published in 2010, in the year that IT was published – and have not kept track of changing sexual attitudes. My sense however, based on the endless and unchanging repetition of slang’s basic themes as regards the topic – the penis as weapon, the vagina as snare, heterosexual intercourse as man hits woman – is that in the world of human sexuality little has changed. Gender relations seem to ebb and flow, but the world of ‘slut-shaming’ and the current (August 2013) spate of vicious and misogynistic attacks on outspoken women via social media, does not make for fantasies of some golden upland of civilised relations. Meanwhile the daughters of my reviewers continue to corral the victim role in any struggle that pits woman against man. Beyond ideology business is much as usual. Prostitution undoubtedly persists in all its forms. People seek pleasure and are willing to pay if that is what must be done. The US panics about the ‘hook-up culture’ but do the morality peddlers remember nothing? Students, among others, fuck. Sex, as IT tried to make clear, simply is. Nothing else. Perhaps we have no ability or desire to learn? Perhaps it ain’t broke and in that case why fix it?
What has changed – and this can of course be inscribed above pretty much any aspect of the contemporary world – is the technology. The Internet has turned the world upside and set the ground moving so as to make it impossible to find the old stabilities for any practical time. It is well-known that of all this new technology’s ‘killer apps’ pornography is the ultimate success story. The ‘top shelf’ triumphant, and nothing hidden ‘under the counter’. The only question being whether the millions of consumers are willing – here as elsewhere on line – to pay. That said, Lindsay Honey, who was conducting a successful but relatively small-time porn career in the book, must now have made his millions via his Ben Dover brand – but if the form of delivery has changed the content has not, and his product doesn’t seem to stray that far from ‘readers’ wives’. And what is the name ‘Ben Dover’ but a cheery nod to Britain’s sexual avatars: the seaside postcards of Donald McGill and the animated double entendres that were Carry On movies.
Speed-reading the text I can see that certain cultural references have probably vanished; the Broadcasting Standards Council has gone (knee-jerk product of a contemporary moral panic), I am not sure what happened to Feminists against Censorship nor indeed Men against Pornography, but so fissiparous is the Internet that they or some equivalents can almost certainly be found, albeit under new proprietors. Everyone has grown older, and perhaps moved their interests elsewhere; a number of my interviewees, sadly, have died. One of those, Oscar Moore, fell victim to AIDS, which bulks large in the text, though today it seems to be considered, if at all, to be a Third World problem. Meanwhile one cultural indicator, which in 1993 most people would have seen as little more than quaint, or if critical, the province of the marginal and the mad, has returned with a vengeance. Religion was something other people did – on the whole egregiously doltish Americans – and played little part in British life. Were I to recreate IT today, I imagine I would find a different picture.
Jonathon Green’s Voices From the Sexual Revolution, published by ER Books, e-book edition (454 pages in original print version), £4.30 can be downloaded here.