George Walford: Sexual Ideology

For a few years there it looked as though the ancient barriers were down at last. The permissive society had arrived. We still had to work, and war, unemployment and other old enemies were just over the horizon, but sex was free. A natural impulse long repressed, it had now burst out and the young, at least, were going to enjoy their nights if not their working days. It hasn’t turned out like that, and not only because a new disease has taken over from the old ones.

Back in the sixties Elaine Morgan was showing that the area of freedom had moved sideways rather than expanded, the race words becoming taboo as the sex words gained acceptance; she reminded us that young women now do not have the freedom of Jane Austen’s time, when they could walk with arms round each other’s waist with no notice taken; young men can no longer sleep two in a bed without implying a special sexuality. Michel Foucault, too, saw the band of permissibility shifting rather than widening; he went farther, damning the idea of sexual freedom as a new mechanism of restraint, and now this perception has spread beyond the theorists:

I’ve never been madly into sex. It’s something I can do without for long periods of time. But today it’s like not having sex is socially unacceptable. I get embarrassed watching a sex scene in a film if people around me know that I’m not getting any myself… the thought of meeting someone terrifies me because at some point I’ll have to go to bed with him.. Surely it’s time the stigma was lifted from the single sexless state. (From an anonymous article in The Big Issue, the journal issued to be sold on the streets by the homeless, January 8)

The impulse may be natural, but the practice is social, and an impulse as powerful as sex cannot balance for long on the slack wire of indifference; in winning freedom for casual enjoyment of it we lose a defence against unwanted participation. The ideology of Domination brings pressure for conformity; if not a requirement for abstention from unmarried sex then one for indulgence in it, but conformity in either case.

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.