Being on top
What’s more important: understanding sexual desire or regulating it?By John Ryle • 20 February 1986 • London Review of Books • Sexual Desire by Roger Scruton; The History of Sexuality II: The Use of Pleasure by Michel Foucault; Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times edited by Philippe Ariès and André Béjin; No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 by Allan Brandt; Jealousy by Nancy Friday • Revised and expanded • 3,969 words
What is more important: is it the project of understanding why sexual desire is, or has become, a problem for us like no other, fraught with particular anxiety and special perplexity, or is it the task of establishing—maintaining perhaps—principles according to which this desire can be regulated, guided, temporised? The change in relations between the sexes and the concomitant change in relations between members of the same sex—the double alteration that has come over us in the last two or three generations—makes a certain kind of intellectual investigation possible for the first time. The impure hush has ended; the tongues of desire have been freed. Texts that were formerly read selectively, through a haze of anxiety, or feverishly perused for the legitimation of proscribed longings have at length entered ordinary scholarly discourse.
The same alteration does not seem to have benefited the language of sexual ethics, however. Although the freedom to discuss sex without circumlocution has been used affirmatively by sexual minorities for the elaboration of appetite into self-definition, it has not been used by them for its regulation. And the general recognition and institutionalisation of the variety of sexual experience has had a relativising effect on traditional morality—the morality that privileges and circumscribes a single idea of sexual relations. Cross-cultural and trans-historical comparisons, comparisons which make it possible to characterise the still obscure features of our—possibly changing—sexuality, tend to compound this relativism. For a brief period the struggle for liberation from the constraints of traditional morality appeared to provide in itself an ethic for sexual behaviour. But the Utopian vision of sexual liberation has degenerated in practice into a set of hedonistic precepts that hardly constitutes a moral system at all.
The philosophers take the field
This is the terrain vague of our sexual life, the habitat of eros. Science has failed to frame this subtle carnivore. Now the philosophers take the field. In Sexual Desire, Roger Scruton is bent on recapturing eros in the name of the old morality and restoring the troublesome creature to his proper place in the ethical zoo. Scruton is certainly no relativist; for him the two projects described above, descriptive and prescriptive, are inseparable; correct analysis of the nature of sexual desire gives rise to appropriate rules of behaviour; philosophy itself should be concerned “not to explain the world so much as to be at home in it, recognising the occasions for action, the objects of sympathy and the places of rest”.
For Michel Foucault the problem was just the opposite: to separate the two issues and locate the historical moment when sexual desire became a particular focus of moral attention. “What is philosophy,” he writes, contra Scruton, “if not the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?”
In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, which was published in 1976, Foucault’s analysis appeared to conform to the vision of his earlier work on the origin of the modern world in tracing the emergence of what he came to call “desiring man” to a point between the late 17th and the 18th century, with antecedents in the specialised confessional disciplines of Christian monastic life. He discerned in the age of reason a new, sinister shift of interest to the sexuality of children and the relationships between sexual behaviour, normality and health.
But in the present volume, the second, which did not appear until 1984, he explains that the form of his investigation changed, taking him further into the European past than he had expected in pursuit of the practices by which individuals were led to “decipher, recognise and acknowledge themselves as objects of desire, bringing into play between themselves and themselves a certain relationship that allows them to discover, in desire, the truth of their being, be it natural or fallen”.
Why should sexual behaviour form an object of moral preoccupation different from other activities vital to the maintenance of life, such as the supply of food or the accomplishment of civic duties?
This second volume, The Use of Pleasure, the first of what comprise now the three final volumes, is a study of Greek medical and philosophical texts on the proper conduct of sexual activity; the last two, Care of the Self and Confessions of the Flesh, not yet translated, continue the same inquiry through Roman and Patristic literature to the Christian era, concluding, rather than opening, on the threshold of modernity. The brilliant obscurities and grandiloquent gestures that make much of Foucault’s writing so exhausting—exhausting in his lack of exhaustiveness—are subordinated here to detailed exegesis and explications de textes. In a striking departure from his previous practice, Foucault makes full use of current scholarship in the areas in question and gives generous acknowledgment to the work of others.
The underlying question in the last three volumes of the History of Sexuality is a double one: why should sexual behaviour form an object of moral preoccupation different from, or greater than, other activities vital to the maintenance of life, such as the supply of food or the accomplishment of civic duties? And that said, where do the characteristic features of our present “problematised” understanding of the subject come from? Foucault rejects the naive view of paganism as being, so to speak, soft on sex, where Christianity was tough. He also rejects the allied notion that the association of sex with sin entered Western consciousness with the doctrine of the Fall. The difference between the pagan and the Christian view, he says, lies in features of the organisation of prohibitions, not in their severity. For the freeborn male in ancient Greece danger lay in sexual excess or passivity rather than the act of sex itself or the gender of the object of desire. The ideal was virility, not what we now call (in fake Greek) ‘heterosexuality’. Thus pederasty, though acceptable and even admirable, involved detailed moral observances and rules of behaviour, for lover and loved one, including austerity and sometimes renunciation: rules that were more detailed and demanding than those governing marriage in Greek society.
In this, Attic pederasty resembles the courtly love of the Middle Ages. And Foucault argues that in the special Greek concern with relationships between men and youths the beginnings of what he terms the Christian hermeneutics of desire can be discerned. In the course of the Christian era the point d’appui of moral reflection moved to women, giving rise to themes of virginity, proper marital conduct and finally symmetry between man and wife (the last a feature conspicuously absent in Greece). As in the case of courtly love, though, the relation of prescriptive texts to actual practice in the ancient world is problematic. Foucault makes use of detailed reconstructions of the erotic life of Romans and Greeks by such ancient historians as Paul Veyne and Kenneth Dover (whose authoritative book on Greek homosexuality Roger Scruton, oddly, without clear authority of his own , dismisses as “trivializing”), but his interest is strictly in the origin of particular kinds of moral scruple, not in the incidence of their observance.
A fragment of Foucault’s third volume, on monastic discipline and the idea of chastity in the Middle Ages, appears in Western Sexuality, a patchy collection of papers written mostly by French historians and published in France in 1982 as Sexualités Occidentales (somewhere in the translation plurality has been lost and singularity has set in). The most substantial contribution to this group of seminar papers is Paul Veyne’s “Homosexuality in Ancient Rome”. In his account it is possible to see a transition from Greek to early Christian mores: youths and women are neck-and-neck as objects of desire on the part of men, and hence as objects of moral concern.
We see also, reading between the lines, the birth of a cruder idea which may be called the Mediterranean macho paradigm, the notion that virility depends on being on top, and that the gender or even species of whoever or whatever is underneath is immaterial. This alternative view of sexuality, a folk view still extant and not limited to the Mediterranean, must be borne in mind when sex in the West is under discussion. In the West, it is safe to say, neither the practice nor the ideology of sex—even the male ideology—has ever been singular, except in the sense of being remarkable.
How do homosexual and heterosexual experience differ?
In Sexual Desire, Roger Scruton is unconcerned with history or ethnography or with hypothetical points of origin for the play of constraints and dispensations that frames our pleasure in sex. In his view such pleasures and constraints come with the territory. He claims that the salient features of our sexual experience are features of all “genuine social orders” (a term that remains undefined). “What Foucault assumes to be an historical fact,” he writes, “is no such thing, but rather an a priori truth concerning the human person.” His inquiry accordingly takes the form of a phenomenological account of the individual experience of such things as arousal, jealousy, sexual fastidiousness and practices he collects under the rubric of “perversion”.
This is not a book that non-philosophers will be able to read with ease, but Scruton’s description of the lineaments of desire has a meticulousness and elegance that is often a source of pleasure. (In a couple of pages on jealousy he says more than Nancy Friday in a whole book on the subject.) Here is Scruton on the aim of desire:
The bodily unity that lies within my grasp is identified in my thinking with another unity, that of the perspective which “peers” from its face. It is into the well of this perspective that all my desirous gestures are thrown, and I survey its bodily surface for signs of my own significance; thus there arises, within the kernel of that reciprocal arousal which is the natural course of desire, a peculiar thought, and one that is peculiar to those interpersonal attitudes which focus on the “embodiment” of the object. I seek to unite you with your body.
We see the birth of a cruder idea, which may be termed the Mediterranean macho paradigm, the notion that virility depends on being on top, and that the gender—or even the species—of whoever or whatever is underneath is immaterial.
This is a striking thought, and a pleasing one. But is it true? True to your experience and mine? And if not, do we cease to be “human persons”, and become, perhaps, inhuman persons, or human non-persons, denizens of false social orders? Such questions arise frequently for the reader of this book. The descriptive and prescriptive parts of the argument are deliberately undifferentiated. But it is not necessary to accept the exclusive and universal claims made for the validity of Scruton’s account of sexual phenomena in order to appreciate its many local insights.
His initial case for the uniqueness of human sexuality is one I do not think even Foucault would be inclined to quarrel with. The biological substrate of our patterns of desire is something neither of them have much interest in. Both agree that sex must be delivered from the dead hand of scientific medicine. Scruton demolishes in short order the claims of sociobiology and Kinseyism to provide an adequate account of human sexuality by showing how the very notion of desire involves a distinctively human concept of selfhood. This transfigures us, as he puts it, from animal to human. The theological twinge in the language here seems to be an outward and visible sign of an inward religiosity that achieves expression only clandestinely in what is ostensibly a work of pure analytical philosophy. Not for Scruton the Pauline abhorrence of the flesh, nor the Bible-based argument for the purely procreative function of sexual intercourse. (He sees that the latter necessarily involves the proscription of most heterosexual acts.) Nonetheless he manages to establish to his own satisfaction, by analysis of the structure of desire, that the right end of sex, the telos of eros, is not just heterosexuality, but “bourgeois marriage” (his quotation marks), monogamous and lifelong.
Never has bourgeois marriage had a subtler apologist. Those of us who are products, if not practitioners, of this wondrous institution (Is Scruton either? Both? He does not say) might well applaud his epithalamium, that is, if he did not find it necessary in the course of it to exclude every other kind of sexual relationship from moral validity. In his sexual universe there is no sexual variation, only perversion. Sado-masochism, interestingly, is an authorised perversion: he says it is permissible as a prelude to the mutual incarnation of lovers. Homosexuality he is wary of:
It is perhaps not in itself a perversion, although it may exist in perverted forms. But it is significantly different from heterosexuality in a way that partly explains, even if it does not justify, the traditional judgment of homosexuality as a perversion. I say this with extreme tentativeness and knowing that it may be received as an outrage.
Outrage? Hardly. It is just this kind of routine antipathy to homosexuality, the revulsion many people genuinely feel at the arousal of flesh by its like, that requires explanation. Homophobia (bad Greek, but a useful concept) needs to be understood as much as homosexuality itself. What Scruton should be tentative about is the assumption that there is a unity in the diverse experience of homosexual desire that enables it to be categorically differentiated from the similarly diverse experience we label heterosexuality. He has, it is true, already endeavoured to answer this point, as follows: “the opening of the self to the mystery of another gender, thereby taking responsibility for an experience which one does not wholly understand, is a feature of sexual maturity.” But, assuming this is a proper definition, is it really certain that there could not be deep enough differences between two people of the same sex to make such an ineffable experience possible?
What Scruton seems to be implying about homosexual acts is that they are comprehensible in a way that heterosexual acts are not. It is a peculiar argument: you understand your experience, therefore it is not as valid as mine. If, as he says, he does not understand it, how can he speak of it with such certainty? A Wittgensteinian silence might behove him better. Again, one could, at the risk of taking the phrase too literally, argue that there was a “unique opening of the self” in anal intercourse—or “buggery”, as Scruton prefers to call it—which for men is available, principally, in a homosexual relationship. Scruton’s own discussion of this subject is limited by the fact that he clearly considers the act only from the buggerer’s point of view.
If there is a difference between homosexual and heterosexual experience it cannot lie simply in the inscrutability of the other sex. Other differences may be as deep as gender differences—age, temperament, wealth, race, class, culture. And these may reinforce or substitute for gender difference.
Well, perhaps there are still decencies to be observed in scholarly discussion. There seems to be no mode of speech that does not vulgarise or distort, that manages to avoid lewdness on the one hand and the empty precision of genito-urinary medicine on the other. The language of sex, engorged with immense phrases, must detumesce before we can speak with delicacy or ease or exactitude. So let us return to abstractions.
If there is a general difference between homosexual and heterosexual experience—and, who knows, perhaps there is—it surely cannot lie simply in the inscrutability of the other sex. Other differences between sexual partners may be as significant: age, temperament, wealth, race, class, culture. And these may reinforce or substitute for gender difference. But part of the problem with Scruton’s view of the world is that the majority of the people in it don’t get a look-in. Some of his most delicate reflections are strikingly culture-bound: his remarks on the reciprocal effect of blushing, for example, could hardly apply to that part of the world’s population which, being black, blushes invisibly. Despite nods to Islam and eccentric readings in Japanese court literature, the literary and philosophical reference of Sexual Desire is almost exclusively classical and modern European high culture. Its claims to universality are weakened by the lack of anything except the most cursory consideration of the ethnographic evidence. And for this, Scruton depends, quaintly, on Havelock Ellis, whose research was conducted a century ago. A proper examination of the growing body of anthropological work in this area might confirm some aspects of his thesis—that there can be no sexuality without anxiety, for instance. But it would cast doubt—more than doubt—on the contention that a single exclusive form of relation is indicated by the very structure of human sexuality.
Scruton’s defence of this position is undertaken in the shadow, as he sees it, of “a decline in the sentiment of sex”. The visibility and acceptability of homosexuality, he argues, and the “increasingly free play of desire over sexual kinds”, provokes a retreat from erotic love, from desire itself:
My ability to reflect, in so neutral and philosophical a fashion, on the nature of this phenomenon is perhaps already an index of its decline, of the fact that desire does not now have the importance for us that formerly caused men to conceal it in poetry or overcome it through prayer. What we understand of our condition may also pass from us in the act of understanding.
This is a vision of the future that has a surprising amount in common with that of Foucault, who looks forward in the first volume of the History of Sexuality to a time when “people will smile when they recall that here were men, meaning ourselves, who believed that [in sex] resided a truth every bit as precious as the one they had already demanded from the earth, the stars and the pure forms of their thought.”
These two philosophers, so different in temper, one a Burkean conservative, the other a Nietzschean radical, one a dogmatic moralist, the other an anti-moralist who sees constraint and oppression in as many places as puritans see sin—the home-loving Scruton, the restless Foucault—meet in this prediction of a future without the terrors and intensities we associate with the pleasures of the flesh. But what one of them welcomes, the other dreads. Is this genderless brave new world an entirely dreadful prospect? Is it entirely unwelcome? Or entirely likely? Do the current modulations in gender roles and forms of relationship really add up to an escape from meaning and anxiety?
The grim truth of the present situation is that sex has become not less but more fraught with anxiety, not true moral anxiety but the fear of infection, which may enfold numberless moral worries within it. It is not just AIDS. Every venereal disease has been on the increase. A new one, chlamydia, puts several million American women at risk of infertility, for them a more serious threat, in demographic terms, than AIDS. Sex has become a public health problem for the first time since the Thirties, when it was estimated that one in ten Americans had syphilis. The philosophical view needs to be balanced with a consideration of sex as a public health issue and the new controls on sexual behaviour that have arisen from this.
A century of sexually transmitted diseases
Allan Brandt’s No Magic Bullet is a precise account of the interplay of moral and medical concern in the campaigns against venereal disease in the United States (one legacy of which is the blood tests that American couples planning to marry are still compelled to undergo). Comparison with the current epidemic is instructive. Syphilis was a horribly debilitating and potentially fatal disease until the development in 1909 of Salvarsan, the original “magic bullet”. Even then, medical campaigners had to overcome a conspiracy of silence about the subject. These campaigners were not liberals by any means, but they were not hypocrites either. They were moralists striving, as they saw it, to save virtuous wives from infection by faithless husbands and lonely soldiers from indiscretions they would later regret.
They were opposed within the medical profession by conservatives who believed that the widespread availability of a cure for venereal disease would be an invitation to sexual licence. The campaigners won, but the conservatives were right in some sense: the sexual revolution rode on the back of antibiotics as much as oral contraceptives. And to the antibiotics in particular we owe the special culture of promiscuity created in the gay ghetto, the homosexual vector by which AIDS entered the cities of the West. But the new freedom of information that is the positive consequence of the sexual revolution is also responsible in part for the exemplary medical response to the epidemic and the rapid public reaction which will contain it, if anything can.
A long phase in our historical experience of sex begins and ends with homosexuality: the ancient Greek concern with rules for same-sex relationships and the invention of sex without rules by gay erotomanes in the 20th century.
Once more homosexual men are in the front line. It appears, if Foucault is right about the Greeks, that a long phase in our historical experience of sex begins and ends with homosexuality: the Greek concern with rules for same-sex relationships and the invention of sex without rules by gay erotomanes in the 20th century. It is a sad thing that the vagaries of the homosexual impulse in Western civilisation should come to this; and that some of us should die before our time, whether as martyrs to a misconceived ideology of liberation from an equally misconceived ideology of oppression, or as victims of the random violence of nature’s interventions in the affairs of men. It is particularly sad, and ironic, that the victims should include Michel Foucault, who died of AIDS in 1984.
If Foucault’s work has a message it is that our endless questioning, our interrogation of the flesh, is what keeps history going. The play of similarity and difference between the present and the past, the dialogue with the ancestors, engenders the future. At this moment of hiatus many futures seem possible. We are pluralists now: the two-party system of sexual politics is at an end. Socially and politically speaking, there is no longer one thing that unites all women, one thing that unites all men.
For the Greeks the special demands of sexual morality were the perquisite of a privileged class: only freeborn male citizens were expected to concern themselves with such things. We who have extended the idea of freedom and citizenship to all adults of either sex, and are living through the consequences, have yet to establish a culture of collective moral responsibility that corresponds to the new realities of sexual practice. In this respect we are once again in the position of the Greeks, as they are described in a passage from Kenneth Dover quoted by Foucault:
they had no religious institutions possessed of the authority to enforce sexual prohibitions. Confronted by cultures older and richer and more elaborate than theirs, cultures which nonetheless differed greatly from each other, the Greeks felt free to select, adapt, develop and—above all—innovate.
We have access, if we want, to knowledge of a wide range of sexual moralities. In Southern California, or Iran, or New Guinea, or the Amazon. And it may be that in the act of understanding the systems of regulation that other societies have evolved we will be able to discern a habitable future for our own. ★