Education and Sex

There is an old story about the teacher who, perhaps desperate for something to liven up a dull lesson, asked the kids to tell her exactly what they were thinking about as she showed them a picture of St. Paul’s. All went well until she got to one little boy who said he was thinking about sex. Now really desperate, the teacher asked him why he was thinking about that? Because, he said, he never thought about anything else.

Now every adult who was ever a child knows there is a lot of reality in that old joke — perhaps too much reality for the comfort of some parents who deceive themselves that, whatever the neighbours’ children might do, theirs would never defile themselves with anything as messy and abandoned as sexual activity. There are certainly elements of fantasy and self-deception about the current outcry over sex education and about what is called pornography — about magazines which admit that we have pubic hair, about films which agree that human beings take part in sexual intercourse and about shops which sell devices claimed to make the experience more excruciatingly enjoyable. All this, need it be said, at a price — sex is one of our growth industries and there is some shrewd money invested in it.

This money might be thought to be pretty safe; sex, as Marilyn Monroe is supposed to have said, is here to stay. The question is, how should we deal with it? It seems like a dirty trick of human development, that the urge is strongest when we are young, in our earlier teens. But any teenager who indulges the urge and becomes a parent as a result faces severe economic problems; a worker does not expect to reach his peak earning power until he is in his forties.

This does something to explain the theory popular with psychologists, educationalists, and indeed with almost everyone else, that youngsters are emotionally unprepared to have children and that until they reach the magic age of emotional readiness they must control — that is, suppress — their sexual drive. This opens up a gap, between desire and fulfilment, which of course most youngsters try to bridge. Usually this is by masturbation which, they are warned, might cause a vicious circle of loneliness, depression, consolatory masturbation, loneliness more acute, deeper depression . . . (This is a modern, more refined version of the old hell-fire and brimstone stuff about masturbation stunting your growth, or making hair grow from the palms of your hands. Who can dispute that the more knowledge on this matter the better? Who can wonder, that youngsters are restless, in revolt?)

One fact which has not been adequately faced by the Lord Longfords of the world is that the suppression of sexual drives can itself cause powerful emotions, which are often more difficult to control than is a mere sexual urge. Sometimes suppression may mean fairly minor problems like feelings of personal guilt which, however unpleasant they may be for the individual, do not usually extend far beyond himself. But there can be worse; the search for substitute virility symbols in aggressive behaviour — the big motor bike and the black studded jacket, uniforms in the fight with chains and knives. And at the extreme there is the chronic sex offender who can deal with his guilt and frustrations only by unloading them — by shocking or damaging or even destroying other people.

It is tempting — and it may not be entirely unfair — to guess that the vociferous denouncers of sex education are themselves pretty strong on guilt and probably confused by the fact that sex is so eminently marketable. Capitalism, they should realise, does not spurn the chance to make a profit. A lot of the porn which can be bought freely in most newsagents is rather clever, mixing fact with fantasy, titillation with discussion, all on a delicate implication that the reader is virile enough to satisfy every one of those gorgeous, naked girls and to outdo in performance all those kinky letter-writers. More probably the reader is desperately deprived, paying his furtive money in an unhappy attempt to idealise feelings which he cannot manage in any other way.

This is another reality too painful for many people to face. The tragedy is, that there is no reason to feel guilty about sex, any more than about eating or sleeping. Yet the guilt is often instilled in childhood, by parents who extend their property relationship with their children to the point of neurotic possessiveness and who fear sex as a private, exclusive act which separates their children from them. Sometimes the end result of this relationship is the sexual offender, going his lonely way in the public park.

One wonders what valid objection these parents can have to sex education which, after all, takes on a job they feel themselves unable to do, suppressed as they are in the stifling privacies of the family under capitalism. Perhaps they too, on the trim housing estates, sheltering behind the beloved car at the kerbside, fearful of their job and of their standing with the neighbours, need help. But private property society does not give priority to such needs; wage slaves can exist, and be profitably employed, without anyone probing their deeper emotional deprivations. In any case, among the innumerable indignities which capitalism imposes upon human existence, which should have priority for therapeutic attention? Martin Cole, maker of the famous, controversial sex education film Growing Up, obviously thinks that sexual neuroses should be pretty high on the list: “I think,” he said in an article in The Guardian (1/5/71) “teenagers should be promiscuous.” Any more, we might ask, than they should be well fed, secure, healthy, happily creative instead of uselessly employed?

It is worth dragging out the fact that sex is a necessary human function, which must have been performed with some degree of relief and enjoyment by the parents of Mrs. Whitehouse and Lord Longford. Sex can be a uniting factor but it can also be divisive, even destructive. Capitalism puts pressure on us to confine sexual activity to the marital situation (there is little reality in this, of course — even for the working class and less for their masters, who can afford any number of affairs and of children illegitimate or otherwise.) But monogamous marriage is an extremely complex relationship, formed upon many expectations which the partners have of each other — social, economic, sexual and the rest. In rare cases (and whatever the women’s magazines might say they are rare) all these expectations reach some level of consistent fulfilment and the marriage as a result is tolerably stable. In most cases the impossible is not achieved; if the couple are honest enough or rich enough they go to the divorce court.

In this situation it has been difficult for sex under capitalism to be treated as other than a matter of private, almost furtive, shame. This neurosis has been bolstered over time with propaganda of varying degrees of crudity, like the good old theory of original sin and the fallacy that the Roman Empire came to an end, not through any discernible historical reason but because its inhabitants were crazy libidinos and perverts. Then there is the boy-meets-girl theory in which sex and marriage is like a jig-saw puzzle, a matter of waiting until the right shaped piece comes along to fit in with us. (This was once very popular in those women’s magazines and they have always sold as well as any porn.) As the market for pornography develops and as sex education spreads, these attitudes should break down and a newer set of neuroses, probably going under the title of sexual freedom, may flourish and will be twisted and used to justify and bolster the inhumanities of capitalism.

And what will be the end of it? The idea that we stop feeling guilty about sex and simply enjoy it can be extended — should we not also set out to enjoy all types of intercourse and the satisfaction of all our appetites? For example, the vast majority of people spend nearly their entire life doing jobs which they detest and which degrade them to an inhuman level of boredom and servitude. An education which attacked that situation and the damage it causes would be a direct, explicit attack at the basis of capitalism. Yet if the sex educators are to be consistent, if they are to fulfil their professed aim of human happiness and harmony, they should settle for nothing less.

What holds them back? The simple answer, which also applies to so many other reformers whose ideas are superficially sound and attractive, is that they accept the basis of capitalism while they reject some of its effects. Sexual activity is bound up with some extremely powerful human emotions which might be usefully investigated, but only if this is in human terms. The psychiatrists can scrape around on the surface for as long as they are able but they are doomed to failure as long as they remain blind to the fact that only a free, humane society can respect human feelings.


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