A very short history of sexuality

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All You Need to Know: Sexuality. By Charlie McCann. Connell Publishing; 121 pages; $14.99 and £9.99

SOME ASPECTS of the natural world, such as the speed of light, do not change, while others, such as our bodies, are in flux. Still others remain constant but are perceived in ways that keep changing. Sex falls into this last category: the mechanics of reproduction have not evolved over time, but views about what it means are always shifting. You need only to cross borders or jump a few decades to see that the simple pleasures of one society are often the high crimes of another.

The unceasing conflicts over sex may well arise from the sexual urge itself, which Plato said works with the “most raging frenzy” and “utmost violence”. Plato saw the sex drive as a mad subconscious effort to reunify humanity’s fractured soul, while for St Augustine, the genitals’ persistent demands were God’s retribution for the sins of Adam and Eve. Of late, unsettled views on sex are entwined with questions of power—both political and corporeal—and violence. “To tell what is wrong with rape,” wrote Catherine Mackinnon, an American law professor, “explain what is right about sex.”

Judging by recent headlines—#MeToo, pussy grabbing, rape on campuses, at work and by the clergy—it seems Ms MacKinnon’s dour perspective has resonated. Sex is contentious because it burns at the flashpoint between power, identity and existence. It has always been that way and the subject is never exhausted. At last count, there were more than 6,000 books about sex published in 2018 alone. Add to that the mind-numbing volume of porn careening through the internet and it is evident that the appetite for all things sexual is unquenchable. Through it all, sex is supposed to be fun and, hopefully, loving, but confusion often clouds the pleasure.

Enter Charlie McCann, the author of the latest book in Quarto’s “All You Need to Know” series of thin volumes on big subjects. In just 121 pages, Ms McCann cavorts through more than two millennia of fluid exchanges using humour, deft selection of fascinating anecdotes and an admirable resistance to polemics to accomplish what most of her predecessors have failed to do: provide a guide through “the ever-shifting constellation of meanings orbiting around sex in the West”.

Ms McCann, deputy digital editor at 1843, is at her best when she focuses on the status of women and homosexuals. We learn that women in ancient Greece, thought to be sexually unquenchable, were sequestered at home both before and during marriage, lest their appetites generate illegitimate offspring and cast doubt on the dominance of their male protectors. Yet while sex was defined by male dominance, female pleasure couldn’t be entirely ignored. Prevailing medical doctrine instructed that conception was impossible without mutual climax, so men needed to pay at least minimal attention to their partners’ needs. At the same time, sex between men was a neutral affair, so long as men played the active, penetrative role. Passive homosexuals, like prostitutes and slaves, were beneath contempt.

“Sexuality” follows these sad threads through the following centuries, when Christianity demonised all non-reproductive sex under the protean capital crime of sodomy, and women were alternatively viewed as either insatiable temptresses or meek creatures “not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind”. At the same time, until the late 20th century men were permitted to rape their wives at will.

The book walks shakier ground when it leaves the dusky climes of antiquity and medieval Europe and moves into the current era. It hits many of the high points, including the medicalisation of sexual desire, the development and legalisation of reliable contraception and the movement of pornography from bottom drawers into the mainstream—all factors contributing to female and gay liberation and the sexual revolution. However, the book all but ignores the backlashes to these developments, leaving the erroneous impression that the liberation of sex from outside restraint is all but complete.

Equally disappointing is the missed opportunity of lending historical perspective to today’s controversies. The fears expressed by many conservatives about sexual permissiveness are not mere reactions to the sight of smutty magazines at newsstands: they are also based on longstanding biblical teaching that transgressive sex is not only a wrong itself, but a trigger for divine retribution against all. By the same measure, the recent push to equate all prostitution with sex slavery, and to suppress pornography as a form of rape, reflects a unique coalition between evangelicals and certain feminists outraged at the repercussions of the sexual revolution. The book might have spent a few pages unlocking these subjects, as well as the race and class issues that are almost always laced through sexual politics.

But, for all its misses, “Sexuality” is a welcome, entertaining and very smart romp through a complex subject. Sex is always on our minds; this book helps us know what we are thinking.

ERIC BERKOWITZ*

*Our policy is to identify the reviewer of any book by or about someone closely connected with The Economist. Eric Berkowitz is a writer and human-rights lawyer and the author of “Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire” and “The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities”

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