Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, June 18, 2015

When Sex Was Invented: Erotic Pleasure in Individual and Collective Memory

By Donna George Storey

“Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three....” My introduction to Philip Larkin’s poem “Annus Mirabilis” came several years ago through a reference in another article that humorously claimed the poet had indeed identified the year when sexual intercourse was invented. Of course, those first two lines beg for elaboration, so I looked up the full poem, which developed the playful first lines into an angst-ridden, ironic commentary on the Sexual Revolution, evocative of a theme close to my heart—the immeasurable damage caused by the silence surrounding human sexuality. Before I go on, I offer “Annus Mirabilus” for your reading pleasure:

Annus Mirabilus

by Philip Larkin

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.

Now, first let me say that although I got my undergraduate degree in English literature, I’ve never felt at home critiquing poetry, in particular determining the “quality” of a particular poem. But I do know what speaks to me, and Larkin’s poem deals with a number of issues I’ve been considering as I attempt to create characters in centuries past who have a pleasurable sex life.

I’ve been enjoying the research greatly and one thread that runs through every discussion of sex in the past is the gap between the public message about sexuality (in the last two centuries it was seen as a base instinct which men must restrain and among females only harlots enjoy) and the things people actually do in their bedrooms, or wherever else they engage in sexual activity. This gap is still in evidence today, of course. For me, Larkin’s poem suggests on one level that “sexual intercourse” is not the act itself but a public acknowledgment and discussion of that activity, bookended by two very public events of an erotic nature: the legal availability of sexually frank “pure” literature and the delirious sexual frenzy that was Beatlemania.

The setting of a date for the beginning of sexual intercourse suggests a personal answer as well: when did sexual intercourse begin for each of us? We all have our personal year or years--the actual first time, the first time it blew our minds, and so on. I know that intercourse must have existed before 1963 because I was born in 1961, my mother in 1930, my grandmother in 1890. But the perpetuation of the human species is an abstract concept. On an emotional level it does indeed seem that such a secret, private act didn’t exist before we personally experienced it.

This is true even today, long after 1963. Yes, we have titillating sex in our entertainment media, all too often served up with violence to reinforce the idea that sex has dire consequences. We have porn, which is hardly a mirror of our experience of sex in the “real” world. But for the most part—and I do appreciate there are some laudable exceptions—“ordinary” pleasurable sex experienced by people we know is not something we ever see or hear about. The thought of our parents or other family members having sex, of anyone not between the ages of 18 and 40 having sex, of any “unattractive” person having sex, of intellectuals having sex (of more or less anyone other than a movie star having sex in the way it is shown on screen) is supposed to elicit outrage and disgust or at best disdainful mockery. Many still insist that the most basic information about sexuality be withheld from the public, especially young people.

I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear my research confirms that sexual intercourse did exist before 1963. Evidence exists in the form of court records involving rape, divorce by reason of adultery and illegitimate children, that is, anti-social sexuality. Pamphlets and medical books exist, most with a repressive social agenda and inaccurate information. For example, in the nineteenth century most doctors believed a woman was most fertile during menstruation like an animal in heat. Literary depictions range from the boundary-breaking hyperactivity of erotica to rare scenes in high-minded works that rely on euphemisms like “they became one flesh.”

A few precious diaries do exist that give us a glimpse into the sex lives of couples who experienced a recognizably enjoyable erotic life. In the mid-nineteenth century, Mary Pierce Poor (as quoted in Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America by Janet Farrell Brodie) records in her diary the timing and frequency of intercourse with her husband in code which provides a surprising amount of information—that they were intimate immediately before and after he was away on business and missed sleeping apart, that they had sex about every five days for decades (a frequency common among married couples today), continued to be together regularly during pregnancy and after menopause, and used some kind of contraception. Far more explicitly celebratory is the diary of Mabel Loomis Todd, a decade younger than Mary Poor and the lover of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin (discussed in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, vol. 1 Education of the Senses by Peter Gay). Todd is forthright in her reports of sexual delight with both her husband and her lover—although, sadly, Peter Gay is unable to resist the requisite high-brow response by mocking her claim that the fifty-something Dickinson was “the handsomest man she’d ever seen.” Maybe he was?

We know, therefore, that at least two women in nineteenth-century America enjoyed sexual intercourse. Fortunately we do have a greater variety of records to verify enjoyment is occurring in our time. Yet I would argue that the voices of ”ordinary” pleasurable sex are still underrepresented. Our medical voices are more enlightened on the whole, although problematic sex is still a focus. Literary sex tends toward the angst-ridden; erotica and porn lean toward an idealized abundance of partners and orgasms. Married couples are assumed to live in bored deprivation. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of the contented feeling no reason to speak up when things are going well?

Again there are exceptions, but in the main, the sexual experience of most people, especially within marriage, remains secret. Maintaining that secrecy is still seen as a good thing. However, to silence and thereby deny such an important aspect of our humanity also denies us a rich, valuable personal and cultural history. If sexuality were a country, its history suppressed, its language silenced, its native art forms outlawed, its citizenry mocked as stupid and shameful, we would say this poor nation has been subject to a cruelly repressive colonialism. Indeed, if honest sexual expression were possible in the past and today, Philip Larkin’s poem would not be witty and poignant, it would be amusing nonsense. Alas, in spite of the optimism at the dawn of the Sexual Revolution, in its aftermath we do not all feel the same. And shame still abounds.

Sexual shame is a powerful and ancient adversary. There is certainly more freedom to speak out now, but we must keep in mind how far we have to go before the game is “unlosable” and sexual intercourse does not have to be reinvented every year. One person can only do so much, but if we talk and write about sexual experience in an honest way, perhaps we can help create an eloquent history for the future?

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

6 comments:

  1. "If sexuality were a country, its history suppressed, its language silenced, its native art forms outlawed, its citizenry mocked as stupid and shameful, we would say this poor nation has been subject to a cruelly repressive colonialism." What a fabulous analogy, Donna!

    I was not familiar with this poem. It certainly reads ironically in this era of plastic boobs and designer vaginas, AIDS and right-to-lifers, gay bashing and jihadi brides.

    I had to stop and ask myself whether sexual intercourse began for me in 1963, but no, it was a bit later (1968 if I'm not mistaken). And the more I read other people's blogs, the more I realize how fortunate I was to grow up with a relatively stunted sense of sexual shame.

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    1. You were very fortunate, Lisabet! I'd love to hear more about how you escaped. I'd bet it was a combination of personal strength and a friendly environment, but it would be good to know how people manage that so we can develop a toolkit of resistance to those pressures :).

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  2. Though she never really "walked the talk", my mom brought me up to view sexuality as totally normal and okay to talk about. Unfortunately she was married to my dad, and he was a different sort of bloke, being from Scotland. She often warned me not to marry a foreigner. I didn't.

    Husband used to be shocked at how I talked in front of our kids, but I told him that I didn't want any of them having hang-ups about sex, so I did as Mom had done, and talked about it as if it were a perfectly natural body function...like eating. Which, of course, it is. Luckily we brought our kids up free of organized religion, so there weren't any negative influences on them.

    Once, when our oldest was in middle school, he was complaining about how in school (we live in a very Christian area), in sex ed classes all they were being taught was abstinence, with graphic pictures of diseased organs and dire threats of the pain and suffering caused by sex outside of marriage. We were at the dinner table, and his 3 younger siblings were eating also. I told him to do and say what he had to do, to pass the class. But to remember that "whenever Winky comes out to play, he needs to wear a raincoat." The boys burst out laughing, my husband spat his food out then laughed, and the youngest child, a girl, asked who "Winky" was. I answered her question, then we went back to having dinner. It was typical of our family dynamics, and I'm proud to have raised to adulthood, kids who have no ridiculous fears/attitudes about something so natural to all life forms.

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    1. What a wonderful story, Fiona! First and foremost, being comfortable enough to engage in discussions about sex with that kind of humor (rather than nasty humor, which is too common in sexual matters) as a family is an excellent foundation for kids. I also talk/talked a lot about sex with my kids, critiquing media portrayals as well as how we are shamed in different ways, as in being shamed for inexperience, which is more of a problem in our liberal town where the high school distributes free condoms on demand. We each have the right to choose if we want to wait for a special relationship or experiment with consenting partners, which is rather different from my youth during the Sexual Revolution, when it felt required to have lots of sex, no matter the quality.

      Anyway, thank you for your heartening response. The past may be a blank, but the future is much brighter.

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