BOOK REVIEW / At Sixties and sevens: 'Rules of Desire: Sex in Britain since World War I' - Cate Haste: Chatto, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
WHAT caused the Sixties' sexual revolution? The standard answer is the Pill - an oversimplification, but one to which many women who were 'there at the time' play retrospective lipservice. How to reconcile what they say with the 1970 survey that found only 9 per cent of single women had ever used it?

During the real and (compared to today) not so permissive Sixties, the Pill was primarily for married women. By the mid-Seventies it had become the contraceptive of choice for unmarried women in this country, but it has been suspect and increasingly unpopular since 1977, when the dangers of long-term use began to become apparent. In her sweeping but meticulous study of British sexual attitudes, Cate Haste suggests that it was the idea of the Pill, and not its use, that brought about the revolution that didn't get going, incidentally, until the Seventies.

Because the Pill was easier to talk about (you could explain how it worked without a single mention of genitalia), it helped turn contraception from a taboo subject into one that was fit for polite and public discussion. Because it was aggressively promoted by drug companies and doctors, it became more a medical issue and less a moral one. Because it gave the woman control over her reproductive choices, it encouraged her to think she had control over her life. Because it also convinced many men that sex could and should have no consequences for them - that pregnancy occurred when women failed to take the Pill, or take it properly - she soon began to realise that she had lost as much ground as she had gained, and that freedom didn't count for much if you had to support a baby no one would help you hold, on half the salary a man would get. In these and similar discoveries were the seeds of the women's movement.

If you want to understand what happened during the Sixties, Cate Haste argues, you have to go back to the turn of the century and the first assaults on traditional beliefs about sexuality by Havelock Ellis, Sigmund Freud, Olive Schreiner, H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter, Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger and the Webbs. That it took several generations for their ideas about sex and marriage to filter down from the literate rich to the general public is self-evident. Here she sets out to answer the more difficult and interesting question: how?

Although she limits herself to the scandals, legal battles, government policies, church edicts, pamphlets, novels, newspaper articles, letters and papers that make up the public record, and shies away from all but the most educated guesses about what people got up to in private, Cate Haste's chief interest is in the effect the debates had on the people they touched. That is why the book is as diverting and as suggestive as a very good novel.

The early characters tend to the comical because their limits are obvious. H G Wells pontificated about the evil of jealousy only to find himself appalled when his mistress decided to practise what he preached. Marie Stopes was a 37-year-old virgin when she wrote Married Love. She had to do extensive reading at the British Library before she was able to figure out that her first marriage had never been consummated because her husband was impotent. Havelock Ellis suffered from urolagnia - 'sexual arousal at the fact or fantasy of women urinating' - and did not find the coital bliss he preached until he was in his sixties.

Many later victims of repression dismiss their maltreatment with admirable wit. Here is Lytton Strachey on an undergraduate who went to Freiberg to be cured of his homosexuality by a psychiatrist: 'After four months and an expenditure of pounds 200, he found he could just bear the thought of going to bed with a woman . . . Several other wretched undergraduates have been through the same 'treatment'. They walk about haggard on the lawn, wondering whether they could bear the thought of a woman's private parts . . .'

Later on, when the author runs through the witch-hunts and panics of recent memory, the mood is somewhat sterner. But she insists that the 'traditional family ethic' promoted by Margaret Thatcher was not as influential as people say. Although Church and State continue to lobby for control over sexual behaviour, the name of the game is moral pluralism. When it comes to sex and marriage, people act like consumers: they consider the options, and make the choices they think are best for them. More and more (and especially since the arrival of Aids) we are expected to police ourselves.

For better or for worse? You can read the evidence either way. Each advance creates new moral dilemmas, which, inadequately resolved, provide the justification for a retreat. But every victory for tradition and the double standard in turn creates the resentment that is the prerequisite for another move towards greater individual freedom.

This is not quite the view pedalled by your Susan Faludis, Gloria Steinems and Marilyn Frenches. When their latest books were dominating the marketplace earlier this year, critics kept asking why all the major writing on the subject was coming from America. Well, here is a British book on sexual politics so temperate, subtle, balanced and humane that even men - even men who play cricket - will enjoy reading it. The problem, of course - and the reason why Cate Haste is unlikely to supplant the Great American Oversimplifiers - is that English virtues don't sell books. People get the feminist tracts they deserve.