BOOK REVIEW / When the guilt comes off the gingerbread: Sex and the British: A 20th-Century History by Paul Ferris - Michael Joseph pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
A FRIEND, browsing through my shelves at New Society some years ago, read out one of the titles with incredulity. 'Sex Without Guilt?' he said. 'What's left?' Woody Allen is here quoted as saying something similar: 'Sex shouldn't be dirty, but it is if you're doing it right.' Less flippantly, Paul Ferris quotes a psychiatrist who was a witness for the prosecution in the trial of a pornographic filmmaker in the Seventies: 'If you take guilt out of sex, you take guilt away from society, and I do not think society could function without guilt.'

It's a serious point and it would make a suitable epigraph for a book like this on sex in 20th-century Britain. Conscience may make cowards of us all, but the lack of it begets monsters of an increasingly familiar kind. Yet to blame pornography is to confuse cause and effect. People get steamed up about it, but the capacity of pornography to corrupt remains unproven and is perhaps unprovable. If ours is a decadent society, then porn should surely be seen as a symptom rather than the cause.

Ferris's book falls into two parts: a conventional bookish history of sex and society in the first half of the century, including such well-known people as Havelock Ellis, H G Wells, the Pankhursts and Marie Stopes, as well as obscurer figures dug out of the yellowed pages of the yellow press; then a more involved, first-hand account of events of the last 30 or 40 years, complete with interviews and excerpts from 'Harry's' diary, the record of a friend's sexual life (I don't think he's an alter ego) which is pretty tame stuff when compared, as it inevitably will be, with its Victorian antecedent, the anonymous My Secret Life.

Anyone who equates sex with salaciousness will be disappointed with this book. Although it is comprehensive and well- written, as you would expect from an author with more than 20 titles to his credit, it makes fairly glum reading. As Paul Ferris says at the beginning, 'the history of sex is written from the point of view of what went wrong', but that's not why it is glum. So many battles have been fought, so much enlightened legislation forced through - and all to so little purpose. Legal abortion, easier divorce, readily available contraception, sex education, the decriminalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults: all these represent considerable progress. But has the sum of human happiness increased?

Perhaps, Ferris reluctantly admits, 'less has changed in real lives in 90 years than we supposed'. We now worry about Aids and porn and child abuse where once we worried about VD and prostitution and the white slave trade. Domestically, despite 'New Men' (a surprising omission here), harmony and understanding between the sexes seem as far away, or further,

than ever.

Ferris ends Sex and the British with a glance at 'Francesca' in south London, 'thirtyish, affluent, married to a professional man, worried about their relationship'. They have 'a sex life of sorts', but the children 'scream louder' than her husband; part of her believes that 'men and women are fundamentally incompatible'; she wants her husband to be romantic, but she doesn't want him 'patting her bottom while she is standing at the sink in rubber gloves'. She blames the media for raising impossible expectations of love and romance and sexual compatibility: 'We were never meant to shut the front door and have one man and one woman inside, saying, 'We can give each other everything'. That's romantic rubbish.' Ferris comments: 'It was the reality of a million husbands and wives: knowing there were escape routes, reluctant to take them; eating their hearts out.'

On a more cheerful note, I liked the story of Mr Jackson, the man who thought up the name Durex on a train journey: what did it signify? 'Durable, Reliable and Excellent.' Well done, Mr Jackson.

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