Television Review

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The Independent Culture
YEARS AGO, I remember reading a letter in a newspaper from a reader disgruntled by young people who carried on as if they had invented sex; in fact, the reader continued, he personally had invented sex some years previously. The impulse to claim sex as a novelty appears to be universal and ran riot in the first part of The Sexual Century (ITV).

It's true that, compared with 100 years ago, sex is more visible than it once was; and it is likely that visibility combined with contraception mean that there's somewhat more of it about. But it's easy to overstate the amount of it we get now, and to understate the amount of it our forefathers got up to. This programme damaged its credibility horribly in the first few minutes, when we were offered the moulting, broken-billed canard about the Victorians covering up piano legs to avoid lewd thoughts. Over and again, it offered images of repression, such as anti-masturbation suits and harnesses designed to wake the victim of a night-time erection, as if this was evidence of how everybody felt about sex back in the bad old days before sexual intercourse began.

The corollary of this image of Victorian repression is the idea that, these days, we're all liberated and mature about sex. That was quickly quashed when the programme launched into a prurient list of sexual pioneers and their saucy ways. Henry Havelock Ellis? Liked watching women urinate, wife was a lesbian. Marie Stopes? Dozens of lovers, went for younger men. Alfred Kinsey? Gay, liked taking photographs.

All this was highly interesting and accompanied by images of a highly, hem hem, stimulating nature, but the programme failed to make any connection between the sexual activity and the science. Serious criticisms have been made of Kinsey's methodology and results. He sanctioned the activities of paedophiles and exaggerated the prevalence of some forms of sexuality (an associate interviewed here said: "I had a little dab of animal intercourse in my history, when I was a child. He was very interested in that," with a smile that was either self-deprecating or nostalgic). None of that came out. Instead, we heard about Kinsey cruising Roman bars. After a century of liberation, this programme showed that we're still nothing more than a society of smutty schoolboys.

In Dyslexic Criminals (C4), two psychologists went into a Scottish young offenders' institute to test the inmates for dyslexia, guessing that the incidence would be higher than in the general population. In the event, they were startled to find that of 50 offenders tested, 25 were undiagnosed dyslexics. Since dyslexics naturally have a high truancy rate, and since truants have been blamed for a third of all burglaries and car thefts and 40 per cent of muggings, this is surely important.

On the other hand, we don't want to get carried away by the figures. One of the psychologists asked one young man a series of questions to assess his general intelligence: "What is the thing to do if you find an envelope in the street and it is sealed and addressed and it has a stamp on it and it hasn't been used?" There was the barest pause: "Open it." It struck me that dyslexia may not have been the only reason he ended up inside.