"Sex," says the 17-year-old narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, "is something I really don't understand." Well, mate, nor do I. I only know (yes, I'm afraid I do know) that the arms of someone you don't even like – who your head, and your friends, tell you is a total shit – can feel like your natural home on this planet.
And that it's perfectly possible – drearily commonplace, in fact – to feel that a fleeting muscular contraction involving neurotransmitters, endorphins and the sure knowledge that you're king or queen of the universe, is well worth swapping for your marriage, your family, and your pride.
Whatever the Victorians, or Ann Widdecombe, or the smug marrieds on both sides of the political spectrum may say, it was ever thus. From Catullus to Chaucer to Shakespeare to those men of God, Donne and Herbert, right through to that bespectacled owl for whom sexual intercourse famously began "too late", poetry has celebrated the lips, and breasts, and buttocks, and charms of women – and men – who are not their wives. As poet and playwright John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, the ever-versatile Johnny Depp reminded us that the sexual pirates of 17th-century London were just as adventurous as those in the Caribbean. He was starring with John Malkovich, whose sexually voracious Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses will remain, for many of us, a (rather sexily) sinister but enduring image of aristocratic, decadent, pre-revolution France.
Restoration comedy bristles with brittle asides from loose ladies and rich rakes apparently set on triathlons of sexual licentiousness in plots which served as a kind of 17th-century precursor to sudoku. The tradition continued, in drama, and in life. At my mother's local theatre in Guildford the other day, I saw a play by Dion Boucicault, an Irish playwright hailed by Richard Eyre as "a Victorian Andrew Lloyd Webber", and the writer who inspired Oscar Wilde. The play, London Assurance, was written at about the time that the Brontës were dreaming up role models for future prime ministers. Lacking the wit of a Wilde, or the passion of a governess, it was, alas, merely a reminder that bedroom farce, on stage, page or in a double-page spread in a red-top, is, for the most part, numbingly, grindingly banal.
"I married him," announces a Lady Spanker at one point, "for my freedom and he married me for protection." If this was a mild subversion of the historical sexual status quo, but one not that uncommon in Western aristocracies of the past millennium, it was a relatively pithy statement of the kind of pragmatism in affairs of the heart, and genitals, that has generally prevailed. Not always able to match the biblical ideal of a man and woman joined exclusively, and monogamously, for ever and ever and ever, men, and even the odd woman, have made "arrangements". The most common, of course, has been that indispensable marital accessory, a blind eye, but some have been more complicated. H G Wells, Katherine Mansfield and Vera Brittain, according to a new book on literary love lives between the wars, are just some of the writers whose domestic, and extra-marital, lives were constructed to provide maximum freedom and minimum fuss. Not, perhaps, for the lovers squeezed into the tiny gaps in these busy, busy lives, or for the children, but you can't make a nice libertarian omelette without breaking a few little eggs.
In this lovely, liberal world, a world of kings and princes and lords and sometimes poets, cakes were eaten and retained, and laundry that was already scattered around public parks could not be seized and washed. And if your love life was alluded to in the Daily Courant or the London Gazette, who cared? You were red-blooded, goddammit, you were lusty. You had more important things to worry about than a glimpsed tryst with Emma, or Kate or Nell. Publish? Well, why not? As Wellington famously wrote on the blackmail note he returned to his lover, the courtesan Harriette Wilson, "Publish and be damned!"
That, of course, was an ice-age ago, when the market value of a private life was more on a par with poetry and less on a par with a Damien Hirst. Sex, like chocolate, and Kettle Chips,is a kind of drug – and so, unfortunately, is the media coverage of the sex lives of so-called celebs. The more we get, the more we want. It's a terrible shame, but that's the way the chocolate-chip cookie of the zeitgeist crumbles. Your love of a stripy uniform, or a Chelsea strip, or a juicy orange, allied with a nice whip, or garter, or noose, may or may not be an indication of a damaged childhood, an ability to do a job, or a lively sense of humour. And it may or may not matter.
But if you have any claims to fame, or fortune, or public office, and any sex life beyond the constraints of a 1950s-constructed norm, a sense of humour is precisely what you're going to need, in spades. We have, it seems, made our bed – or basement, or sand dune, or desk at the Admiralty Arch – and now, in the full glare of the media, and the internet, and YouTube and, of course, our children, we're just going to have to lie in it.Reuse content