"Mary Archer isn't getting enough." "You can't really call it a marriage can you?" "It was her school that made her both loyal and frigid." Those were the kind of things being said this week about the wife of the disgraced novelist Jeffrey after she claimed in a Channel 4 documentary: "I have never thought that sexual fidelity is either necessary or sufficient to keep a marriage going. Life is about a lot more than sex."
Strange that her words should evoke such comments when few would actually disagree with her. Anyone who gets out of bed knows life is about more than sex. We can all agree that the absence of philandering is not enough to sustain a relationship and there is many a pairing that has survived an affair - so what was it about her neat summation that raised the collective eyebrow?
There are two reasons why her words stirred up speculation. The first is that, while they are true in themselves, we strongly suppose they were acting as a smokescreen for something bigger. During the documentary we heard Lady Archer of Weston-super-Mare deny Jeffrey had committed perjury, claim he lies no more than most people and assert that his eight-year affair was a fling. This displays a rather coquettish relationship with the truth.
In a marriage in which her husband was a serial philanderer, we can only imagine how many lies, half-lies and outright whoppers have been whitewashed by her "life is about a lot more than sex" claim. That is how her words so true could sound at once so hollow.
But there is another more interesting reason why I reckon Lady Archer rattled the keyboards of the commentators - to suggest you are not interested in sex is, in today's culture, the ultimate taboo. We can snigger with Graham Norton, dress up in Ann Summers underwear, or aim to do it live on reality TV, but we can not make out that we don't get turned on.
In a talk at the London School of Economics last year the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach said, "As a society we see the erotic as a central part of our lives." She claimed there are countless thousands of couples who no longer have sex but are too ashamed to talk about it because of the premium we place on being sexually alert. Yet there was Lady Archer, without a hint of shame, suggesting that sex is neither here nor there to her. If Orbach's research is accurate, then there are many who would privately agree.
One of the fascinating aspects of sexuality is that we experience it in enormously different ways at various stages of our lives. At some points libido seems to be at the very core of our beings, at others it seems to hover around the periphery. Sometimes we want sex like we want to stay alive. Other times we want it like we want a cup of tea. Sometimes an orgasm is like scratching an insect bite. Other times it's like being rent open and exploding through the cosmos. It is common to make an analogy between the desire for food and the desire for sex, but they are very different in this respect. Sex is not like food, something we cannot survive without. It is more will-o'-the-wisp than that.
Contrary to what is generally supposed the Church portrays the puckish nature of sexuality more deeply and vividly than any secular account of it. On the one hand, the Church claims a marriage is not a marriage until it has been "consummated". This makes sex far more important in the eyes of the Church than it is in the eyes of the state. When Pope John Paul II says in Familiaris Consortio that marital sex "represents the mystery of Christ's incarnation and the mystery of his covenant" he is making a pretty lofty claim.
On the other hand Christianity's founder member was celibate and for centuries celibacy has been an important part of church tradition, cocking a snook at the notion that playing between the sheets is an essential component of being fully human. For sure, some priests have failed in celibacy by having affairs or worse, but there are many more religious who are vibrant, dynamic and sensuous people despite never having sex, or maybe even because of it.
In depicting sex as profoundly important and paradoxically unimportant, the Church has captured something of the protean nature of sexuality. It is offering a more expansive and realistic vision of what it means to be sexual than the myth that sex is good for your health, much like eating vegetables and drinking plenty of water.
There will always times when our libidos recede to the back of our consciousness - be that due to contentment or sickness, infidelity or familiarity, winter cold or summer heat. Our society does not encourage us to recognise that we can live those times as loving and creatively as we can our periods of rampant horniness.
If I were Lady Archer I could have no truck with the lies that are an inevitable part of an eight-year affair but her assertion that "life is about a lot more than sex" is one our lop-sided culture badly needs to hear.
Jo Ind is the author of Memories of Bliss: God, sex and us (SCM Press)Reuse content