There is always much smug amusement to be derived from the anxieties and hang-ups of our uptight ancestors - the Victorians and their obsession with self-abuse, or the days of early Hollywood when the Hays Code decreed that a film which included nudity of any kind would spread immorality among audiences. During the 1950s, the publisher Allen Lane was said to have done his bit for the cause of public decency by insisting that a post-coital cigarette smoked by the hero of a novel being translated from the French was, in its English edition, a post-coital pipe.
Government records are often a good source for these idiocies of repression. This week, files released into the public archive by the Home Office have revealed that a lesbian panic gripped Whitehall in 1935. A book called The Single Woman and Her Emotional Problems, dealing with the frustration of women at a time when there was a serious shortage of men, had caused a Mrs Mary Kidd of east Sussex to shop it to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the grounds that it was "a dreadful book and a most pernicious one".
The problem, it seems, was that certain activities which should have been condemned by all right-thinking folk, specifically lesbianism and masturbation, were almost condoned by the book. In the end, the DPP decided against taking action, arguing rather sensibly that these vices tended to become rather popular when publicised in court. A firmer line was taken against foreign pamphlets deemed to have encouraged flagellation and other "unnatural practices", while a small number of books was also seized, including one called Strange Marriage and - has anyone got a copy of this masterpiece? - A Girl and a Thousand Gobs.
These tantalising glimpses through the keyhole of our prudish past have a certain sameness to them. A busybody member of the public, like Mrs Kidd, finds herself accidentally reading something which scandalises her so much she has to report it to the authorities. There, various solid types - policemen, film executives, jobsworths from the Home Office - agonise over what can be done and end up censoring, advising or prosecuting as they see fit. How different life was then, one is tempted to think. How much more grown-up and generally mature we are today.
But wait. There is another story in the newspapers. Teams of people have just completed a careful scrutiny of 200 of the most popular films over the past 20 years. Their quest was simple: to count and record instances of sexual activity, sexually transmitted disease prevention, birth control and drug use.
Having sat through 87 films, the teams had noted down 53 sex scenes in 28 films. Of these, they had been shocked to discover that in only one, Pretty Woman, was there a suggestion that a condom was used. Not a single reference was made to the dangers of unsafe sex. As an example of the sort of problem they faced, the film Basic Instinct was quoted; there were six instances of unsafe sex in the film, and that figure excluded a scene in which a character was murdered with a pickaxe while on the job, which some might argue is the unsafest sex of all.
"The social norm being presented in movies is concerning," the report reads. "The motion picture industry should be encouraged to depict safer sex practices."
The reaction of most people on reading these words will be that some sort of prank is being played. Who in their right mind would sit through over 150 hours of film, checking for unprotected sex and then pronounce to the world that Hollywood should be more condom-conscious?
Yet, astonishingly, we are supposed to take these findings seriously. The survey was published the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. It was commissioned and written by three academics, apparently respectable although admittedly they live and work in Australia, the world capital of busybody laws and guidelines. The British press has, with a reasonably straight face, passed on their findings.
In the broadest sense, the three concerned academics are right. It is time to ring the alarm bell - not for the social norms being presented by the film industry but for the accelerating spread of ill-considered censoriousness, anxiety and disapproval that is all around us. Of late, two powerful lobbies have found common cause. From the right, there are those people who, like Mary Kidd 70 years ago, are eager to find perniciousness in every film, play and book. Meeting them, from a leftward direction, is the growing army of concerned busybodies who believe that those less elevated than themselves need guidance and protection.
The effect on our world of the combined assaults of old-fashioned prudery and liberal nannying should not be ignored. One moment, they will be advising us all on matters of health, eating, parenting, social behaviour and sexual misbehaviour. Then an urgent moral concern will enter the discourse, a sense that the issue is too important for society as a whole for decisions to be left to individuals, a call for something to be done.
The word "appropriate" will enter the discussion at this point and in no time Hazel Blears will be on the Today programme explaining in her stern, caring voice why the Government will soon be introducing legislation to deal with the problem. The sheer silliness of today's condom-counting could easily develop into something rather more depressing and sinister.Reuse content