Let's talk about sex, not sauce

Joan Smith
Sunday 03 January 1999 00:02
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A BUST of the author Arthur Koestler has been removed from public display at Edinburgh University after claims in a recent biography that he was a serial rapist. The bust, in the foyer of the university in George Square, was taken away after students reported "feeling uneasy under its gaze," prompting a retired academic to come to Koestler's defence. The incidents reported in David Cesarani's biography, said Dr John Beloff, had been highlighted by newspapers because they were "a bit saucy". Dr Beloff did not think "one should judge a man because of incidents like that, which usually occurred after too much drink."

I am willing to concede that Dr Beloff, a former member of the psychology department, may have spoken off the top of his head. The story, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph last week, had the air of a ritual exchange in which advocates for political correctness - in this case the students' union and a representative of Scottish Women's Aid - were put up against an old buffer whose heart was, nevertheless, in the right place. What made the story a little tricky for the Telegraph to handle was that the original claims about Koestler were given prominence in its own pages, which serialised Professor Cesarani's book.

The biography revealed not just that Koestler raped Jill Craigie, wife of the former Labour leader Michael Foot, but that sexual violence was "almost a hallmark of his conduct". In the circumstances, Koestler is not an easy man to defend, and Dr Beloff's comments, far from making the Edinburgh students look ridiculous, had the opposite effect of making him appear something of a dinosaur. The word "saucy" is not often used these days, especially not in the context of a series of violent sexual assaults. It conjures up an antiquated world, in which red-cheeked men make suggestive remarks to big-breasted women on seaside postcards.

Its fictional premise, that sex was naughty-but-nice and best kept behind closed doors, was a cover for all kinds of domestic unhappiness. It is hard to appreciate, from the standpoint of 1999, how effective the constraints on reporting rape used to be in the Fifties and Sixties, especially if you knew the man concerned.

Even in the late Seventies, when an old friend asked to stay at my flat and then announced very aggressively, in the early hours of the morning, that he intended to sleep with me rather than on the sofa, I got very angry and threw him out, but it did not occur to me to report the incident to the police.

Half a dozen women friends tell similar stories from the same period, all of us coming to the conclusion that the official response would be searching questions about our private lives rather than a willingness to feel the collar of a potential rapist.

The old sexual mores which took so long to break down - and which have some life left in them, as we can see from last year's confused responses to President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky - were a conspiracy of silence which protected selfish men from the consequences of their actions. They also supplied aggressors like Koestler with a ready-made set of mitigating circumstances - over-sexed, bit of a drink problem - if they got caught.

When I look back at 1998, it strikes me that much of the reaction to Bill Clinton's adolescent gropings in the Oval Office is the last gasp of this outdated cast of mind. This is even true of women like Carly Simon, whose defence of the President is the classic reaction of a Sixties hippie chick who fears that right-on people will accuse her of being hung-up if she criticises a man's sexual conduct. (The women's movement as we know it was born out of disenchantment with the way in which the Sexual Revolution favoured men, a point feminists-for-Bill do not seem eager to address).

The irony is that, in Bill Clinton's case, there is so much to criticise from a feminist, pro-sex standpoint: that he is ashamed of his sexual feelings; that he subscribes to a morality at odds with his own behaviour; and that he is prepared to perjure himself to conceal that yawning gap.

But instead of opening up a debate about lifelong mono-gamy as the approved goal for every heterosexual man or woman - an aim already honoured as much in the breach as in its observance - the problem has come to be per-ceived either as the President's shameful urges or as Monica Lewinsky, who inspired them.

This is a diversion, but an effective one. The day may come when we are able to discuss sex in a grown-up way, acknowledging that marriage is only one model for our sexual lives. We may even reach a point where a woman who likes sex is no longer seen as risible or predatory, something men are entitled to be protected from. But with Monica Lewinsky featuring as the butt of childish jokes in so many end-of-the-year retrospectives, I'm not going to hold my breath. Or worry too much about the reputation of that old monster, Arthur Koestler.

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