Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: The Harvey Weinstein saga is a milestone in history of sexuality since the sexual revolution

Shocking story: Harvey Weinstein during a recent court appearance
Shocking story: Harvey Weinstein during a recent court appearance

By Mary Kenny

I hadn't heard the word "rape" until I was 18 years of age. And then it was as an au pair in France, where the woman of the house was terrified it would occur if I walked home alone at night through a Paris suburb. "Vous serez violee!" she'd cry in alarm. I consulted the dictionary and then understood. But the warning had never been issued when I wandered around Dublin, in apparent safety and without fear, at all hours of day and night.

A sheltered childhood? Maybe. A more repressed Ireland? Almost certainly. In the best academic book written about the sexual revolution, Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher's Sex Before the Sexual Revolution, the two social historians write that before the sexual revolution in the mid-Sixties, young people, and particularly young women, were deliberately kept in ignorance about sexuality.

Basic information was scarce, and even that was hedged about with "taboo and secrecy". Virginity, which was considered important for women, went with "innocence". This innocence/ignorance was often upheld by women themselves.

"Most of the girls I knew were all chaste before marriage," one female respondent told the researchers. "You don't cheapen yourself." Girls wanted to "get married in white", and you couldn't don a white dress for your wedding if you hadn't "waited" for your honeymoon night.

Males were given more leeway - the renowned double standard - but restrictions were sometimes placed on them too. "Many men also believed in the virtue of waiting until marriage before having sexual intercourse."

Young men were told never to swear in front of ladies. "You respected women," a male interviewee said.

As all social historians have chronicled, things changed radically from the later Sixties onwards, with the introduction of the contraceptive pill, mass television viewing, the audacious sexuality of the Rolling Stones - still with us - and a consumer society where a credit card urged people to "take the waiting out of wanting".

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Those of us born in the pre-revolutionary era went a bit mad, I think, once the restrictions were lifted.

Hell, you could do anything! What kind of fuddy-duddy outdated rules were to hold you back?

At first, the sexual revolution was liberating for women. The previous era had not only been repressive, but women were expected to police the standards, and, as we know, were blamed if these standards lapsed. Interviewees repeatedly told Szreter and Fisher that the fear of pregnancy was an inhibitor of natural feelings (and men feared "being trapped" by a pregnancy). Bearing an illegitimate child was a much-dreaded "disgrace". But even a desired liberation comes with costs. Before the revolution, women were empowered, by social taboos, to refuse sexual advances - what we now call "consent" - before marriage. Even after marriage, a "good" husband was expected to be "considerate".

The agony aunts of the Fifties reinforced the message repeatedly: you have more power over your boyfriend if you don't have sex with him. After liberation, men began to acquire the idea that all women were "up for it". In the Seventies and Eighties, schoolgirls began to get taunts of "lezzie" and "frigid" if they didn't comply. The sex revolution had removed taboos, but also raised expectations of performance.

This is some of the background to the #MeToo movement triggered by the egregious Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A disturbing TV documentary earlier this month lifted the lid on his practices: his assumption that every woman was his for the taking, along with some poignantly honest admissions from actresses hoping to "make it" in Hollywood that transactional favours would help them along. Weinstein has become a global symbol of the sexual exploitation of women, though in truth, Hollywood producers have always used the casting couch: stars like Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe were subjected to it, and found the demands humiliating and disgusting.

It's not Weinstein himself who is so significant, but the #MeToo movement that arose from the disclosures about his alleged conduct. #MeToo is a counter-revolution, restraining the liberties that went before. To some extent, it's a puritanical revolution: eras of sexual excess have always been followed by periods of more puritan restraint. There's quite a bit of evidence that young people - millennials born around the turn of the century in 2000 - are a more sedate generation: less inclined to drink, to use drugs, to have promiscuous sex, and often lovingly in harmony with their parents, rather than engaged in generational war. In Britain, reports claim there is a decline in sexual activity in general (in Japan, there's new age of widespread sexual abstinence).

Sociology is not real life. Despite all the taboos and restrictions, plenty of things went on in the past which didn't meet with aspirational standards. Just because I had never heard the word "rape" doesn't mean that it didn't happen.

Privacy often meant secrecy, which also had a cost. But if we're looking at the back story of why Harvey Weinstein unleashed a tsunami of reaction, it could start with the sexual revolution, which affirmed the idea that "if it feels good, do it", with never a mention of consent.

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