Belfast Telegraph

We've become so explicit about sex, there's not a hint of romance left

By Mary Kenny

Sometimes there's a novel that 'everyone' is recommended to read, and although I don't always fit in with 'everyone', I yielded in the case of Stoner, by the late John Williams. Every critic has hailed it as a rediscovered masterpiece (it was published in 1973, now re-issued), so I had to see what the fuss was about.

And yes, it is a touching story, about an unremarkable man's life, its small sadnesses and poignant little disappointments. But it also illustrated something I had almost forgotten: how decorous, how reserved, how tasteful sex scenes used to be in literature.

The bedroom scenes in Stoner are fit for any maiden aunt, or anyone who never wants to read the word 'orgasm' (or its ilk) again. Stoner's honeymoon night was not much of a success. "Like so many others," writes the author (who was born in 1922 and died in 1994), Stoner and his wife "went into marriage innocent, but innocent in profoundly different ways".

He was raised on a farm, so "he took as unremarkable the natural processes of life". His bride knew nothing of such matters. The mismatch of their bedroom expectations is described with chilling accuracy, but without a single line of sexual explicitness. And that's quite a literary achievement too.

It is a reminder that until the sexual revolution, all mainstream books, and certainly all movies and television, were like this: in Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler masterfully sweeps Scarlett O'Hara upstairs to the bedroom, but the camera stops at the boudoir door; in The Sound of Music, we can see that Maria and Captain von Trapp are drawn together by a powerful attraction, but there's no explicit hanky-panky.

It is clearly implied in Frank Sinatra's great musical, Pal Joey, that he has been to bed with the Rita Hayworth character, but you only gather that because she wakes up with a sultry look the morning after (and she's a bit of a scheming widow anyway, as opposed to Kim Novak, the true love, who it is implied he hasn't bedded).

There were sexually explicit books, but they were often banned by respectable literary opinion. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1920s, but it wasn't permitted to be read in Britain until after 1960. Joyce's Ulysses was printed in 1922, but almost universally regarded as a 'dirty book'.

I suppose that younger generations today might ask why were people, in general, so reticent, or so prudish, about the depiction of sexual interplay? Until the last decades of the 20th century, almost everything was implied, or described by euphemism or metaphor (waves crashing stormily on the shore was a much-used visual hint). You could understand that the fear of pregnancy could be a deterrent for unmarried characters in any narrative. But the discretion about sex even applied to characters in stories who were actually married to one another, and were legitimately entitled to have a child.

Social historians of the future will surely ponder on the question of why sex was a cloaked subject for so long, and then how the subject became so open and frank it became almost compulsory.

When Jilly Cooper got into her stride as a novelist, she was instructed to insert a sex scene "every 19 pages" into her rollicking romances. When our national treasure, Maeve Binchy, began publishing, she too was asked to supply something explicit following the same template, though she was true enough to herself to say that just wasn't her gig.

I suppose everything changed because we all began to 'push the envelope' and express ever more daring attitudes. Then there was a reaction against the 'prudery' of times gone by, and the way in which healthy sexual appetites had been repressed by 'bourgeois' morality.

In Ireland, it was usual to blame the church, but this 'prudishness' existed in all cultures, as did ignorance of sexuality, just as Stoner's bride displays.

Yet maybe the reserve with which sex used to be treated might partly have been associated with ideas of romance. Marie Stopes' biographer, June Rose, examined the letters sent to Dr Stopes when she was campaigning for birth control – and 'Married Love' – in the 1930s, and although many letters (especially from men) were about limiting fertility, letters from women often indicated much greater resistance to this social change.

"I came to the conclusion that women sometimes wanted to preserve something about the mystery of sex and love," June Rose told me.

If you reduce the exercise to the mechanics of erection and orgasm, you lose illusions of romance. Or, as Lord Chesterfield unromantically described the sex act in a letter to his son: "The pleasure is momentary and the position ridiculous."

I often think of the aphorism when I watch a TV drama or observe the thrashing limbs and stoat-like squeals in the movies.

The everyday language of pleasure has changed too. 'Making love' has been replaced by 'having sex'; 'desire' by plain invocation of the F-word. It's not that people in the past were prudish – Queen Victoria described her honeymoon night as an experience of "bewildering delight", and Samuel Pepys, were he living today, would be prosecuted for what he writes in his diaries (he would also be accused of paedophilia, as he molested 12-year-old serving maids). Yet for the most part, writers were once allusive in their approach, and the camera hinted, rather than showed. It was all in your imagination, not in your face.'Younger generations today might ask why were people once so reticent and prudish'

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