A historian maintains that our brains are driving us toward ‘total body sex’
THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE
A historian maintains that our brains are driving us toward ‘total body sex’
D.H. LAWRENCE’S 1928 novel of adultery, scandalous in its time, is a kind of template for Edward Shorter’s Written in the Flesh. Buried deep within the neural pathways of our brains, argues Shorter, is the desire for sexual pleasure—and for what he calls “total body sex.” What, you might want to know (or be afraid to ask), is that? For Shorter, a University of Toronto professor of medical history, it means the expansion of erotic focus from face and genitals to include the sensual delights of the entire body. This biological drive can be channeled underground for a time—in the case of Medieval Europe, for over a millennium—by a combination of social control (religion) and social conditions (hunger, disease, lack of privacy). But in the end, desire will out.
The human body is only just coming to real life. With the Greeks it gave a lovely flicker, then Plato and Aristotle killed it, and Jesus finished it off. But now the body is really coming to life, is really rising from the tomb.
— Lady Chatterleÿs Lover
The “free and easy” sexuality of the Ancient World, says Shorter, disappeared under the repressive conditions of the Christian era, before reasserting itself in the later 19 th century as daily life improved and the power of religion waned. Our own hyper-sexualized times, which worry many social observers, are the result of another kick-start to the
WRITTEN IN THE FLESH:
A HISTORY OF DESIRE Edward Shorter; University of Toronto Press; $40
sexual revolution, when the 1960s brought effective, widely available and legal means of birth control, removing the last practical brake on our appetites. The sexual “genie is out of the bottle now,” Shorter sums up, “and it’s hard to see how we could stuff it back in.” Or would want to.
So relax, it’s only natural.
You don’t have to be as sanguine about an all-hedonistic society as Shorter is to recognize the force of his argument. It’s not news that humans are driven by the search for pleasure. What is intriguing in Written in the Flesh is Shorter’s claim that past restraints suppressed not just the quantitative aspects of our sex lives—how early, how often—but also their very richness and variety. After Shorter quotes a reference from the Roman poet Ovid to his lover’s aroused nipples, he writes that he can’t find another such comment until nearly 2,000 years later—not in medieval bawdy songs or erotica, not even in such astonishingly frank diaries as Samuel
Pepys’s. And if a sexual practice cannot be found in an era’s pornography, Shorter maintains, there’s a very good chance it’s also missing from the standard repertoire.
The ram-it-home, missionary-position focus of medieval sex wasn’t just a matter of the Church’s linkage of sex and procreation. “That,” Shorter says in an interview, “would be giving too much power to an idea.” Ordinary life in pre-modern Europe was as important: endemic hunger, disease and vermin infestation. Huge numbers of people were lice-ridden or suffered from the distracting itch of scabies. In the 16th century, syphilis cut a new deadly swathe. All these factors dampened both the urge for sex and the attractiveness of potential partners.
The absence of personal hygiene cut into the frequency of genital sex—there are numerous instances of women rejecting husbands who “stank like goats”—and virtually abolished oral sex for two millennia. (That left the gay male “baseline,” as Shorter calls the normative sexual activity in an era, at anal sex, the homosexual equivalent of the missionary position.) Then there was the utter lack of privacy. Entire peasant families, their hired hands and often their animals as well bedded down in the same large room. Parents had sex there, not in full view of the older children but in furtive, quick couplings beneath the covers. Not exactly a life lending itself to scented candles and the slow, mutual exploration of new sensations.
Many of the women who rejected fetid lovers may have been glad of the excuse, given the serious dangers for them. Illegitimate pregnancy, an almost forgotten disgrace now, was a real threat. But nothing compared to the one-in-10 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth that scholars estimate was the norm. Any village girl would have known women—relatives, family friends, perhaps her own mother—who had died literally as a result of sex. For some the danger was an overwhelming truth never far from consciousness—one 18th-century French obstetrician reported that many of his patients were so terrified of giving birth that they vomited after intercourse.
Yet sex there was, of course, and if less of it resembled Merrie Olde Englande stereotypes than we care to contemplate, much of it was unbridled, at least on the masculine side. For evidence of this, as for so many
other aspects of 17th-century life, Pepys’s diaries are invaluable. A senior bureaucrat in the Royal Navy under King Charles II, Pepys (1633 to 1703) was a devout Christian and a happily married man. He nonetheless spent some of his considerable church-going time masturbating or trying to pick up younger women. During one sermon he tried to “take by the hand and the body a pretty, modest maid,” stopping only when he noticed she’d pulled a hat pin from her pocket. Pepys’s entire sexual focus was on himself. After 14 years of marriage, and only with great reluctance, did he caress his wife’s genitals. He was astonished that she liked it, and disconcerted to think she might come to expect it.
Similarly unimaginative sexual enthusiasm can be found in the writings of aristocratic women, who were free of most of the constraints that bound their poorer sisters, and in descriptions of London’s “molly” houses, gathering places for the gay men celebrated in the Earl of Rochester’s 1684 play Sodom, or The Quintessence of Buggery. The lesbian record is far more obscure, illuminated
only by the diaries of Anne Lister, a lusty English country gentlewoman of the early 19th century. “Fred,” as one of her lovers called her, had no difficulty in finding willing partners within her Jane Austen-like social milieu.
So when the lid came off in the later 19th century, in what Shorter calls “the great breakout,” the seeds of modern sexuality burst into exuberant life. Improved health care, early condoms and—crucially—more privacy ushered in Lady Chatterley’s age of the body. Sensations and erogenous zones unmentioned since Ovid appeared in erotica and private writings: nipples, thighs and deep kissing, (we still called it French kissing, a hangover from the 19th century, when Victorian society viewed it as a risqué alien import). And something new under the sun arose— leather, a fabric of no particular importance to the Ancient World, acquired a fetish power that remains undimmed. Heterosexual erotica even developed a daring anal touch, just as the previous homosexual focus on anal sex was giving way to an oral fixation. The ever-growing interest of both male orientations in fellatio can be traced through porn movies—in the 1920s, a third of stag films had oral sex; by the ’60s and ’70s heyday of Deep Throat, that number stood at twothirds; now it’s virtually 100 per cent.
So what does the future hold, when there doesn’t seem to be a nerve ending left to explore and suburban housewives hold bondage gear parties? Further pharmacological adventures in the Viagra age, Shorter predicts, new drugs that will operate directly upon the brain’s pleasure centres. And further, as yet unquantifiable, harm to social values. Shorter cites surveys showing the most sexually active people tend also to be the most suspicious of others, and that community involvement in everything from bowling leagues to political parties has been steadily dropping. Our brains may be driving us toward our individual pleasures, but there’s no telling where we will all collectively end up. 
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