Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 105
Publication Date: 1906
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This short book of essays by Edward Carpenter is a look at gender roles at the start of the 20th century, and his prescient vision of how those roles might evolve. In the past century many of his then-utopian predictions have come to pass, such as rational sexual education, greater equality for women, recognition of a spectrum of sexual identities, widespread acceptance of trial and open relationships, and the amelioration of the stifling nature of traditional marriage. He occasionally draws on some dubious science, tainted by 19th century prudery and attitudes about women. However, for the most part, he scores some very good points which are still relevant.
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THE subject of Sex is difficult to deal with. There is no doubt a natural reticence connected with it. There is also a great deal of prudery. The passion occupies, without being spoken of, a large part of human thought; and words on the subject being so few and inadequate, everything that is said is liable to be misunderstood. Violent inferences are made and equivocations surmised, from the simplest remarks; qualified admissions of liberty are interpreted into recommendations of unbridled licence; and generally the perspective of literary expression is turned upside down.
There is in fact a vast deal of fetishism in the current treatment of the question. Nor can one altogether be surprised at this when one sees how important Sex is in the scheme of things, and how deeply it has been associated since the earliest times not only with man's personal impulses but even with his religious sentiments and ceremonials. Next to hunger it is doubtless the most primitive and imperative of our needs. But in modern civilised life Sex enters probably even more into consciousness than hunger. For the hunger-needs of the human race are in the later societies fairly well satisfied, but the sex-desires are strongly restrained, both by law and custom, from satisfaction--and so assert themselves all the more in thought.
To find the place of these desires, their utterance, their control, their personal import, their social import, is a tremendous problem to every youth and girl, man and woman. There are a few of both sexes, doubtless, who hardly feel the passion-who have never been "in love," and who experience no strong sexual appetite--but these are rare. Practically the passion is a matter of universal experience; and speaking broadly and generally we may say it is a matter on which it is quite desirable that every adult at some time or other should have actual experience. There may be exceptions; but, as said, the instinct lies so deep and is so universal, that for the understanding of life--of one's own life, of that of others, and of human nature in general--as well as for the proper development of one's own capacities, such experience is as a rule needed.
And here in passing I would say that in the social life of the future this need will surely be recognised, and that (while there will be no stigma attaching to voluntary celibacy) the state of enforced celibacy in which vast numbers of women live to-day will be looked upon as a national wrong, almost as grievous as that of prostitution--of which latter evil indeed it is in some degree the counterpart or necessary accompaniment.
Of course Nature (personifying under this term the more unconscious, even though human, instincts and forces) takes pretty good care in her own way that sex shall not be neglected. She has her own purposes to work out, which in a sense have nothing to do with the individual-her racial purposes. But she acts in the rough, with tremendous sweep and power, and with little adjustment to or consideration for the later developed and more conscious and intelligent ideals of humanity. The youth, deeply infected with the sex-passion, suddenly finds himself in the presence of Titanic forces--the Titanic but sub-conscious forces of his own nature. "In love " he feels a superhuman impulse--and naturally so, for he identifies himself with cosmic energies and entities, powers that are preparing the future of the race, and whose operations extend over vast regions of space and millennial lapses of time. He sees into the abysmal deeps of his own being, and trembles with a kind of awe at the disclosure. And what he feels concerning himself he feels similarly concerning the one who has inspired his passion. The glances of the two lovers penetrate far beyond the surface, ages down into each other, waking a myriad antenatal dreams.
For the moment he lets himself go, rejoicing in the sense of limitless power beneath him--borne onwards like a man down rapids, too intoxicated with the glory of motion to think of whither he is going; then the next moment he discovers that he is being hurried into impossible situations--situations which his own moral conscience, as well as the moral conscience of Society, embodied in law and custom, will not admit. He finds perhaps that the satisfaction of his imperious impulse is, to all appearances, inconsistent with the welfare of her he loves. His own passion arises before him as a kind of rude giant which he or the race to which he belongs may, Frankenstein-like, have created ages back, but which he now has to dominate or be dominated by; and there declares itself in him the fiercest conflict--that between his far-back Titanic instinctive and sub-conscious nature, and his later developed, more especially human and moral self.
While the glory of Sex pervades and suffuses all Nature; while the flowers are rayed and starred out towards the sun in the very ecstasy of generation; while the nostrils of the animals dilate, and their forms become instinct, under the passion, with a proud and fiery beauty; while even the human lover is transformed, and in the great splendors of the mountains and the sky perceives something to which had not the key before--yet it is curious that just here, in Man, we find the magic wand of Nature suddenly broken, and doubt and conflict and division, entering in, where a kind of unconscious harmony had erst prevailed.
And the reason of this is not far to seek. For in comparing, as we did a page or two back, the sex-needs and the hunger-needs of the human race we left out of account one great difference, namely, that while food (the object of hunger) has no moral rights of its own, and can be appropriated without misgiving on that score, the object of sex is a person, and cannot be used for private advantage without the most dire infringement of the law of equality. The moment Man rises into any sort of consciousness of the equal rights of others with himself his love-needs open up this terrible problem. His needs are no less--perhaps they are greater--than they were before, but they are stricken with a deadly wound at the thought that there is something even greater than them.