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The eunuch years

Our society is scared of sex, says Philippa Gregory

When they come to name this decade we won't be the naughty nineties, as they were 100 years ago - we'll be the eunuch years. We'll be the decade that tried to take sex off the streets, out of the office, out of courtship, and even out of bed.

This society hates sex, it scares us. It scares us because in a world which is increasingly governed by pompous rules and determined by scientific predictions, sex is a random, unquantifiable agent for disruption. It's like love, in that it comes and goes, obeying its own unknown and unknowable rhythms. It's like tenderness in that it can be triggered in a moment and lost in a second. It's like eating, in that it is a need continually renewed. Sometimes, it's like holiness in that you can lose yourself in it; sometimes it's like perversion in forms which your conscious mind denies. For some, most tragically, it can be like a heartbeat - and when you stop hearing it, you know that you are dying inside.

Too much for the nanny state to tolerate, too disruptive a force for the nervous - and so many people are nervous of so very much these days. Sex has been the target of repressive legislation ever since those who were the governors jealously feared that the masses were having more, or better, or different, and ought to be stopped.

The liberation of women, which was supposed to lead us to the liberation of the human spirit, has been hijacked by the fearful. Men were identified as oppressors, but also recognised as oppressed by our society, potential partners in the struggle for freedom. They have now been elevated by the fearful philosophers into monsters: rapists, child abusers, pornographers and office flirts. Listening to some women talk you would think that the one led inevitably to the other, and that every sign of male desire must be immediately repressed for fear of giving offence or leading to assault.

And as male desire has been defined as a nightmare terror, female desire is increasingly denied by the very people who once celebrated it. Feminism used to be, powerfully, even offensively, about a woman's right to enjoy sexual freedom, just as men had always done. But now some feminist thinkers urge us to non-genital love, to non-penetrative practise, as if the whole idea of sexual intercourse was a male perversion forced upon us women who are, presumably, too stupid to know what we don't want until it is helpfully pointed out to us. They did used to joke that women couldn't say no...

The suggestion is that men want sex and women don't, and that women have to protect themselves against male attempts. The girl magazines are filled with anxiety about 'being sure', 'choosing the right time' and 'doing it responsibly', just another lesson for these schoolgirls to learn. Official sex advice stresses preparedness, readiness, contraceptives to hand, issues thoroughly discussed, everything but a legally binding contract on the pillow. In place of spontaneity, and the urgent unstoppable rise of desire, we have installed a rigmarole of planning which we recommend to our young. Anything to get the heat out of the act.

And if the preliminaries are not correctly completed, if the young couple have not shared their thoughts on disease and conception, if they have been impulsive and wild just for one moment, then we can excuse the girl by blaming male desire. We have invented a new crime - date rape. Perhaps it should have been called criminal regret. 'Date rape' pathologises the sort of mistake which can happen in a hot bed, on a hot dance floor, and when you're both a little drunk. At its worst of course it is rape, and that is a crime - though a crime of power and violence, not sexual desire. But there is a grey area where women are so uncertain of their desire and men so unsure too, that nobody knows what anybody wants. The way to avoid this confusion is not to explore sexless sex, nor to live a fearful life, but to discover the feelings and express them powerfully. The best way to give informed consent is not in complicated therapy-speak but 'Yes! Yes! Yes!'.

And while women are being urged to compete in a man's world, but loathed if they employ feminine wiles or invoke female power, do we see men triumphant? We do not.

We see the tragic, emasculated face of the new man who has taken to his heart the rhetoric of feminism and is now frightened by his own erections. Fancy owning that totem of oppressive matriarchy - The Phallus - and it standing up for itself! The new man does not grope, he does not flirt, his eyes don't sparkle, he does not look - instead he pats the back, he strokes an arm, he hugs. He brings small tokens like pebbles and single daisies, he cooks, he washes up, he empathises. Oh God, he empathises all night sometimes.

The other extreme is the young men who believe the world has no use for them. Decades of unemployment, poor education and concealed poverty has made them as irritable and sad as wolf cubs in a zoo. But it is the lads and lad culture which gives me hope. Their loudness, their bad manners, their assertion of their own pride, even their confusion between bad behaviour and great play, only need a little discretion - and the guiding hand of a good woman who knows what she wants - to become joy.

Philippa Gregory is an historian and author of historical and contemporary fiction. Her novel A Respectable Trade was a BBC screenplay last year. Her new novels Earthly Joys (HarperCollins, £6.99) and Virgin Earth (HarperCollins, £17.99) were published in April. Her witty and subversive take on modern feminism and political correctness, Perfectly Correct (HarperCollins, £5.99), was hailed as 'a treasure' by the Times Literary Supplement

Buy Philippa Gregory's books from amazon.co.uk

A Respectable Trade

Earthly Joys

Virgin Earth

Perfectly Correct

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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