Sex, Kicks and Comfort - Charles Radcliffe

"HOW DARE YOU READ THAT FILTHY BOOK IN PUBLIC!" I am unaccustomed to unwarranted acts of verbal aggression on London buses but I rather think the middle-aged, flower-pot hatted woman who said this to me, about Dr. Comfort's book, is typical of the vast mass of individuals for whom any public acknowledgment of even the existence of sex is filthy. Madam, it may be filthy but it is certainly here to stay.
Alex Comfort's views on sex provoke somewhat explosive reactions. His recent widely-reported, BBC appearance which doubtless appeared to most anarchists as a sane and moderate viewpoint, occasioned another public roar of indignation from the outraged guardians of the anti-life idea.
His latest book* is similarly moderate in tone. It will doubtless cause as much offence to those who value 'real' sexual freedom, as it will to the Beaverbrook newspapers and the Moral Re-Armament movement. It will be a pity, however, if anarchists whose views are 'more libertarian' than Comfort's do not read this book, for it contains a clear, undogmatic argument for an understanding and less guilty enjoyment of "the healthiest and most important human sport". It also contains a serious, considered, witty and penetrating analysis of the social and psychological pressures against sex, its discussion and enjoyment.
Sex in Society is not really a new book: it is a revised, clarified and lengthened version of Sexual Behaviour in Society, which was first published in 1950 (which in turn grew out of his 1948 Freedom Press volume Barbarism & Sexual Freedom). Comfort clearly states its basis: "The view put forward here is based on the form of rationalism and humanism which seems to the author closest to the general spirit of experimental science: that no form of sexual behaviour can be regarded as unacceptable, sinful, or deserving of censure unless it has demonstrable ill effects in the individual who practises it, or on others."
This refreshing honesty sets the tone for the rest of the book. Comfort starts by examining the purposes of sexual sociology and by demolishing some of the anti-life, anti-sex myths which make it almost impossible to discuss the real issues seriously and calmly.
He finds a steady direction in the medical literature of sex, part of a tradition whose concern was "far less to ascertain facts than to

* Sex in Society, by Alex Comfort (Duckworth, 21s.).

uphold existing belief by exhortations and threats … Every deviant form of sexual behaviour … was not only morally wrong, but, in case that failed to check it, ruinously unhealthy as well". This was the echo of the anti-life tone of the 'overt culture'. It led to terror theories surrounding masturbation (though, as Comfort says, any physician who had taken the trouble to check among his colleagues could have discovered that most of them had masturbated and the hideous ill effects were wholly imaginary) and even heterosexual intercourse, "a dangerous business which was grudgingly admitted provided there was not too much of it — the risk of excess being always at hand to prevent over enthusiastic enjoyment".
Much of this will be familiar to anarchists, as well the temper of the whole book and I do not therefore propose to give a synopsis of Comfort's very clear ideas. What I want to do is to give some indication of his views on a number of subjects and to try in this way to convey the spirit of this extremely valuable book.
Sex in Society is both an assertion of the need for individual judgment and freedom, and an attempt to clear the deadwood of sexual taboos which are designed to prevent anything so un-English as sexual enjoyment and also to cause a great deal of unnecessary guilt, unhappiness and confusion. The main effect of giving the public scientific information, and of attempting, through a co-operative endeavour between education and psychiatry, to end the long-standing association of sex and guilt, is "likely to be a gain in candour and realism and the good done by letting in so much fresh air is likely to outweigh the possibility that a few may catch cold".
But there are powerful traditional forces ranged against what one BBC producer has called the 'New Morality' (of which Dr. Comfort is the leading apostle), not least of all in the legal field. An isolated sex offence may well have been committed as a simple experiment but, as Comfort points out, to say so in court will probably ensure "a spiteful sentence and a judicial homily on corruption. Judges do not experiment in this field — only in the vicarious satisfactions peculiar to punishment and moralism". It is, on the evidence, far more likely that sexual behaviour will reform the law, than that the law will reform sexual behaviour.
Comfort deals only briefly with the association between sexual guilt and the desire for unlimited authority. He has dealt with the subject at length and in great detail in Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State* but the short piece in Sex in Society indicates that the authorities are likely to remain the most vocal opponents of any rational re-shaping of our sexual behaviour patterns.
That this is likely to be the case is further shown by Comfort's brief but devastating comments on atrocity propaganda. This indicates very clearly just how much the power structure has to lose through rational sexual education of the public. The reaction to an atrocity

* Routlege and Kegan Paul (1950).

story is one of sexual excitement, of a kind which individuals will rarely admit to themselves and they react by conscious indignation against the alleged perpetrator of the atrocity.
Equally official censorship favours sexual violence and hatred rather than sexual tenderness and love. "Love is corrupting and dangerous — violence is cathartic and wholesome, besides being politically useful". The real truth about pornography is that it disturbs. "Murder does not disturb the would-be censors. Normal coition does. This is the real lesson of the campaign against Lady Chatterley. If she had been disembowelled under erotic but less explicit circumstances, that would not have been liable to corrupt us, whereas coition might". We have been effectively cut off from any artistic tradition celebrating the physical experience of sexuality. "The depictions of coition in Hindu temples … idealise genital pleasure as we have idealised death and barrenness. A Hindu may have difficulty in understanding art in which mother and child are the conventional symbol of virginity, but he will be familiar with asceticism — European taste, however, has banished genital sexuality altogether, and is now experiencing the need to re-grow a self-amputated limb."
Again, venereal disease is used as a weapon in the 'defensive war' against rationalism, for with the advent in Europe of syphilis the conception of the sinfulness of sexuality received "a physical and inescapable sanction. Syphilis, like the code of ecclesiastical morals was no respecter of persons". But the cure cannot be an institutional one, although this is as popular with politicians as it is predictably unsuccessful, but a radical reform of patterns of living, as predictably successful as it is unpopular with politicians.
The odds are against rationalism and the picture is a gloomy one — most anarchist ones are — but Comfort is reasonably hopeful. Furthermore the picture is based, not on vague threats of eternal damnation or warnings of proximate occasions of grave sin, but on the scientific evidence, as it appears to Comfort and interpreted in the light of his admitted prejudices.
What are the solutions? Comfort finds the monogamous marriage pattern most likely to be successful and the one which appears most suitable to the bringing up of children, providing them with emotional and social stability and security. He finds little evidence for believing that children would benefit from communistic upbringing in a complex modern society, even if it were to be 'free'. However the pattern must be flexible, providing for individual needs. There must be no coercive measures, such as the tightening-up of divorce laws, because "in a society that itself creates, by its attitudes and climate, the conditions of failure in marriage, they are as ineffective in bringing about such changes as punishment of the barometer is in modifying the weather". The pattern should not be rigid because “a good many marriages and a good many personalities require two partners.” To complain, in such cases, of immorality or unfaithfulness, is simply to create difficulties where none might have existed. The clue to a better adjusted sexual code is contained in the now-famous Comfort 'commandments', which form the basis of the 'New Morality': "Thou shalt not exploit another person's feelings and wantonly expose them to an experience of rejection" and "Thou shalt not, under any circumstances, negligently risk producing an unwanted child".
Comfort thinks we may come to consider that "chastity is no more a virtue than malnutrition" yet among many contemporary adolescents this is already an accepted ethic. In these circumstances it is an elaborate and cruel farce to deprive the younger generation of elementary knowledge of sexual hygiene and contraceptive technique. When such adolescents continue to have sexual intercourse, as they will, the dangers arising from inadequate or distorted knowledge are just those dangers which the responsible adult should be attempting to prevent. It is as ridiculous to attempt to ban sex as it is cruelly irresponsible to turn a blind eye.
What place has political action in altering these failings? In terms of the traditional politics, little or none, Comfort thinks. But while sociology supersedes politics, in the same way as epidemiology supersedes magic, it does not supersede individual or group action in defence, or furtherance, of life-centred values — just those values which traditional politics totally or partially ignores. And the society in which he visualises sexual and mental health becoming an overall reality will be one based on agriculture and technology, a 'paraprimitive' society, decentralised and demechanised yet making full use of technology to serve its own ends, and based on groups and communities acting together, voluntarily, for specific or unspecific ends, as occasion demands.
However the old-style methods for attaining this end are hopelessly outdated. Revolution, in the sense of mass movement against one institution in favour of another, seems farther off than ever. Comfort comments, somewhat acidly but equally aptly, that "the depression of those who wish to revert to this pattern of political reform is fully justified. So is the depression of those surviving enthusiasts who hope to abolish cancer by means of amulets, or malaria by purifying the air". This is not to rule out 'revolutionary' action — the application by any number of people of progressive sociology to life will involve such action — but to emphasise that the new revolution is very different from the old. Comfort recommends G. R. Taylor's Conditions of Happiness (Bodley Head) (1949) as the best exposition of the 'new revolution' but adds that, broadly speaking, the guesses of anarchists like Godwin, Bakunin and Kropotkin have been confirmed by sociology.

The tenets of the 'New Morality' can be spread through an effect on 'the intellectual climate', through institutions (though in practice these tend to be inimical to progressive-ism) and through psychiatric work. Affecting the intellectual climate is change at the drawing board level and psychiatric work a change at the repair shop level but work through institutions is at best an uneasy amalgam of both and at worst a positive menace to rational ideas. Comfort makes it all sound rather easier than I think it is. The undesirable social pattern of the present militates against the desirable social pattern of the future. "At the crudest level, one cannot rear children 'in a stable home environment' if one is going to be put in the street by the landlord as soon as pregnancy becomes evident; one cannot develop happy marital relationships if one is to be conscripted and sent abroad, or unemployed and anxious or compelled to live at close quarters with in-laws for lack of a house. At the subtler level one cannot easily be mature and secure in a commercially competitive society where nobody knows their neighbour, and where nuclear war is round the corner. Nor can one expect to be happy, permissive and adaptable if one has been reared by parents who laboured under these social handicaps."

The answer to these problems amounts in effect to sexual direct action and the encouragement of resistance to irrational authorities, resistance based on the modification of individual, and ultimately social, attitudes. This, again, is not as easy as it sounds. The enemies of sexual freedom are ranged heavily against the 'New Morality'; they range from governments to senseless psychiatrists, from the middle aged woman on the bus to clergymen and doctors, many of whom "seem to possess more than their proper share of innocence … the last quality … of value in giving advice to the sexually perplexed. Its possessors are very often as wise as doves and as harmless as serpents".

Comfort also believes that a literature of sexual enjoyment, written at the level of books on ballroom dancing, would be useful in providing pleasure and heightening the play element in our sexual relationships. There are very few European works in this genre, although marriage manuals, of one drivelling sort or another, make up in quantity what is lacking in quality.

Comfort concludes his book optimistically. He thinks the force of progressive sociology will be felt and in the liberation of family and sexual relationships he sees the possibility of a victorious conclusion of the struggle against unreason, power and death, the struggle with which he has been concerned for many years. He argues his case as forcibly and eloquently as ever but I cannot help wondering if it is as easy as he thinks. I find his optimism encouraging but unrealistic. I have a horrible feeling that the sociological revolution will, after all, have one big thing in common with the other revolutions and that it will be bought out, or die or be killed. I hope I'm wrong because I know that sociology is a better, more humane, more relevant ally, and one more likely to be successful, than the barricade compulsion which directs so many people. But has truth very much relevance when the force of tradition opposes it?

However, I have written at length on this book because I believe it to be an important, interesting and often brilliant piece of scientific writing, one which is as witty as it is serious, as informed as it is informative, and as readable as it is valuable. I commend it to every serious anarchist.

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Apr 28 2018 17:41


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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