SEX KNOWLEDGE IS COMPATIBLE WITH PERFECT REFINEMENT AND INNOCENCE.
The reader who has followed me through the preceding chapters will, I hope, feel that, whatever objections there may be to giving explicit instruction on sex matters to the young, such instruction is immensely to be preferred to the almost inevitable perversion which follows ignorance. If we had to choose between a state of "innocence" and a state of reverent knowledge, many people would doubtless incline to the former. No such option exists. Our choice lies between leaving a lad to pick up information from vulgar and unclean minds, and giving it ourselves in such a manner as to invest it from the first with sacredness and dignity.
Even if the reader is still inclined to think that sex-knowledge is, at best, an unholy secret, he will hardly doubt that it can be divulged with less injury by an adult who is earnestly anxious for the child's welfare than by coarse and irreverent lips.
I am not content to leave the reader in this dilemma. I am confident that the following words of Canon Lyttelton spring from the truest spiritual insight: "To a lover of nature, no less than to a convinced Christian, the subject ought to wear an aspect not only negatively innocent, but positively beautiful. It is a recurrent miracle, and yet the very type and embodiment of law; and it may be confidently affirmed that, in spite of the blundering of many generations, there is nothing in a normally-constituted child's mind which refuses to take in the subject from this point of view, provided that the right presentation of it is the first."
Nothing more forcibly convicts the present system of the evil which lies at its door than the current beliefs on this subject. At present, sexual knowledge is picked up from the gutter and the cesspool; and no purification can free it entirely in many minds from its original uncleanness.
"Love's a virtue for heroes!—as white as the
snow on high hills,
This is the prophet's belief, and yet, putting on one side those who actually delight in uncleanness, there appear to be many people who look upon the marriage certificate as a licence to impurity, and upon sexual union as a form of animal indulgence to which we are so strongly impelled that even the most refined are tempted by it into an act of conscious indelicacy and sin. Such people read literally the psalmist's words: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." It is surely some such feeling as this which makes parents shrink from referring to the subject, which underlies the constant use of the word "innocence" as the aptest description of a state of mind which precedes the acquisition of sexual knowledge.
That individuals, at least, have risen to a loftier conception than this is certain; and the only possible explanations of the prevalence of the current idea are that sex-knowledge has almost always been obtained from a tainted source; and that, while the coarse have not merely whispered their views in the ear in the closet, but have, in all ages, proclaimed them from the house-tops, the refined have hardly whispered their ideas, much less discussed them publicly. Children growing up with perverted views have listened to the loud assertions of disputants on the one side, have witnessed the demoralisation which so often attends the sexual passion, but have received no hint of what may be said on the other side of the question.
An instructed public opinion would be horrified at our sovereign's taking shares in a slave-trading expedition as Queen Elizabeth did. We are aghast at the days when crowds went forth to enjoy the torture at the stake of those from whom they differed merely on some metaphysical point. We have even begun to be restless under man's cruel domination over the animal creation. But we have made far less advance in our conceptions on sexual matters; and we are content here with ideas which were current in Elizabethan days. But for this, no passion for conservatism, no reverence for a liturgy endeared by centuries of use, could induce us to tell every bride as she stands before God's altar that it is one of her functions to provide an outlet for her husband's passion and a safeguard against fornication. Lust is at least as degrading in married life as it is outside it. No legal contract, no religious ceremony, can purify, much less sanctify, what is essentially impure.
Those who desire to assist in the uplifting of humanity cannot afford to be silent and to allow judgment to go against them by default. Courage they will need; for a charge of indecency is sure to be levelled against them by the indecent, and they may be misjudged even by the pure.
This is not the place in which so delicate a matter can be fully discussed, nor does space permit; but if the movement towards sex instruction is not to be stultified by the very ideas which evidence the need for it, the subject cannot be wholly ignored here, and I venture to throw out a few suggestions.
Are we indeed to believe that the noblest and most spiritual of men will compromise themselves in the eyes of the woman they love best, and whose respect they most desire, by committing in her presence and making her the instrument of an indelicate act? A great poet, who remained an ardent lover and a devoted companion until his wife died in his arms—blissfully happy that she might die so—has written:
"Let us not always say,
Again: are we, who believe in a Divine government of the world, able to imagine that God has made the perpetuation of the race dependent upon acts of sin or of indelicacy? Did He who graced with His presence the marriage at Cana in Galilee really countenance a ceremony which was a prelude to sin? Did He who took the little children in His arms and blessed them know, as He said "for of such is the kingdom of heaven," that not one of them could have existed without indelicacy, and that they were but living proof of their fathers' lapses and their mothers' humiliation? Is He whom we address daily as "Our Father" willing to be described by a name with which impurity is of necessity connected? And has He implanted in us as the strongest of our instincts that which cannot elevate and must debase?
Again: it needs no wide experience of life, nor any very indulgent view of it, to feel some truth at least in the words Tennyson puts into the mouth of his ideal man:
"Indeed I knew
And yet this passion is indisputably sexual passion, and the chastest of lovers has bodily proof that the most spiritual of his kisses is allied to the supreme embrace of love. Our body is the instrument by which all our emotions are expressed. The most obvious way of expressing affection is by bodily contact. The mother fondles her child, kisses its lips and its limbs, and presses it to her breast. Young children hold hands, put their arms round one another and kiss; and, although later we become less demonstrative, we still take our friend's arm, press his hand with ours, and lay a hand upon his shoulder; we pat our horse or dog and stroke our cat. The lover returns to the spontaneous and unrestrained caresses of his childhood. These become more and more intimate until they find their consummation in the most intimate and most sacred of all embraces. From first to last these caresses—however deep the pleasure they bestow—are sought by the mother or the lover, not for the sake of that pleasure, but as a means of expressing emotion. He only who realises this fact and conforms to it can enter on married life with any certainty of happiness. The happiness of very many marriages is irretrievably shattered at the outset through the craving for sexual excitement which, in the absence of wise guidance, grows up in every normal boy's heart, and by the contemplation of sexual intercourse as an act of physical pleasure.
And once again: It is the experience of those who have given instruction in sex questions to the young that by those whose minds have never been defiled the instruction is received with instant reverence, as something sacred; not with shame, as something foul. I venture once more to quote Canon Lyttelton, who sets forth his experience and my own in language the beauty of which I cannot imitate:
"There is something awe-inspiring in the innocent readiness of little children to learn the explanation of by far the greatest fact within the horizon of their minds. The way they receive it, with native reverence, truthfulness of understanding, and guileless delicacy, is nothing short of a revelation of the never-ceasing bounty of Nature, who endows successive generations of children with this instinctive ear for the deep harmonies of her laws. People sometimes speak of the indescribable beauty of children's innocence, and insist that there is nothing which calls for more constant thanksgiving than that influence on mankind. But I will venture to say that no one quite knows what it is who has foregone the privilege of being the first to set before them the true meaning of life and birth and the mystery of their own being."
To the arguments thus briefly indicated it is no answer to say that sexual union is essentially physical, and that to regard it in any other way is transcendental. Among primitive men eating and drinking were merely animal. We have made them, in our meals, an accompaniment to social pleasures, and in our religious life we have raised them to a sacramental level.