Sunday, December 20, 2009

Havelock Ellis

Modern European Intellectual History - 7
Studies in the Psychology of Sex
The Modernization of Sex, by Paul Robinson

In his essay on Havelock Ellis, Paul Robinson defines a sexual modernist as someone who: 1) held that sexual experience was neither a threat to moral character, nor a drain on vital energies; 2) wanted to broaden the range of legitimate sexual behavior (beyond adult, genital, heterosexual intercourse); 3) argued that women had a sexual existence on a par with that of men and 4) expressed doubts about the traditional institutional contexts of human sexuality (marriage and family) and promoted debate about the human sexual psychology and the paradoxical need for both companionship and variety in erotic life (Robinson, pp.2-3). By this definition, Havelock Ellis is definitely a sexual modernist.

The seven volumes of his monumental work Studies in the Psychology of Sex (which he began publishing in 1897) cover the following topics: 1) The evolution of modesty, The phenomena of sexual periodicity, Auto-eroticism; 2) Analysis of the sexual impulse, Love and pain, The sexual impulse in women; 3) Sexual selection in man; 4) Sexual inversion (homosexuality, this was actually the first volume published); 5) Erotic symbolism, The mechanism of detumescence, The psychic state in pregnancy; 6) Eonism (male transvestism) and other supplementary studies; 7) Sex in relation to society. From my, albeit partial, reading of his works his presentation of the material consists of cultural, historical and biological survey and analysis. Thus, when he considers marriage (in vol. 7) he presents an historical survey of the institution of marriage going back as far as the Romans, as well as considering how marriage is defined in other cultures in our own time. He also looks at the animal kingdom, bringing biology and nature into the picture that he is developing. He casts a wide net in an effort to gain as complete an understanding as possible of the origins and evolution of our sexual behavior.

Ellis considered the sexual impulse in women to be comparable with that of men, but that mere quantitative comparison did a disservice to the sexuality of women. He concluded that the sexual impulse in women was more passive, more complex, less apt to appear spontaneously, more often needing to be aroused and that the orgasm developed more slowly in women than in men and is less easily reached. He also believed that the sexual impulse became stronger after the establishment of a sexual relationship. He was one of the first people to identify erogenous zones, and recognized that women possess more than one. As he put it “the sexual sphere is larger and more diffuse.” He also noticed a marked tendency for periodicity in the spontaneous manifestations of sexual desire in women. He believed that society repressed the sexuality of women, and that the ignorance of both sexes was an impediment to a fulfilling sexual union between them.

With regards to sexual morality, Ellis wanted more personal responsibility on the part of both sexes. In the case of women, this personal responsibility also entailed greater equality under the law (it is difficult to be personally responsible for your behavior when the law regards you as little more than the property of another individual) as well as economic independence. He believed that prostitution and the patriarchal marriage system, which he considered to be linked, were both incompatible with personal responsibility. In his opinion, men had created a system whereby one group of women ministered exclusively to their sexual needs, and another group of women (brought up in asceticism) were candidates for the privilege of ministering to their household and family needs. By abolishing the latter, he hoped that we might abolish the former.

Ellis was not a fan of the institution of marriage as it was defined by the State and the Church (especially the Catholic Church). He believed that the sexual relations of adults were a private matter and not one that society should be involved with. Where society became involved was in the case of children, because these were new members of society. Once again he comes back to personal responsibility, because when a couple brings a child into the world they should be prepared to accept the responsibility of providing for that child. He was very concerned with legitimacy and illegitimacy, and thought that when a birth was registered it was important to identify the father. Having a child does not mean that the couple was compelled to marry, or even live together. He believed that one parent could be as effective as two, especially when the two were not compatible.

In examining alternatives to conventional marriage he rejected the idea of marriage as a contract, as the State might have it, because the parties entering into it don’t really have a good idea of what is in store for them and so could not knowingly enter into such a contract. To him, a marriage should be a free union, willingly entered into, easily dissolved and defined by the individuals involved in it, not the Church and not the State. The only involvement of the State should be to ensure the proper support of any children.

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