The Need for Sexual Taboos Seems Constant

Civilisation’s driving force consists partly in the tension between desire and renunciation, as Stagnelius wrote. To create, maintain and develop civilisation’s core, we take the power of desire and realise the importance of sacrifice, the importance of not always maximising every bodily pleasure, to not give in to the desire, passion and self-indulgence, just as with the aggressive feelings, hatred and violence. In this issue of Axess, we feature the two fundamental shifts in the West’s relationship with sexuality, and the disciplining of the same, in the 1100s and the 1700s. The late medieval Provençal troubadours naturally form the run up to the Renaissance, while the libertines of the 1700s are a consequence of the Enlightenment. To some extent, these two epochal changes that take place in desire, eroticism and sexuality are, in our view, opposites. In troubadour poetry, attention is drawn to the love that was held at the expense of lust. Thus are separated the sexual desire of love in a way that, according to William M. Reddy, is unique both in and of the Western tradition. While lust, love and desire in antiquity were presented as dangerous, emotional witches brews that obscured the senses and power to act, love in Renaissance literature came to be broken off from sexual desire and associated with clarity. It is not for nothing that Beatrice serves as Dante’s companion in The Divine Comedy. As can be seen from Reddy’s article, the development during the late Middle Ages can be viewed as a consequence of a resistance to the increasingly puritanical tendencies within the church. The Gregorian reform movement wanted simply to wipe out all sexuality from Christian life, and also within marriage.

The separation between, on the one hand, physical lust and desire and, on the other hand, love and spirituality that was initiated with troubadour poetry (which found their expression in an undercurrent of coarse pornographic troubadour poetry, which does not lag behind today’s porn in terms of sexual excess) is also to be found in the culture that emerged as a consequence of the Enlightenment, albeit in the dualism which tends to recur with reversed overtones. For the time’s fictional heroes such as Laclos Valmont, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Balzac’s Rastignac, emotional commitment and love emerged as a threat to strategic, rational thinking that was necessary for success in society. Sexuality was, by contrast, perceived instrumentally, as something that could be used manipulatively, as long as one was not affected by deeper feelings.

The demystification of sexuality, which thus takes place is in turn the foundation for the contemporary view of sex as Per Svensson discusses in his article, where the development from the 1960s’ sexual revolution carries on up to the present day. An interesting feature of this process, from the Middle Ages to the present day – which, with Goran Burenhult’s article on sexuality’s role in the process of evolution, extends another few million years back in time – is how easily the authorities’ view of sex has been internalised by large populations; similarly the readiness with which the new moralists assume the role of hellfire denunciators of the sexual behaviours that are seen as unhealthy and harmful to both individuals and society. For today’s Swedish counterparts to the clergy of ancient times, it is difficult to imagine a more socially stigmatising crime than to voluntarily agree with another person to have sex and then compensate that person with a gift or monetary sum. To pay for sex, to consume large amounts of pornography, or to engage in sexually wild living, is to fall under the category of ‘sex addiction’, for which several different types of treatment are currently offered. A paradox in this context becomes clear if we highlight those who fanatically advocate new laws and explanations rooted in disease to maintain modern sexual taboos. Quite often we find that the same people who are very upset over the bans, laws and disease attributions, also existed in 1900s Sweden concerning, e.g., homosexuality. At the same time, these same people tend to get very upset if criticisms are made of cultures that currently have (or promote) similar laws regarding sexual behaviour that we had in the Western world during the 1600s, such as the death penalty for adultery and homosexuality. But perhaps this is no surprise. Those who do the authorities’ bidding in questions of sex are often marked by their adherence and unswerving loyalty to power, than to consistency and independence, moral thought and action.

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