August 2011

Arts & Letters

What’s sex got to do with it?

By Anne Summers
A Victorian-era postcard an age-old problem. © Wikimedia Commons
‘Sex: An unnatural history’

If I were to nominate the key milestones in the history of human sexual activity – where ‘progress’ is considered to be sex becoming more enjoyable due to the removal of unpleasant, dangerous or even fatal consequences – these would be, without argument: the invention of penicillin, the legalisation of abortion, the decline in maternal mortality and, of course, the introduction of the oral contraceptive.

When penicillin became widely available in 1944, gonorrhoea and syphilis – the two principal sexually transmitted diseases until the 1980s – became treatable and, in the case of gonorrhoea, curable. In the United States cases of syphilis peaked at 600,000 in 1945 and hover around 11,000 today. Gonorrhoea, or ‘the clap’, is still with us, especially among sexually active young people, and is often co-existent with chlamydia and other STDs, but it is treatable. (Although resistance to antibiotics is starting to be observed.)

In Australia it is almost unheard of for a woman to die as the result of an abortion, but prior to 1971 (by which time judicial rulings had made abortion legal and therefore medically safe in NSW and Victoria) the death and injury rate was high. The Public Health Association of Australia claims that before legalisation 25% of all maternal deaths were attributable to abortion.

Death in childbirth was a constant in the Victorian novel, reflecting the hazards of parturition for past generations of women. Medical advances and improved hygiene have seen this danger diminished to the point that Australia now has one of the lowest rates of maternal mortality in the world, although even today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women still die at more than five times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians.

The Pill, by promising to pretty much eliminate the likelihood of pregnancy, gave women an unprecedented newfound sexual freedom and definitely helped launch the sexual revolution. Each generation of women since its introduction in 1961 has, if they took the Pill, been largely spared the monthly anxiety of missed periods and the dread about what to do in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.

But no little pill is a panacea. For all its benefits, the Pill has not solved all our sexual problems (and in fact is irrelevant to many of them). Some of the claims made for how it has changed us are, to put it mildly, exaggerated to the point of absurdity. For instance: “The Pill triggered a chain reaction that’s resulted in staggering changes, not just to our sex lives but our social order, even our biology. We are no longer the same people we were in 1961. We’ve got new bodies, new brains, new behaviours.”

This is the startling conclusion to the weird six-part SBS series Sex: An Unnatural History (screening Fridays at 10 pm from 29 July), which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Pill in Australia. The premise of the series, repeated at the beginning of each episode, is: “The last 50 years have seen a revolution in the ways we have sex, unparalleled in human history.”

That’s also a big call. You just have to consult Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and his other writings to dispel the notion that the ways we have sex have changed since 1961. Who can seriously claim that the notoriously great lovers of the past (Lord Byron, Casanova, Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, the legions of eminent courtesans whose names are no longer remembered) were constrained in the ways they fornicated? And let’s not forget the ordinary folk who, left to their own devices over the centuries, were able to figure out an infinite variety of carnal delights.

To say the Pill changed our lives is true, but to imply that it solved all our sexual and related problems is not the case. As social commentator Wendy McCarthy AO tells us in episode one (‘The Revolution’), women still died from abortions after the Pill had been introduced. She also points out it did not stop us catching STDs such as herpes.

There is disappointingly little discussion of the problems of the Pill in these programs. No mention that when first introduced it was prohibitively expensive for many, subject to the same 27.5% luxury tax that applied to cosmetics. It was only when Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972 that he removed this tax and placed the Pill on the National Health Scheme list, which reduced the cost to an affordable dollar per month. It was also extremely difficult for single women to find sympathetic doctors who would prescribe it; in those days there were no women’s health centres and ‘family planning’ was for married women only.

Nor does Sex: An Unnatural History make the point that the Pill was not foolproof, even when it came to its primary purpose of preventing pregnancy. You had to remember to take it each day, a habit that some women found almost impossible to acquire. An even greater problem was the side effects of the original high-dose Pill.

After the heady freedoms of the early days many of us decided that the trade-off was not worth the bloating, the nausea, the sore breasts, or the risks associated with taking the Pill and smoking (we all smoked). We simply stopped taking the Pill and throughout most of the ’70s relied instead on the diaphragm, a messier and less reliable option but one that did not make us feel sick.

Today’s ‘low-dose’ Pill suppresses ovulation using just 1.2% of the hormone dosage of the original Pill. But even though the modern Pill has few side effects, only about one-third of sexually active Australian women take it. So it is difficult to make the case that the Pill alone is responsible for the ways in which our sexuality might have evolved.

Sex: An Unnatural History contains lots of interesting and at times surprising material, including some jaw-dropping descriptions of how the everyday sexual repertoire of young people today differs from that of their parents.

I was especially fascinated by ABC journalist Stephen Crittenden’s contention that the decline in confession in the Catholic Church can be traced back, and linked to, the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae that stunned the Catholic world by re-affirming the proscription on use of contraceptives by married women. Millions of Catholic women worldwide, my devout mother among them, took the radical step of ignoring this Papal directive and ‘shopping around’ until they found a priest who would absolve them of this ‘sin’. Those who could not find a forgiving priest simply stopped confessing, says Crittenden. The Church has never recovered.

The series is described in its promotional material as being both “factual” and “playful”. Not consistently factual, I’d have to say, when there are errors such as the claim that Saint Francis Xavier founded the Society of Jesus. This will come as a surprise to the Jesuits who since 1540 have honoured Saint Ignatius of Loyola as their founder and first general. Perhaps because it is written by Mark O’Toole, an award-winning comedy writer, Sex: An Unnatural History is certainly playful – but often puzzlingly so.

The redoubtable Julia Zemiro, who is the series’ presenter, is required to undertake a dazzling number of different and at times confusing roles. One minute she’s introducing the episode, telling us how much the Pill changed us. Then she’s conducting a serious interview, often in a bizarre location (she talks to an anthropologist in a paddock, a family planning expert in the back of a taxi, a group of “women who were sexually active in the 1960s” standing awkwardly in a corridor). Next it’s a quick costume change from her usual stylish jeans and leather jacket to a towel (to visit a nudist colony), a wedding frock, full hippie regalia – complete with yellow aviator glasses – a priest’s robes, a laboratory coat and, most dramatically, period costume when she plays a maiden chased upstairs to a boudoir by a randy knight.

In between skits and interviews, she quips and puns non-stop on everything from condoms (“the same old tragic frangers”) to the infamous orgy of 1788 when female convicts landed at Sydney’s Farm Cove (“a nation was born, not with a bang but with lots of them”).

Although this is a series about sex, not ballet, Sir Robert Helpmann’s famous dictum “the trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music stops” is quoted, providing the opportunity to show yet another nude sequence.

As you would expect with an SBS series about sex, there is plenty of bonking, actual and simulated, tons of nudity, lots of animals going at it, graphic images from eastern and western pornography and as many people going down on each other as you’d see in an average Fassbinder film. Ascribing all this activity to the Pill is a bit of a stretch but if you like to watch you probably won’t give a damn.

Anne Summers

Anne Summers is a Walkley Award­–winning journalist and author. She was formerly the Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review, the Australian correspondent to Le Monde and the editor of Good Weekend. Her books include The Lost Mother, On Luck and The End of Equality.


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