I was reading my way through a relatively recent edition of the London Review of Books, and in the course of a review of a new biography of Charles Bradlaugh, the prominent Victorian free-thinker and first openly atheist MP, I came across a reference to Annie Besant. Bradlaugh and Besant were two of the leading lights of the National Secular Society, and lived together for a time, so it’s not surprising that she should be mentioned.
Bradlaugh and Besant took it upon themselves, in 1876, to publish a UK edition of Charles Knowlton’s pamphlet The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People, which gave practical advice and information on a number of sexual matters, including a method for birth control. Bradlaugh and Besant were successfully prosecuted for obscenity, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality. (In this regard they were luckier than Knowlton himself, who served a sentence of three months hard labour in the US for publishing the book there.) Besant’s estranged husband, the clergyman Frank Besant, took the opportunity of her conviction to apply to a court for full custody of their children.
According to the LRB review, in awarding custody to Rev Besant, the judge, Sir George Jessel, cited Annie Besant’s involvement in the publication of The Fruits of Philosophy as part of the grounds for his decision, and explained why this made her an unfit mother:
it would be subversive of all human civilised society if the female population of our country were once imbued with the idea that they might safely indulge in unchaste intercourse without fear of any of the consequences such intercourse entails upon them.
Never mind that the pamphlet was expressly aimed at married couples, who even noted ascetic St Paul conceded should have sex. (And no mention of sex being purely for procreation, you’ll note; St Paul wants married couples to have regular sex as a means of avoiding Satanic temptation, not as a means of making babies). Never mind that birth control might be more to do with ensuring a couple’s existing children avoided a life of poverty than making the lives of the parents more comfortable. Never mind that, at the time, there was still a widespread belief that Britain, unless it could somehow control its population growth, was heading towards an imminent Malthusian catastrophe. Never mind any of that – the merest possibility that the book might make it possible for women to have sex for pleasure, as men always had, made it pure, unadulterated evil. Better women weakened to the point of exhaustion by constant pregnancy should die young; better newborn infants should starve slowly to death because their mothers were too malnourished to breast feed them; better ‘epidemics, pestilence, […] plague […], gigantic inevitable famine’ (in Mathus’ words) should stalk the country: better all of that than any woman anywhere might think of having a bunk up just for fun.
It’s easy to mock silly Victorian prigs for their prudery, of course, but the thing that strikes me is the extent to which the underlying idea – that sexual ‘immorality’ (to use that pejorative term) is the special fault of women – hasn’t gone away. It’s only a few months since the MP Nadine Dorries was causing consternation with her campaign for abstinence education in schools which seemed to envisage celibacy and saying no to sex as, primarily, the responsibility of women and girls. (And that’s without mentioning the furore she caused by appearing on TV to say that, if girls were given abstinence education, they’d be less likely to be sexually abused; in Ms Dorries’ world, apparently, rapists stop when they’re asked.) Her bill called for boys to be educated in abstinence as well, but when she talked about it she always seemed more concerned that girls were saying yes to sex than that boys were asking for it.
Dorries’ approach – popular as it is with certain Christian groups, and elements of the tabloid press – seems to owe a lot to rather old-fashioned ideas about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. It seems that she thinks it’s men who initiate sex, while women wait passively to be asked – God forbid a woman should put herself forward! But it’s also seems that she sees teenage pregnancy as the ‘fault’ of the women falling pregnant. Now as a gay man this is not something I have firsthand experience of, but my understanding is that both women and men are involved in the process of conception, and that it follows that reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy – if that’s our goal – is the responsibility of both men and women.
This is something that the Netherlands, with their enviably low rates of unwanted pregnancy and STIs, seem to have taken on board with their advocacy of the “Double Dutch” method of birth control. Under this approach, women are encouraged to take responsibility for avoiding unwanted pregnancy by taking the pill and men are encouraged to take responsibility for avoiding unwanted pregnancy by using a condom. In other words, the official advice is that both methods should be used simultaneously, rather than the either/or approach promoted in the UK and much of the rest of the world. It’s obvious how this reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancy – the probability of both methods failing or being misused simultaneously is low – but it’s also clear how this underlines the shared responsibility of both men and women. Unwanted pregnancy is the ‘fault’ of both men and women, and therefore both have to take steps to avoid it.
I’m a fan of the Dutch approach to sex and sexuality in general – it seems to me they have a practical, down-to-earth way of handling the topic – but the key thing I want to draw attention for the purposes of this post is the mutuality of their approach. Even if one shares Dorries’ belief that the way to reduce unwanted pregnancy is to teach abstinence, that abstinence should still be the mutual responsibility of both men and women. It shouldn’t be a question of girls being taught to say no to sex, or not to ask for it – it should be a question of boys and girls learning that sexual activity, and all the possible consequences of it, are something they should all take personal responsibility for. The alternative is to fall back on the old-fashioned, unpleasant idea that the way to police sexual morality is to restrict the freedom of women, while leaving men free to do pretty much whatever they want.
As an aside, Annie Besant is fascinating: one of those extraordinary 19th/ early 20th Century women who had a seemingly limitless appetite for new ideas (even if not all of those ideas were consistent with ones she’d embraced earlier) and seemingly boundless energy to devote to various causes. She was, at various points in her life, a leading advocate (in journalism and public speaking) of secularism, socialism, trade unionism, women’s rights, educational reform, freemasonry, theosophy and Indian nationalism. She even served for a year as the President of the Indian National Congress, the organisation which developed into the political party that has dominated India since that country’s independence in 1948. And she achieved much of this at a time when women were prevented from receiving much in the way of formal education, or of pursuing a professional career, or taking a role in established politics. Imagine what she might have achieved if the full range of possibilities had been open to her! Anyway, I recommend reading up on Annie Besant, if you have the time.