These apparently very different books—a cultural history and research on American sexual mores—actually address the same issue: the attempt to reconcile morality and the sexual impulse. A typically puritanical endeavor, because the puritan, with his eternal bad conscience about things that may not please God, that is sin, goes through mental, moral, and behavioral contortion in order to legitimize what he likes to do in bed. As Edmund Leites admits, the Catholic attitude is different: The Catholic Church foresees and expects moral failures in all men and provides the sinner, ex post facto, with assurances of a safe return. These are called sacraments of penance, and while their efficacy is by no means automatic (genuine contrition is needed), their availability offers confidence in God’s forgiveness.

The puritan needs other guarantees, namely a moral life with no slippery occasions, for fear of falling into the abyss. Every daily act (family, business, foreign policy) must thus be moral, a tension impossible to sustain for anyone who is not an Oriental guru. Gandhi, for example, tested his own moral muscle by sleeping with a young girl in his bed—and not touching her. While the puritan does not go to such lengths, he devises other safeguards. In Leites’ words, the combination of erotic delight and moral constancy is best located in marriage. However, at the end of the Puritan era in England, the Restoration comedy said out loud what males thought of this formula: When the initial passion ebbs away, the husband looks for other outlets, outside marriage. Yet the demand for constancy persisted and engendered complicated forms of sexual hypocrisy that Leites analyzes at length in Richardson’s novel, Pamela. And that is when Dr. Freud came in. . . .

In Sex and Human Loving we have a kind of caricature of the puritan attitude to sex and sin. We are now in 1986, not in the centuries of English and American divines, of Cromwell and Richardson. In other words, constancy with its moral roots is no longer fashionable, new substitutes had to be found for both terms of the formula, sexual and moral fulfillment. The puritanical mind has come up with a number of substitutes, but first of all it replaced the pastor’s sermon and the moralist’s treatise with scientific sexology, sex therapy, psychoanalysis—and statistics. The overall method, as it is the case with reductionism in general, removes the topic itself and puts its trust in the process of sampling, of counting noses, or rather orgasms. It does not occur to the authors—inverted puritans that they are—that by ignoring the awe and excitement surrounding sexuality and by focusing on the physical and immediately psychological mechanism of the thing, the object of research slips away and we are left with mere behavioristic accounts. At best with the voyeur’s and the lecher’s temptation.

But even so, the puritan’s approach needs guarantees that sex is not sinful, that it is natural, social, tensionrelieving, scientific, teachable, and capsulizable within how to manuals. God is, of course, no longer present, and sin too has been absorbed by the blotter of the new culture. Yet, the puritan’s sense of guilt is irrepressible, no matter what the label; it may be explained, compressed, socially justified, or diluted in some ideological message and in sexual hygiene, but something remains that needs taming and reassuring. Hence the proliferation of books about sex, the way catechisms used to proliferate or the “mirrors” of princes and courtiers.

The upshot of this universal discussion of sex is devastating. It is enough indeed to read the chapter heads in Sex and Human Loving—”Gender Role,” “Intimacy and Communication Skills,” or “The Future of Sexuality”—to eliminate all enjoyment from sex. (Let’s continue bearing in mind that the puritan purpose is to avoid sin, even at the price of, especially at the price of, experiencing pleasure.) But the (bitter) laugh comes really with the 16 practical recommendations (pp. 452-461) designed to render any virile male impotent: “Always remember that good sex begins while your clothes are still on”; “Take time to think about yourself as a sexual being”; “Fantasy is one of the best aphrodisiacs you can find”; “Keep some romance in your life”; and after all this refrigeration of sex in the name of sexology, this gem: “Don’t make sex too serious.”

But the whole book is so damn serious that one can only pity its victims, the eager young—and old—couples who read it. Instead of studying the text, they may of course concentrate on the illustrations of sexual techniques, repulsive in their “scientific” explicitness, but perhaps causing arousal. That must have been the publisher’s idea, in view of increased sales.


[The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality, by Edmund Leites; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press]

[Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving, by William H. Masters, Virginia E. Johnson, and Robert C. Kolodny (Boston: Little, Brown) $24.95]