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Features

Is any kind of sex still taboo in literature?

Yes. But there are novelists working on that…

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

The first gay marriage will be conducted this Easter, and those who still object to the idea find themselves in a minority. The majority, according to polls, can’t see what all the fuss is about.

How far we have travelled in a relatively short period of time. Until 1967, the punishment for homosexuality was a year in prison, or chemical castration, which was the option taken by Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park codebreaker. At least he has now been posthumously pardoned, so that’s OK.

Extreme though attitudes to homosexuality have been in the past, I don’t think that, as a subject, it ever had the status of a taboo, not properly. Consider the way that, long before the new spirit of tolerance emerged, novelists were able to write about it without censure. Explorations ranged from the subtle, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, to the overt, such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. And such has been its prevalence in more recent years — thanks to the likes of Edmund White, Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Tóibín — that it can now be considered a popular genre.

I would go further and say that it has become a safe subject for literature, almost as tame as heterosexual sex. With the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey, a not very literary novel about bondage and sadomasochism, heterosexual sex doesn’t even register on the cultural radar any more, other than as something to be mocked at the Bad Sex Awards. Forget Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even Updike’s Couples or Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint wouldn’t get noticed if they were published today. In the age of online pornography, there’s nothing to say about polymorphous couplings that hasn’t been said already, nothing remarkable, nothing shocking.


Social attitudes do ebb and flow, of course. Could Lolita (1955) be published for the first time today? I doubt it. The publishers would be surrounded by torch-carrying mobs calling for Nabokov and other ‘paediatricians’ to be lynched. But I can’t see novels dealing with consensual ‘vanilla’ sex, be it heterosexual or homosexual, ever having the power to shock again.

Certain other sexual acts remain taboo no matter what else is going on in society. Take bestiality, necrophilia and, perhaps the biggest no-no of them all, incest. In 1967, there was a limit to the then new concept of tolerance about sex between consenting adults. Even though the Wolfenden Report took its inspiration from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty — and his contention that the law ought not concern itself with ‘private immorality’ — it was agreed that incest should remain a criminal offence. ‘The general feeling of history and society on that matter is that it ought not to be tolerated,’ Sir John Wolfenden declared.

There have, nevertheless, been attempts to tackle the subject of incest in literature. Well, a couple, with a gap of two and a half thousand years in between. There’s the mother and son relationship in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and there is the sister-and-brother affair in Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden.

Other than those, it is only through the odd memoir that the subject has found expression. Very odd in some cases. In Love Affair (2010), Leslie Kenton described her sexual relationship with her father as intoxicating. ‘Breaking the taboo of incest had breached the boundaries of acceptable reality,’ she wrote, ‘forcing us to journey into unknown territory. We turned our backs on the rules and regulations of the world. Sometimes we faced each other with the kind of raw presence soldiers in trenches must experience as, together, they face the enemy’s assault.’

This chimes with Freud’s definition of a taboo as being something that can be fascinating and repellent at the same time. The frisson of fascination comes in the private space, he believed, whereas the repulsion belongs in the public. If that definition once applied to homosexuality, it does so no longer.

Curiously, one of the recurring arguments that have been used by opponents of gay marriage has been to ask: Where will it all end? Norman Tebbit has gone so far as to imagine a world in which he might be allowed to marry his own son. This might seem bizarre as a tactic but actually, if you think about it, it is quite clever. He is out to undermine the idea that homosexuality is a normal form of sexual expression. How? By associating it in the public imagination with incest. Such is the power and danger of that particular taboo.

Nigel Farndale’s new novel, The Road Between Us, is about forbidden love. It is published in paperback this month.

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