Ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite

The recent revelations of sexual abuse horrify us, particularly when the victims were children.

It is one thing to feel horrified, another to respond in a constructive way. Much of the public response has sounded to me like Guardian readers making Daily Mail responses, which they would not have made if the crime in question was, for example, addiction to illegal drugs.

Because other people’s sex lives always interest us, we are all ears for the stories. But if we go no further, the tragedies will continue.

How to respond?

I think of it like this. Suppose you are the manager of the local branch of a supermarket. One of your regular customers is a shoplifter. You pay close attention to that person.

But if 100 customers are shoplifters, you don’t keep an eye on each one. You look for systemic reasons, and when you think you have found them you look for systemic solutions. Is the problem caused by inadequate security, or a large number of professional thieves, or widespread starvation?

In the same way, if Jimmy Savile was the only abuser of his generation, it would make sense to focus on him. Now we know he was one of many. Something was going on, in that society at that time, which meant many people became abusers. What I long to see is reflective, caring, public debate about what the cause was, whether it is still there, and how our society can celebrate our sexuality while making sure nobody suffers.

Healthy sexuality

To do this, we need some consensus about sexuality at its best. What kinds of activity can we positively affirm, and what limits do we need to set?

Biologically, it is pretty clear that our species would have died out if the sexual libido wasn’t strong enough. Our hormones have to make us reproduce ourselves in every generation. This doesn’t mean everybody has to have children. There is a place for gays and celibates, provided that enough of us produce enough children.

The biological system also has to allow for extreme events. Sometimes huge numbers are killed, so the libido has to be strong enough to build the population up again. On the other hand, sometimes the population density is too high and non-childbearing sexualities need to become more popular.

This much, I think, is true of animals in general. In the wild, other animals mate when they feel like mating. Their hormones do the work. Humans have additional pressures. Before we reach puberty our minds have been filled up with moral rules, economic pressures and social expectations. We can suppress our hormones.

Yet the biological imperative is still there. Our desire for sex and babies has to be strong enough to keep the system going. Not in everyone, but in enough of us. Sexual activity isn’t going to stop, however strong the social disapproval.

So every society needs to inform its members of how to express their sexuality in constructive, socially approved ways. This means positively affirming its goodness while setting limits to what individuals may do. In the past most societies have had something like this.

What went wrong?

Our society does not. Why not? What was it about that generation, now in their 80s and 90s if they are still alive, that got it so dreadfully wrong? If we don’t know, maybe we’re getting it equally wrong now.

What follows is my own, not particularly well researched, contribution to a debate which needs to be opened up. If you can cite references which confirm or dispute it, please let me know.

Although I am a Christian, I recognise that Christianity has been a major cause of negative attitudes to sexuality. It isn’t just the celibacy imposed on Roman Catholic priests. There is a historic suspicion of it, as though every sex act needs some kind of excuse.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the churches were the dominant authorities on sexual ethics. They condemned all sexual activity which was not directed to childbearing within marriage. Even masturbation was deemed wicked, let alone contraception.

Populations were increasing dramatically. More children survived infancy. So what was a married couple to do if they really couldn’t afford any more children?

By the end of the nineteenth century it had become common for middle class girls to be taught that sexual activity was to be resisted. When they got married it would be their duty to resist their husband’s advances as much as possible.

A system like this cannot have done any favours to the women. I write as a man, and I’m more familiar with what it meant for the men. It meant that every expression of their sexuality was forbidden. Whatever they did was deeply immoral. They should be ashamed of themselves for doing it.

If your body is urging you to be sexually active, and you believe it would be deeply immoral, you end up hating your body.

The churches not only reinforced this view, but provided theologies to justify it. Their theories of the Fall and Original Sin normalised self-loathing.

Still, hating your body doesn’t abolish your libido. For a long time many men - I guess most, though of course there are no statistics – were regularly doing things which they knew society would be shocked about. Many no doubt felt desperately ashamed about it too. They did it because that’s what their bodies made them do, but they knew that society wouldn’t be impressed by the explanation that ‘my body made me do it’.

Guilt and secrecy are a potent combination. Inevitably, counter-cultural subcultures developed where sexual practices were confessed, accepted and encouraged: havens where one could escape from guilt. Whether it was a group of priests, or a public school, or media celebrities, the subculture affirmed sexual activity that was otherwise condemned.

Because these subcultures were reactions against a society that forbade all their sexual options, they were unlikely to discriminate between ethical and unethical activities. Monks could express their sexuality with novices, Jimmy Savile with teenage girls.

Things have changed

As I write this, I realise that for many younger people it may seem absurd - as though I am inventing excuses for abusers. For people of my age and older, though, it is astonishing how quickly our culture has changed. The ‘permissive society’ of the 1960s was permissive in accepting the pill and, to some extent, sex outside marriage. It was nowhere near as permissive as today.

The fact that the change has been so quick means three things.

1) It was much needed.

2) Younger people find it hard to understand why their parents and grandparents behaved as they did.

3) We are left with much unfinished business. If a century ago there was a clearly understood system in which sex was only for childbearing within marriage, now there is no clearly understood system. Nor are there clearly understood moral authorities. Establishing them is still work in progress.


Our sense of disgust at sexual abusers, whatever else it does, insists that there are limits to permissiveness. Nobody should feel free to do whatever they want regardless of the suffering caused to others.

The question of power is therefore important. Victims often report that inequalities of power play an important part in sexual abuse. Abuse happens when the powerless and dependent have no choice but to do what the powerful require of them. It needs to be possible for everyone, however young or powerless, to say no without paying a high price.

If so, we are in for a rough ride. Today inequalities of power are much greater than they were in the days of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Peter Ball. Then, there was still a functioning welfare state. Income differences were nowhere near as great as they are now. As the wealth of the richest has increased, so has the number of homeless and starving people. If we want to minimise sexual abuse, one of the most important things to do is to create a more equal society where absolutely everybody can confidently stand up to an employer or authority figure. There are, of course, many other reasons for creating a more equal society, but this is one.

Celebrate and regulate

Every society needs to ensure that the powerful do not force the powerless into unwanted sex acts and that every baby is loved and cared for. Our sexual behaviour needs some regulation.

However we should not allow our horror of the revelations to make us over-react. We must not recreate an oppressive culture where ordinary people are so afraid of public opinion that shame and secrecy prevail again.

Therefore the limits to the acceptable need to be set within a positive context. We should aim for a society where everybody’s sexuality can be joyfully expressed and nobody is harmed.

Our sexuality, while it needs limits, is not something to feel guilty about. It is something to affirm gladly. It is a positive gift to our humanity, a joy to be celebrated.