No sex, please, we’re Protestants

The on-going orgy of suicidal sex hysteria in Westminster has attracted much coverage and received many explanations, most of them correct.

People talk about feminism spinning out of control, and they’re right. Others highlight power struggle in Parliament, with sex ‘impropriety’ used as a weapon, and they’re right too. Still others argue that our politicians merely reflect the rapacious decadence of modern Britain, and they definitely have a point.

The more intrepid commentators even mention the possibility of a conspiracy aimed at paralysing the government, forcing a new election, putting Corbyn into 10 Downing Street and derailing Brexit – and, much as one is wary of conspiracy theories, they may have even more of a point.

All such commentators are telling the truth, but none of them is telling the whole truth. They can’t be blamed for that: the whole truth has too many strains to cover in a format short enough to hold the attention of our newspaper readers.

There’s enough material there for a longish book, and I hope some publishers are reading this and taking note. Meanwhile, let me point out another strain that largely goes unnoticed.

Here’s a simple question: why is it that the current hysteria over ‘sex pests’ behaving ‘inappropriately’ or ‘talking out of turn’ affects mostly the US (as represented by Hollywood) and Britain (as represented by Westminster)?

Now Hollywood actresses waxing indignant about powerful men making passes at them scales the heights of hypocrisy that no satire can reach.

From the time the first film was made in Hollywood, there has hardly been an actress who hasn’t slept and/or munched her way to the top. All, well, most, of those enraged Valkyries ought to take a look at their careers, realise how cloyingly phony they sound, and shut up.

But are Americans and Englishmen in general friskier than, say, Italians or Frenchmen? No one who has observed the flirtatious, sex-charged atmosphere at dinner parties in those countries will believe so. Do ‘les anglo-saxons’ have stronger libidos? Oh please.

Compared to, say, Berlusconi, Mitterrand or Hollande, not only a run-of-the-mill Tory MP but even King Priapus is a eunuch. Moreover, most of those chaps’ shenanigans have been lovingly covered by the press in their own countries and beyond.

So were their political careers destroyed by their amply publicised proclivity to stray? Of course not. No one gives much of a damn. People read such accounts for entertainment value, not as lessons in morality.

Then why the US and UK? You’ll notice one common feature in the two countries: both are predominantly Protestant. That is both are predominantly atheist now, but before they realised that man was created not by God but by Darwin, they had had centuries of Protestantism behind them.

By now they’ve produced the worst possible hybrid: religiously atheist and culturally Protestant. Their atheist side wants to lay every woman they see, except perhaps Diane Abbot. Their Protestant side says they’re going to burn in hell for it – and, in this life, may well be punished by bankruptcy.

That most don’t even believe in hell in particular or God’s punishment in general is neither here nor there: the genetic memory of that belief lives on. As a result, they combine sexual profligacy, unrestrained by any universal moral tethers, with revoltingly sanctimonious hypocrisy.

Consequently, they tend to tinge eroticism with the kind of sleaze one seldom encounters in the southern part of Europe. One doesn’t see in Paris, as one does in Amsterdam, seventeenth-century windows decorated with ugly half-naked whores grinning lasciviously at passers-by.

The French these days are no more religious than the British, but they too have genetic, or is it cultural, memory. Thus they tend to treat sex with cavalier insouciance, and are generally relaxed not only about persistent flirtation but also about adultery.

Those who still believe seem to think that the odd confession will wipe the slate clean. The atheists apologise not to God but to themselves, thinking they can absolve themselves.

In spite of widespread and generally condoned fornication, families in those countries tend to be stronger than in Protestant lands. Divorce rates in France and Italy, for example, are 40 per cent lower than in Britain.

Ex-Protestants do do sex – but they do it badly and clumsily. And what goes for actual sex goes tenfold for its prelude: banter, flirtation, courtship.

French women, for example, accept flirtation as a natural part of discourse between men and women. This is as basic, and usually as meaningless, as a man bending to kiss a woman’s hand and stopping an inch before his lips make contact.

Both men and women know the ritual, as they know it may go beyond flirtation, but probably won’t. Equally accepted there is the natural, physiological fact that, though the woman may hint at her interest, it’s the man who must be more explicit in asking for sex.

The question may be posed semantically, in words, or semiotically, in gestures. The words may vary from, say, an invitation to dinner to something less open-ended. The gestures may include brushing or perhaps taking a woman’s hand or – and here we’re approaching our turmoil-riven shores – putting a hand on her knee.

Now my modest experience in such matters suggests that a knee isn’t the most erogenous of zones. Thus touching it, provided the hand doesn’t wander any farther, isn’t a sex act. It’s a question: Would you consider having sex?

French women are as adept at answering such questions as the men are at posing them. They may encourage the aspiring swain or discourage him, but either is usually done with grace, humour and subtlety.

Thus a French woman is unlikely to respond to a hand on her knee the way that journalist rebuffed Sir Michael Fallon, by threatening to punch him in the face. The message would be just as clear, but it would be more civilised. (I hope you and my wife realise that I’m talking strictly as an outside observer, not an active participant.)

If the French regard flirtation, with all its sexual overtones, as natural, the English are predisposed to regard it as suspect and intrusive. That’s why they don’t mind being told that a bawdy joke is ‘inappropriate’, flirtation is rude, a hand on the knee is a mortal insult, a pass is assault, and assault is a crime worse than murder.

The modern ethos, especially in formerly Protestant countries, imposes many inhibitions on sexual behaviour. These are ignored, but profligacy dialectically coexists with treating sex as something inherently dirty and violent. Hence, young British women on the make often have to get fall-over drunk before responding to sexual advances – drunkenness is considered expiatory.

Hence also, when punters are told that, look, our high and mighty abuse women in dirty and violent ways, they nod their understanding – even though nothing worse than a crude pass or a ribald joke has occurred. The French would shrug and smile.

This is an attempt not to countenance loose sexuality proscribed by the founding documents of our civilisation, but to try to understand why accounts of ‘sex pests’ have created such a deafening resonance. Then of course no one has ever accused modernity of a surfeit of taste and restraint.

P.S. A note to Andrea Leadsom: You can take your hands out now; they must be warm enough.

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