The other night I was zoned out in front of Van Helsing before flipping over to ‘The book that shook the world’. It’s a doco about The Little Red Schoolbook, by Danish teachers Soren Hansen and Jesper Jensen, published in Australia in 1972. As the authors explain, they were throwing an incendiary into a repressive society where young people were told what to do and compelled to do it. With a nod to the other red book, it was to be a revolution, overturning authority, throwing off social strictures and enabling the young to think for themselves.
For many in Australia and the UK, the dynamite in The Little Red Schoolbook was its pages on sex. Terms and techniques were discussed in straightforward, unabashed language. Publishers were arrested and social commentators were outraged.
The doco’s talking heads reflected on the book’s publication and importance. They then wondered with furrowed brows about the spectre of conservatism turning back the clock.
But the authors of The Little Red Schoolbook have succeeded wildly. That nasty authority beast has been mastered in our society. Sex is now everyone’s business and no-one’s monopoly. There is no more taboo about the mechanics of sex. The minutae of anatomy and a menagerie of practices are discussed in every schoolyard (just ask my year 9s). The Little Red Schoolbook was part of a societal movement that has largely put paid to ideas of moral authority. There remains a lone commandment: that sex be safe, that appropriate measures be taken to avoid contamination of various sorts, viral, bacterial, embryonic. And it’s best that you don’t hurt others (well, at least not willingly).
Yet in this society set adrift from boundaries, sex is ironically more a fumble in the dark than ever. We live in a world where some aspects of sex are profoundly mysterious to our sensibilities. Our society seems to have given little thought to why sex. The Little Red School Book has helped transport us to a world where sex is entirely mundane, something that you just do, like eating or washing or crapping. At one level, that’s surely true: sex is a part of life. Yet while everyone is talking about techniques and the orgasm mythos, few are talking about what sex means and what it does, apart from making pleasure and (as an occasional side effect) making babies. Could we even conceive of sex as more than that? Don’t worry, kids, you’ll figure it out on your own.
The icon of our times is not Britney Spears or Madonna but Peaches, who voices plainly what they only implied, or perhaps hadn’t figured out yet. When sex is about maximising personal pleasure or carving out personal identity, novelty is the single key. It’s there in serial monogamy. But then you can’t use the missionary position any more (how straight). You can’t even use body parts in traditional ways. Sex has to be about changing it up every time and keeping it random. Pain is the new pleasure and all that. Hence the tendency towards casual and hardcore sex in porn and pop culture (which I had the discomfort of studying in first year philosophy). These lines from Peaches’ ‘Hot Rod’ are emblematic:
You like it when I like you less
No caress, just undress
You like it when we play hardcore
The panty war, then you get pussy galore
The Little Red Schoolbook proves a sorry tale for Christians. The church has had a sexual problem. Christians have not always attempted to negate or denigrate sex, although that has certainly occurred often enough. What Christians have excelled in is failing to talk about sex. When The Little Red Schoolbook was published, it held the public stage simply because sex had been off-limits for public discussion — it was filling a kind of moral vacuum. If The Little Red Schoolbook was a triumph over social authority, it was a hollow authority indeed. Like etiquette in Victorian England, it was an authority based on social conformity, not vague notions of virtue, certainly not serving God and others. Most could only react to the book because they had never before said anything much about sex, at least not with clarity or alacrity or creativity. The western church had been pretty well silent, so The Little Red Schoolbook revealed its colossal incoherence. It is no wonder the western church is now so widely seen as irrelevant and illegitimate. It is.
It’s a good thing that the church is now talking more frankly about sex. For Christians, sex is about maximising relationship — in other words, it is not self-focused but other-focused. It is about being anchored, not random. There is therefore a great stiffness to Christian sex. And that makes for great sex.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.