During the last few years. David Holbrook — poet, educationalist and now Writer-in-Residence at Darlington Hall College of Art – has signed innumerable letters and articles in the popular press, all highly critical of aspects of our culture today, aspects that may be bundled up under the heading of “permissive tendencies”. His name is, in fact, automatically associated with those of Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse. And though undeniably thoughtful and intelligent, he does share with all the critics of the permissive society a faculty for making blanket generalisations, for overestimating a situation and for exaggerating a fear into a falsehood.
Few people, I feel, would contest David Holbrook’s basic thesis in this book. That there is an increasing divorce between sex and love and that in our society, advertising, pornography and entertainment often place undue emphasis on people as sex objects, especially women.
However, the method he uses to explore this not particularly original thought, and the conclusions he draws over 212 pages are highly debatable. Most important is method.
Expressed simply, what Holbrook has done is amass on one side evidence of what he calls dehumanized sexuality, and on the other side support for his own views. His targets are sexologists such as Masters and Johnson, writers such as Alex Comfort and Wayland Young, events like “Oh! Calcutta!” (which drives him into some kind of frenzy every time he thinks about it) and publications such as Man and Woman (A weekly magazine which builds up into an encyclopaedia of sexual knowledge), and sex technique manuals.
Evidence for the prosecution, as it were, is drawn almost entirely from the writings of a small body of psychoanalysts from what is known as the ‘object-relations’ school. Of course this imposes very rigid limits on his thesis. It would not matter particularly if Holbrook has made it absolutely clear that this was one particular view. But over and over again he asserts that the insights of his team of pet psychoanalysts are, in fact, something amounting to eternal truths.
Let us see how this works. Suddenly we come to a chapter, inserted for no good reason as far as I can see, and called with an arrogance only matched by its inaccuracy: “The truth about Perversion”. Sorry, but we have to pause a minute here to find out what he means by ‘perversion’. This is not easy. According to the glossary, the definition he prefers is that of Rycroft: “Any form of adult sexual behaviour in which heterosexual intercourse is not the preferred goal”.
Perversion should then, include such activities as masturbation, exhibitionism, homosexuality, bestiality and so on. However, his chapter which is going to tell us the truth about perversion seems to refer entirely to homosexuality and in particular to female homosexuality.
He begins by attacking two articles on lesbians one by Victoria Brittain in The Times and one by Virginia Ironside in 19. His complaint about the latter, among other things is that the writer “did not consult any independent authority on psychosexual disorders. She merely consults lesbians (his italics, p. 97).
Holbrook then turns (presumably for independent evidence) to a group of papers by Masud Khan who is the Editor of the International Psychoanalytical Library. Khan is a highly respected, and to those who know and work with him. a truly charismatic figure. And his work is, naturally, highly valued in his field. However, the special study of perversion (ie. homosexuality) he has made is the result of “twenty years experience of a dozen pervert patients”. This I would have thought amounted to, in the wider context, an extremely limited and definitely biased view of the homosexual. To justify his use of Khan’s material as a statement of general truth, Holbrook writes: “… this conclusion was reached from what perverts in analysis told the therapist, it is their truth, not one imposed upon them”, (p. 99).
Setting aside the extremely debatable idea that a patient in analysis is quite free of imposed views, Holbrook is saying in effect that what a well-adjusted lesbian tells a writer is inadmissable, yet what an unhappy individual tells his psychologist (after twenty years of analysis?) is on the other hand true and acceptable, not just for that person but for all other gay people.
(And a passing note that on page 9S, Holbrook refers to an organisation for lesbians called Kensic. This could be attributed to a proof-reader’s oversight, yet Kenric is similarly misspelled in the index. Indicative that in the most literal way Holbrook doesn’t know what he’s takling about and, moreover, has done none of that essential independent research himself).
This method, and the unconscious attitudes it reveals, pervade the entire book. At times a touch of egregious colouring inhabits his prose as when he refers to “naked couples (having) sexual intercourse publicly on rafts in the swimming pools” (p. 21). Would it have been better for them to be clothed? or naked but not having sex? or not on a raft? or on the sea and not a pool? And when he remarks on “some photographs of a nude dancer, complete with pubic hair and all” (p. 27). Better if she was depilated? or not dancing? and what on earth is “and all”?
The book is extremely difficult to read because Holbrook uses so many quotations from his psychoanalytical reading. It is as if he lacks all courage to state his own views boldly without dragging in such support. A dependency problem, maybe?
All this said. I would advise everyone to try and read this book. For two main reasons. First a great deal of what he says should be said. Holbrook is concerned about dehumanisation by separation of sex from love. One of the points of gay movements, in my understanding. is to try to bridge this gap in the homosexual world. Homosexuals, above all, have been still are – victims of this, revealed in the often expressed view that homosexuality is just a sexual thing (ie. a genital activity) and does not involve the whole person. Gay movements prove this wrong.
The second reason for reading Sex A Dehumanization would be as an exercise for the individual to articulate his thoughts on the subject of sex. It is absolutely no good tossing this book aside with little cries of “rubbish!” just because Holbrook is offensive. He projects a forceful argument forcefully. It needs to be answered forcefully – and thoughtfully.