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Book Review: Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire by Edward Shorter

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Although the title of Edward Shorter's book,  Written in the Flesh, suggests a discussion of erotic desire, in fact he offers a book about erotic desire of a particular sort – the desire to eroticize every last inch of our bodies. His project is to trace what he believes is the inexorable trajectory of human sexuality to embrace "total body sex," to engage all our senses in a fuller exploration of opportunities for pleasure. The thrust of his argument is that historically many forces beyond our control have worked against the experience of pleasure in sex. Only recently have we found ways to alleviate their impact, and so only recently have we begun to break out of the constraints that limit the kinds of activities we pursue for our sexual gratification.

Part-way through the book, I had to engage in a little reading interruptus. A new term has begun as I plod towards a degree in theological studies, and I had to buy some books on my reading list. As I scanned the bookshelves, my eyes strayed to the Roman Catholic section. What, I wondered, are the Catholics thinking about all this sex business? Surely the church (and most especially the Roman church) must figure historically as a constraint in the full expression of sexual pleasure.

Then my eyes settled on a publication from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons." Might as well get my information straight from the horse's mouth, as they say, so I bought the tract. I am pleased to report that the Congregation has downgraded homosexuality from sin to "disorder" and recommends that a faithful person with homosexual impulses practise abstinence. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of pleasure–seeking.

Returning to the book under review, I discovered a shorter treatment of church than one might expect. In the list of constraints inhibiting enjoyment of sex, church falls well below scabies. In fact, although Shorter does not make this explicit, there is nevertheless embedded in his narrative an important lesson for church: sex is sex and church has never had much impact on this particular element of human behaviour. If church has had any impact at all, it is to make people feel guilty for doing what they do in any event.

What, then, are the most important constraints that have kept us from fully enjoying our bodies? Most of the factors that Shorter considers fall under the category of economics. Throughout history, the very rich have never had much compunction about enjoying themselves. In this respect, the tabloid exploits of Paris Hilton are so unremarkable that they leave one yawning. What is remarkable, is the presence of a huge middle class which has sufficient resources to emulate this behaviour.

It begins with simple things. Now, for example, it is exceptional for parents and children to sleep in the same bed. Not so in the Middle Ages. While the sex act still occurred whether or not children were present, it was a functional act without opportunity for play, inventiveness, or exploration. More people now have the means to purchase privacy, even if that amounts to nothing more than a door with a lock on it. This increased privacy is reinforced by the migration of workers to urban centers which followed the rise of industrialization. Urban life provides a degree of anonymity that was rarely known in pre–industrial cultures.

In addition, a high infant mortality rate coupled with the constant threat of infectious diseases also precluded intimacy. Even without physical obstacles, factors like grief and revulsion at the disfigurement from smallpox made the possibility of total body sex unthinkable. Other constraints included widespread chronic pain, and itching due to lice and scabies. Not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries did people find relief through the development topical creams, aspirin and the use of syringes to inject morphine.

There is no question that religious institutions have had an official hand in the way we experience pleasure, but weighed against the immediate concern of finding relief from constant physical discomfort, the voice of the church has sounded dimly at best.

One of the most interesting (and entertaining) features of Written in the Flesh is its methodology. Twentieth-century sexual habits are reasonably well-documented thanks to the emergence of sexology and its use of more structured survey techniques. But there were no medieval Kinseys asking serfs questions about frequency of fellatio and preferred positions. Shorter must resort to literary references, diary entries, racy correspondence, samples of contemporary pornography, records from confessionals, police reports, and art.

Although Shorter is quick to point out that none of these sources tell us anything about matters of quantity and quality, nevertheless they do provide us with glimpses of what it was possible for earlier milieus to imagine. One cannot do what one cannot imagine. So, for example, it was not until the Renaissance that the whip appeared in art as an instrument for the administration of anything other than pain. Even then, SM and fetish depictions were restricted to the whip until 1900 when forms of restraint began to make an appearance. One can only infer that these changes in art coincide roughly with changes in the artist's social scene. What emerges from Shorter's samplings is an odd but satisfying coupling of thorough–going erudition and titillating gossip.

In the broad strokes, Shorter is successful in making his case for an increasingly sensual element in our sexual expression, but one concern remains starkly undeveloped — the recent impact of HIV/AIDS. Shorter is at pains to detail the explosion of enthusiasm with which the gay male population, in particular, has embraced total body sex, but only notes in passing that most of his sources of information regarding gay sex during the 1980s are now dead.

Has fear of infection and death introduced a new hindrance on the path to a total sensuality? Can we draw parallels to the medieval experience of infectious diseases? Or is this merely a hiccup on the line of a larger trend? And what of the church? Is its renewed interest in issues of contraception and homosexuality nothing more than an opportunistic attempt to introduce doctrine on the coat-tails of fear? Or might the church yet have a measurable impact on the way we experience sexual pleasure? Because such questions persist, one is left feeling that the history of our desire is a work in progress, with a fresh chapter emerging in the next decade or so.

The final word:  if normally you are shy about reading books that come from academic presses, you may want to make an exception in this case. Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire is highly readable and entertaining. With this romp through more than two millennia of human sexuality, it becomes apparent that some things really are new under the sun, that slowly but inexorably, we are learning to loosen up and to enjoy all our bodies are capable of experiencing.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!