Taking account of changing sexual mores

In writing a novel like The Red Gene with a time-frame that spans nearly eighty years and is set in two countries with differing cultures, attitudes to love and sex are one way of reflecting the changes and disparities in social mores. My three main characters, born in 1915, 1939 and 1975, respectively, one in England, the other two in Spain, have very different perspectives, due largely to the influence of the cultures they belong to.

Rose, born in the early 20th century, daughter of a Church of England vicar, has imbibed the conventional morality prevalent since Victorian times. Any departure from the acceptable norms of society carries a stigma, while the very real fear of pregnancy in the days before ready access to birth control is also a hugely inhibiting factor. Rose shivers at the thought of Clark House, a home for unmarried mothers in Oxford, run by Skene Moral Welfare. And of the disgrace an illegitimate child would bring on her parents. Jack is burdened with the intense shame of his own illegitimacy; another character must hide his homosexuality. War often breaks down social conventions and when Rose falls in love with Miguel in Spain after witnessing so many deaths at close hand, she grasps the fragility of life and how precious is love, and her inhibitions melt away.

Consuelo, growing up in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, with the Catholic Church imposing its moral values and repressive rules on society, is reminded constantly of the penalties of sin. At home, at school, in church, in her compulsory attendances at Acción Católica or La Sección Feminina, the codes of acceptable behaviour are drummed into her, accompanied by warnings of the dire consequences should she stray from the correct path. The warnings start in childhood and increase further as she approaches puberty. From the age of thirteen, she isn’t allowed out without stockings, even in the summer; she must cover her arms and wear skirts that come well below the knee; she isn’t permitted to so much as speak to a boy… Meanwhile, her oldest brother Francisco considers her fair game and snatches any opportunity to sexually molest her. Another brother forces himself on one of the maids, leaving her pregnant, with the result that she is sacked in disgrace. As Consuelo notes, the rules are different for men. Her brothers openly frequent brothels. It is considered neither unusual nor immoral for men – whether married or not – to patronise these casade putas.

Courtship in the Franco years followed strict conventions. Novios were denied any time alone together; the chaperone (usually a family member) kept them in sight at all times. A brief, furtive kiss was the most that could be expected in 50s Spain. Consuelo is terrified at the prospect of her wedding night and feels only relief when the act is over. A couple of years later, she muses about the physical side of her marriage.

“They never talked about what went on in the bedroom. She relished the kisses and embraces, which kindled intensely loving feelings towards her husband, but the act that followed, though no longer painful as at first, was uncomfortable; she always felt relieved when it was over. Fortunately, Enrique’s performance rarely lasted long and, as the Sección Feminina book had promised, her husband quickly fell into a deep sleep, leaving her free to put in her rollers anapply her face cream. She still couldn’t quite shake off the notion that carnal relations were a mortal sin, even though the catechism stated that within the sacrament of holy matrimony, where procreation rather than physical pleasure was the aim, the act was sanctified. Enrique never asked if she’d enjoyed it; if he had, she would have lied rather than hurt his feelings.”

When the first northern European tourists begin to arrive on the coast in the 60s, with their bikinis and miniskirts, the repressed Spaniards are shocked. The men ogle, the women disapprove, worried about the effect on their husbands.

Marisol, growing up in the far more liberal atmosphere of post-dictatorship Spain, has a much more matter-of-fact approach to sex. For her it’s something to be enjoyed, not hung up about like her parents, who find it too embarrassing to talk about, preferring to steer clear of the subject and hope for the best with their daughters.

I’m of the opinion that when writing about sex, generally less is more. I don’t avoid it altogether but I do prefer to leave something to the imagination. Like most writers (I assume), I’d rather not be a contender for the Bad Sex Award.

 

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