Margaret Mead and long bows: is the sexual revolution all her fault or not?

Samoa There’s an excellent post by Mercurius at Larvatus Prodeo regarding the drawing of long bows from scanty (nay, unrelated) data. It’s based on a notably incoherent op-ed column which asserts many things, but particularly makes the now common charge that anthropologist Margaret Mead gullibly accepted playful girlish fibs from the young women she interviewed in Samoa about permissive sexual behaviours.

Mead’s claim had a huge impact in the postwar age of sexual liberation in the West, a legacy of permissiveness embraced by an entire generation of baby boomers and their children.

That sentence above was the major long bow to which Mercurius referred: that a generation of blank slates read about Samoan sexuality and decided to become sexually permissive themselves.

The post is a call for other nominations for the inaugural Agincourt Award for Drawing the Longest Bow in Journalism, and the thread contains several other nominees, a fine discussion on the nature of memory and how it relates to memoirs versus “true stories”, swiftboating, Spike Milligan and some iconoclastic dissing of literary figures going on as well. It’s all rather fun, but there’s not enough emphasis for my taste on rebutting the long-bow that Mead’s work was primarily responsible for the sexual revolution in the West.

That point was briefly and capably rebutted almost immediately by pointing to the well-acknowledged datum that it was the reliability of the contraceptive pill that actually led to the sexual revolution, not tales of a sexual paradise in the South Pacific, but that substantive argument was almost immediately ignored in favour of arguing about Mead’s work as if it was actually the instigating factor.

Tim Lambert points out that this charge about Mead’s research is essentially based on the monomania of anthropologist Derek Freeman which has been co-opted by conservative windbags, and offering more cites from critics of Freeman on Andrew Norton’s post responding to Mercurius’ Agincourt Award post. It boils down to charges that Freeman’s own work is not free from suspect methodology itself (especially where he has suppressed his own earlier work that supported Mead’s conclusions so that it doesn’t dilute his later financially rewarding infamy for stomping about how wrong wrongitty wrong she was).

Nabs, wades into the fray at LP with some more critiques of Freeman and has a particularly strong point in the line I’ve emphasised in bold, and which returns us to whether Mead kick-started the sexual revolution or not:

Now where were we. Oh that’s right, blaming Margaret Mead for Generation Porn.

Firstly as DelTim points out about Freeman himself is not a particularly reliable witness himself. Here’s a wikipedia quote it’s hard to argue with if you accept the grounds for Freeman’s critique of Mead.

“Freeman’s critics point out that by the time Freeman arrived on the scene Mead’s original informants were old women, grandmothers, and had converted to Christianity. They further allege that Samoan culture had changed considerably in the decades following Mead’s original research, that after intense missionary activity many Samoans had come to adopt the same sexual standards as the Americans who were once so shocked by Mead’s book. They suggested that such women, in this new context, were unlikely to speak frankly about their adolescent behavior (one of Freeman’s interviewees gave her born-again faith as the reason for admitting to what she now claimed was a past deception.) Further, they suggested that these women might not be as forthright and honest about their sexuality when speaking to an elderly man as they would have been speaking to a woman near their own age.”

Hands up anyone here who wants to confidently and accurately discuss their sex life with an older person of the opposite sex from another country that now owns yours? Remember from WW2 onwards until the 70s Samoa was basically a US protectorate (and not just American Samoa.)

Anyway, even the most cursory fossick through the last few hundred years of Western history alone will turn up many highly licentious eras that had root (snigger) causes completely unrelated to whatever’s twanging Caterson’s strings. Restoration and Regency England for starters. Plus the upper classes throughout history everywhere have been carrying on like minks on extascy[sic] like forever.

Basically, what is wrong with permissiveness anyway? Western society currently enjoying one of the most sexual permissive climates on record and we’ve never been richer or culturally dominant worldwide. I guess people just like sex.

Anyone trying to control others sexual behaviour pretty much always has a bigger control agenda in mind. Harnessing, stifling, channeling and/or manipulating this primal urge is often the first line of attack for groups trying to get their world view to prevail – across the religious and political spectrum When you’ve literally got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

Fuck that.

Let’s just repeat that. Plus the upper classes throughout history everywhere have been carrying on like minks on extascy[sic] like forever.

Nab’s point is inarguable. Look at the parade of bastard sons of royalty and nobility who ended up with titles and military commands of their very own, and their bastard daughters who were married off as a reward to slightly lesser men (top suitors got legitimate daughters). It was well-known that the slaves set free by Romans in their wills were disproportionately those slaves who were the offspring of the master, and their likely genealogy enhanced the price they could charge for their subsequent services. Historians in recent decades have also been more willing to discuss what most of them have always known: that the level of sexual permissiveness in peasant and urban poverty classes has always been high.

So who have been the class most concerned with sexual purity through the generations? The middle-class climbing the social ladder via judicious marriages as their wealth grows, those who feared the loss of social standing that came through having a daughter lose her “marriageability” (i.e. virginity) as proven by having given birth to a bastard child, and who wished to ensure that no bastard offspring were foisted onto their own sons by those expensive brides from other ambitious families. Middle-class sensibilities were the ones most widely promulgated by church and state, because the middle-class are the engine that drives the prosperity of a nation ((which is why economic policies which squeeze the middle class are so ruinously short-sighted, but that’s another argument ~N.B.)), so it behooved the upper-classes generally to pay lip-service to the ideal of respectable chastity in order to hold out the carrot of social advancement more plausibly.

Once the contraceptive pill was widely available, the risk of bastard children dropped precipitously, thus the major pragmatic reason for ensuring women’s sexual purity lost its force. This leaves the moral proscriptions against permissive sexuality bolstered by much less strong pragmatic arguments. Moral suasions are simply not nearly as effective as they used to be when extramarital sexual relations are so much less likely to end in an unwanted pregnancy, and when unplanned pregnancies are much less socially stigmatised. Bourgeois single mothers are marrying into royalty now, after all. The moralists try and bolster their arguments against permissiveness with sexual hygiene arguments against promiscuity, as if permissive sexuality and sexual promiscuity are exactly the same thing, but that’s also largely ineffective as STDs are now less stigmatising as well, largely due to better prevention measures and better treatments. So what is a tireless cultural warrior to do?

The propensity for certain conservatives to blame Mead for starting it all smacks of magical thinking: if only they can persuade people that she was wrong wrongitty wrong, then everyone will smack their foreheads and say “what the hell was I thinking!?!” and just stop having unmarried sex.

That is one hell of a long bow.

Image credit: loligense



Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, history, skepticism

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5 replies

  1. “…there’s not enough emphasis for my taste on rebutting the long-bow that Meads work was primarily responsible for the sexual revolution in the West.”
    Yeah, that sounds about right. I think it’s a good example-in-action of the way the CW reactionaries have managed to gain so much traction across a range of moral issues, from Iraq to asylum-seekers to child-care, in which its policy positions are diametrically counter to its proclaimed moral stances: diverting attention from thundering, indefensible non-sequiturs like the ‘main game’ one you point out here, by shifting the argument to inherently-subjective, more glam but essentially dead-end – as in unresolvable – stoushes. Magician’s sleight-of-hand – keep your eyes on my pretty assistant’s tits to help me while I make the truly yawning hole in my argument evade scrutiny.
    I feel so…used!

  2. Re the sexuality of the upper classes …. I recently read a book called The Viceroy’s Daughters (a good summer holiday read), here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review:
    “Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, an avowed antifeminist who valued women if they were ornamental, produced three highly decorative daughters: Irene, Cynthia (Cimmie) and Alexandra (Baba). They were to lead largely inconsequential lives, but their wealth and social position put them close to the center of British political power from 1920 until the end of WWII. The eldest, Irene, never married, devoting herself first to the pursuit of foxes and married men, and later to charity work and the bottle. Cimmie had the misfortune to wed Oswald Mosley, a notorious womanizer and founder of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley bedded a string of women, including wife Cimmie’s two sisters and her stepmother, until his wartime imprisonment (by then, he’d divorced Cimmie to marry Diana Guinness, ne Mitford). The youngest daughter, Baba, who was married to Fruity Metcalfe, an amiable if rather dim friend of the Duke of Windsor, had a talent for adultery with rich and powerful men that she exercised in the stately homes of England, while her husband occupied himself supporting the duke in his immensely comfortable exile in France”
    Cynthia became a Labor MP, and had a nice line during some debate on welfare when a conservative MP said that people shouldn’t be given something for nothing as it would demoralise them. Cimmie stood up, in pearls and furs, and said “I’ve had something for nothing my whole life and I don’t feel demoralised!”

  3. Jack:

    I feel so…used!

    It’s a very practised sleight-of-hand, isn’t it?
    Russell:
    Really, “Fruity Metcalfe”? The poor woman.
    Of course, if it had been the Curzon boys and Mitford boys with the strings of lovers there wouldn’t have been hardly any scandal associated with it. Only the fact of aristocratic daughters being indiscreet about their bedroom gymnastics created the scandals.
    Much like Paris Hilton is excoriated today for behaving sexually exactly like one of the male trust-fund kids she grew up with.

  4. Tigtog: no, there wasn’t any scandal: in those circles, as long as you were titled and independently wealthy, as they were, it was expected that you would do as you damn well pleased.
    Poor, loyal Fruity wasn’t wealthy, he was just the ‘kept’ husband.
    Tragic Cimmie comes out of it rather well.

  5. Pretty sure that the Mitford girls garnered an impressive collection of column inches, Russell. It may not have bothered their fellow aristocrats much, but the sexual exploits of titled women certainly shocked and titillated the petit bourgeoisie much more than the sexual exploits of titled men did.

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