Somebody asked me the other day for an example of an oxymoron, and I suggested, “Safe sex.”
Oxymoron oks-imo’ron, n. a figure of speech by means of which contradictory terms are combined…
Safe sex is, in my opinion, the oxymoron of our time. I was sharply reminded of this fact on Friday when I saw a letter in The Herald headlined “The decision to allow abortion pill at home must be stoutly defended”. The letter had 17 signatories, each one acting in a stated official capacity (giving the letter an air of authority), and the signatories’ address was given as Marie Stopes UK, c/o 18 Ashwin Street, London. The letter was a response to news that the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) intends to mount a legal challenge to the decision of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, to enable women, for whom it is clinically appropriate, to take Misoprostol – the pill that completes an abortion – at home. Dr Calderwood’s decision has been supported by Lord Steel who of course was instrumental in introducing the Abortion Bill in 1967.
Misoprostol is taken twice. At the moment, patients receiving the treatment have to attend hospital twice. The result of this arrangement is that women may well start to abort while travelling on the bus. It is legal for women to take misoprostol at home but only if they have suffered a spontaneous miscarriage. However this does suggest that home administration is medically safe.
I can’t think that SPUC has a case here. The thing is, once society has concluded that termination of pregnancy is, under certain circumstances, a legitimate medical procedure, surely the issue as to where the procedure is carried out diminishes in importance. I can only imagine that SPUC take issue with the notion of home administration because it may appear to afford the procedure of termination of pregnancy a certain casualness. One takes misoprostol as one might take emergency contraception (the morning-after pill) – now available without prescription – and one takes the morning-after pill as one might take the pill. No doubt SPUC will be aghast at this sentence in the Herald letter: “Abortion is vital, routine healthcare that around one in three women will experience in their lifetime.”
I was very surprised at that statistic. Given the weight of 17 signatories, I imagine it must have an evidence base. It does rather suggest that contraception, as a public health initiative, isn’t very successful.
I suppose it is a little perverse of me to be discussing abortifacients on the day of a Nativity. This is the time of year when the aggressive secularists can be particularly strident – angels, wise men, virgin births – I ask you! I hadn’t thought to blow the dust off my viola and play at the annual ceremony of lessons and carols, but J is very persuasive and I was there. What can the idea of a virgin birth mean? I refer you to Hugh MacDiarmid’s enigmatic poem O Wha’s the Bride?
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.
Every birth is a virgin birth. Birth, and continuity, in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, is the most extraordinary miracle in all creation.
I think the greatest change in social mores I have seen in my lifetime has been in the attitude towards sex. Contraception became available in 1960 and termination of pregnancy in 1967. Of course the 60s is thought of as a time of great sexual liberation. The 60s spawned “the permissive society”. It was perceived as a time of great freedom because the pill annulled – for those who partook – the possibility of pregnancy, and antibiotics provided a sure-fire treatment for sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea, syphilis, and chlamydia. Herpes was not yet recognised to be the nuisance it was, nor human papilloma virus, and HIV was yet to be invented.
I imagine it must be difficult for young people now to imagine life as it was for us in the 60s. To fall pregnant out of wedlock at that time was a great disgrace. The options available to people in that situation were limited. Termination of pregnancy was illegal and, unless one had money and connections and were able to travel abroad, extremely hazardous. I recall in Glasgow in the mid-60s there was a home for unmarried mothers on the corner of Clevedon Road and Clevedon Drive in the west end of Glasgow. I know this from two sources, first because for a time my family lived 200 metres from the home, and second because my school pal Billy was the son of the people who ran the place. I just remember seeing on my daily walk to school heavily pregnant young women standing at the street corner smoking a cigarette, looking as if a truck were about to run them over.
Much of this backdrop came to my mind this week when I met up with a dear friend of mine who has two daughters currently making their way in the south of England. One of them recently had a date with a young man who, following the assignation, was disposed to ask, by text, for feedback.
Do you suppose the feedback was to be in free text or were a series of highly particular points pursued?
- Initial greeting. Was the gentleman warm and welcoming or was he cold and evasive? Answer 1- 10 – 1: very cold, 10: very warm.
- Preliminary chat. Did he deftly deal with any unforeseen social awkwardness and did he make you feel at ease as the evening commenced? Answer 1- 10 – 1: very awkward, 10: at ease.
- Did he give you free rein to peruse the menu or did he, in the style of a foodie Fascist, tell you what to eat? (Answer 1 – 10 – 1: Fascist, 10: liberal.)
- Was he polite towards the “wait person” or did he treat them with complete disdain? (1 – 10 – make it up.)
- During the meal, was he completely absorbed with his own preoccupations or did he show genuine interest in your own passions?
- If something untoward happened in the vicinity, say somebody at the next table with Tourette’s kept shouting ****! – was he discombobulated?
- You had an entirely unpredictable reaction to the fish entrée requiring the emergency attendance of paramedics and the administration of epinephrine and steroids. Was he supportive?
- Did he betray a sense of revulsion when you threw up?
- Did he try to kiss you?
- Did he pay?
On the subject of osculation I have some observations. There can be no doubt that the whole dating scenario has become extremely hazardous for the young man. Given that a member of parliament might be faced with the accusation, “He put his hand on my knee 25 years ago”, how is a young man to proceed? I am only reiterating something a very charming young lady in a bikini said to me the other day in the sauna in my local gym. She was supine on the sauna’s upper tier when I entered, but she quickly sat up. I said, “Do not derange yourself on my account,” but she insisted, and we went on to have an interesting conversation. She said, “I’m not sure what the health benefits of sauna might be”, and I, “I’m not sure there is evidence of any, but so long as you don’t stay in too long, it’s very pleasurable.”
“Of course, if we were in France or Germany, we would both be naked.”
But on the subject of kissing, I seem to recall Jeremy Vine did a piece on his show in which he posed the question of whether it would be appropriate for a chap to ask permission of his date to kiss her. There seemed to be general agreement that such a strategy would be liable to kill spontaneity stone dead. This all reminded me of the Merchant Ivory film of E M Forster’s A Room with a View. Lucy Honeychurch, an upper-middle class English girl played by Helena Bonham Carter, is on holiday in Italy, where she encounters, in the same pension, one George Emerson, played by Julian Sands, whose passion for her she initially abjures. Lucia is a pianist of some ability and when a parson, played by Simon Callow, hears her play Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (or as it the Waldstein?), he says (I paraphrase), “If Lucy lives as she plays, then we may expect fireworks.” We have the sense that Lucy is repressed by convention. She has a suitor, Cecil, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who becomes her fiancé, and who, enraptured by her performance of Schubert, attempts to kiss her and only succeeds in dislodging his glasses. Contrast this with George who, seeing Lucy on a flower-strewn Italian hillside, is moved to embrace her and unsolicitedly kiss her with great passion. That this scene should be accompanied by Puccini’s Chi il Bel Sogno di Doretta gave it an emotional power I am incapable of expressing.
Was he right to risk it? The fact of the matter is this: if it’s welcome, it’s right; if it’s not welcome, it’s awful; and that is the essential dilemma a young man faces, and why the entire enterprise is so filled with dread. Young men understand instinctively that there is no such thing as safe sex. People who try to peddle it are just bizarre scout commanders and matrons of an adolescent boot camp introduction to “sex”.
E M Forster wrote a brief epilogue to A Room with a View in which he tried to envisage how the characters would be some years down the track. I think Lucy’s husband George went on to have an affair, but then there was a war on. Beethoven being German got a poor press. I recall Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing a sketch about Beethoven. Dudley Moore was a young pianist playing the Moonlight Sonata.
“That music you are playing, Jeremy, is by Beethoven…
“Beethoven was German…
“That’s something you are going to have to work out…
Jeremy needn’t have worried. Lucy’s failed suitor Cecil assures us; Beethoven was Belgian.