Towards a Quaker View of Sex

Review in The Friend, 15 Feb 1963


The Friend, the weekly communications vehicle of the London Yearly Meeting, published a pre-release review by John Ounsted that was respectful but critical.


Reproduced by permission of The Friend, February 15, 1963, pp. 180-183.


The Friend February 15, 1963

"Towards a Quaker View of Sex"

The unofficial group of Friends who since 1957 have been examining sexual problems and morals have now completed an essay, TOWARDS A QUAKER VIEW OF SEX, which is to be published in a few days' time by the Home Service Committee.

"The origins of this pamphlet", as the Introduction states, "lie in problems brought by young Quaker students, faced with homosexual difficulties who came to older Friends for help and guidance. It appears that the Society of Friends as such had little to say to people troubled sexually, and that at the same time many friends were in serious doubt whether the Church's traditional view spoke to this condition. The need was clear for research into sexual problems and morals: and for Friends to ask themselves where their responsibility lay. A group of concerned members of the Society accordingly gathered in 1957 to re-examine through thought and prayer this most difficult of problems. It has met regularly ever since and includes those with experience in teaching, penology, marriage guidance, psychiatry, biology, psychology and the law."

The members of the group are: KENNETH C. BARNES, Headmaster of Wennington School; ANNA M. BIDDER, research worker and teacher in zoology, Cambridge University; RICHARD FOX, Senior Registrar, Bethlem Royal, Maudsley Hospital; ALASTAIR HERON, Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Direct of the Medical Research Council's Unit on Occupational Aspects of Ageing; G. JOYCE JAMES, housewife, one-time marriage guidance counsellor (who was unable to attend during the last year); KENNETH NICHOLSON, Headmaster of the Friends' School, Saffron Walden; MERVYN PARRY, teacher of educational subnormal children; LOTTE ROSENBERG, consultant psychiatrist and child psychiatrist; ALFRED TORRIE, consultant psychiatrist; KEITH B. WEDMORE, barrister-at-law; and one member who for professional reasons must remain anonymous.
The essay, not having been discussed by the Society, does not of course purport to be an "official" statement.
It is reviewed by John Ounsted, Headmaster of Leighton Park School, in the article below.
"Oh dear--not sex again!" a Young Friend was heard to remark recently. It is a comment with which many of us must sympathise, knowing how many other good things ought to claim our time and attention; and after the very full discussion which took place in these columns and in Friends' circles generally a year ago one cannot perhaps reopen the subject without some good excuse. The excuse is that the comment on our sexual situation made by this new pamphlet is "different from all the rest."

What is our sexual situation? It is a situation of every increasing "knowledge" in the sense that more and more people know and openly discuss more and more "facts" about sex in its widest sense; and yet of more and more confusion as the welter of information and of rival dogmatic statements becomes more than our minds can deal with. We rejoice to see many old misconceptions (like those about masturbation) abandoned; but find equally numerous new ones in their place. It is impossible to know how much sexual unhappiness there used to be, but we know for certain that (and I mean among the most modern and enlightened of people) there exists and enormous amount of it today.

Into this situation two classes of serious doctrines are propounded (quite apart from the influence of fiction, entertainment and advertising whose actual effect on people's actions is, no doubt, much greater than either). One, now quite respectable enough to be published in Pelicans and broadcast on the BBC advocates far greater permissiveness in every direction, and in particular recommends that there should be more or less extensive heterosexual experience, including coitus, in the period between puberty and marriage; but that after marriage there should, on the whole, be faithfulness between the partners until death (or divorce). The other, while advocating (what has a\often not been displayed in the past) the utmost charity towards those who disagreed with it, or who agree with it but fall short of their own ideals, expounds the "traditional Christian belief" part of which contradicts the former doctrine in stating that love relations outside marriage must never extend to coitus. The previous publications of the Home Sevice Committee (including Harold Loukes's admirable pamphlet Christians and Sex: A Quaker Comment) have fallen in the latter group.

Now comes TOWARDS A QUAKER VIEW OF SEX which, as indicated above, is radically new in its approach. It has been produced by a group of eleven Friends (rather than a specialist group, as the list at the head of this article shows), who have met monthly over a period of five years. Their starting point was the need to discover how to advise Quaker undergraduates facing homosexual difficulties, and although they have moved on to cover the whole field this origin is significant for its influence on their thinking throughout. Three chapters chiefly describe the facts about contemporary behaviour; the fourth is entitled "A New Morality Needed". The fifth gives practical guidance to any Friend who may have to give advice on sexual problems. There follows a practical appendix listing sources of professional help for more serious cases, and an admirable book list. Two more appendices giving some scientific theories about sex and descriptions of the less common abnormalities might well have been omitted except that they include the important and far too little publicised fact that apparent sexual compatibility in premarital intercourse may be associated with impotence or frigidity after marriage--one of the many compelling reasons for advising an engaged couple against "trial marriage".

The first way in which this pamphlet is "different" lies in its insistence on our facing the reality (Friends might be expected to lead other Christians in doing this) that there occurs an enormous quantity and variety of socially unacceptable sexual behaviour, not simply among don't-cards or delinquents but among good and sincere people of the sort who may be or become the pillars of society and indeed the Society of Friends; and that the consequences of this for the individuals involved may or may not be disastrous, depending on how the situation is handled. It reminds us that shoe considered socially acceptable may well, nevertheless, be leading lives which fail to create sexual happiness for themselves and their marriage partners. It tells us that the Friend asked for advice must be unshockable and free from emotional prejudice if he is to be of help. (I wonder if this is wholly true? Does not experiencing the fact that he has given a severe emotional shock to the person he respects enough to have turned to counsel often awaken someone for the first time to knowledge of the truth about himself?) All the same, it usefully emphasises (in relation to being "shocked") that fear of masturbation and of homosexuality tends to make the practice of them more frequent, and that both sorts of adolescent homosexuality flow naturally into heterosexuality and marriage.

Secondly, it emphasises the wrongness of the current tendency to take sexual relationships casually and superficially or in isolation from other aspects of life; and the need for what would be my definition of charity, namely, that all relationships should be warm, deep, and personal.

There is a good section explaining where Friends come into all this: that their historic insistence on full equality of the sexes should lead to their being especially awake to sexual problems; that their attitude of search for new light should free them from old formulas when those prove ineffective; that their refusal to divide the sacred from the secular should enable them to study God's purpose even in places where some Christian prejudice might make it seems that he was not present at all; that the wide sharing of pastoral duties consequent on the "priesthood of all believers" makes readiness to give sexual counsel a widely shared responsibility (and has the incidental advantage of making it more easy to accept that those who give such counsel are also normal men and women with sexual problems of their own).
All Friends who expect to be giving sexual advice are recommended to read this pamphlet and think about it with great care. It will make them think, and it needs intensive thought. It was easy to find much praise; it is very much harder to explain what one has against the pamphlet without quoting it as a whole. But, when it comes to the main point, I found it disappointing. The Devil could cite it to his purpose, as the writers indeed frankly recognise in talking of "the permissiveness we appear to support". Looking at my notes I find I could provide plenty of texts from it to support my own beliefs about sex (which cannot be fully expounded in this review):

The social codes changes...the truly religious (code) is changeless and eternal.

There must be a morality of some sort to govern sexual relationships.

We believe that there is indeed a place for discipline.
In the power of the Holy Spirit there are no dangers from which strength cannot be gained, no apparent disaster which cannot be transformed into spiritual opportunities.

Most people...would agree that the family as a social unit should be safeguarded and sexual practices that threaten its stability vigorously discouraged. [Friends recognised this by having a "Marriage and Parenthood Committee". The tendency to look at sex in isolation from parenthood is one of the chief faults of modern sexual thinking, and one from which this pamphlet is by no means free. Does laying down this Committee imply a change of belief about this?]*

But I think the authors do not share my beliefs. And if they do, they certainly don't make it clear that they do. Indeed, a lack of clear statement both in detail and of the overall implications of the work is its principal weakness. As an illustration of the style of expression throughout: "Neither are we happy with the thought that all homosexual behaviour is sinful." I do not suppose there is anyone who would be "happy with the ought": the question is whether the authors are or are not stating their believe that not all homosexual behaviour is sinful. More important than such details is the overall confusion produced in the reader by balancing any statement that seems clearly weighted on one side with another (sometimes quite separate) giving the opposite emphasis. The idea which could be put: "This is a very complicated matter; almost anything might be true" is sound enough as a starting point for most issues, but not positively helpful as a conclusion.

Confusion is produced, too, by attaching (as is common) extreme wide meanings to the words love and sex. For example, "any personal relationship between two people carries a sexual element"; and commending "love" in eternal triangle situations in such terms as to make it uncertain whether they believe (my tentative conclusion is that they do believe) that in some cases this should involve being on coitus terms with two different partners at the same time. Love is not merely, confusingly, almost identified with sex and sex with coitus; it is also (which is a logical enough consequence) set in antithesis to duty. But is it not the experience of most Christians that love by all Christian definitions is something which both produces duty and grows by duty, that the two are inextricably bound and mutually nourishing, like the symbiotic partners in a lichen?

When Professor Carstairs was believed to have stated in his BBC Reith Lectures that it would be beneficial to our society if premarital coitus took place more freely and frequently, Free Church, Anglican and Catholic leaders took the opportunity to reiterate publicly the traditional Christian view that coitus should take place only within marriage. Supposing a Friend were to lay before Yearly Meeting a concern that Friends should state the same, and that this pamphlet were a "document in advance", what would happen? One might have expected the Quaker Committee to agree with one view of the other, or to propound a new one. It does none of these things. Instead of being called TOWARDS A QUAKER VIEW OF SEX the pamphlet might have been called AWAY FROM A TRADITIONAL CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SEX; for it seems to reject the latter, chiefly by reference to the many abuses which have arisen from the traditional view (for example, ill-treatment of illegitimate children, imprisonment of homosexuals, unloving marriages), abuses that many Christian-traditionalists clearly recognise are only abuses and not part of their code. It equally seems to reject the Carstairs view; but instead of producing a third way simply nails its colours firmly to the fence: " difficult it has been for us to come to definite conclusions as to what people ought or ought not to do."

Is there not a contradiction between this reason for rejecting a moral absolute, "We think it is our duty not to stand on a peak of perfectionism", and the following fine and inspiring passage which perhaps presents the final positive message of the pamphlet?--

The challenge to each one of us is clear: accustom yourself to seeking God's will and the experience of his love and power, become used in your daily life to the simple but tremendous spiritual fact that what God asks he enables, provided only and always that we will to do his will.

In other words: "All you've got to do is to be a saint and you'll find your sexual actions are not sinful, as neither are your others". For us poor sinners, so given to blinding ourselves with self-centred desire, isn't the traditional Christian code of chastity, taking in its total Christian context of charity as defined above, more likely to clear the mists and give us a glimpse of God and his will?

John Ounsted
*The passage in brackets is, of course, John Ounsted's comment, not a quotation from the report.

Discussion on BBC Television

The report will be the subject of a discussion in "Meeting Point" on BBC Television on Sunday (February 17) at 6:15 p.m. Kenneth Barnes and Anna Bidder will be questioned by Paul Ferris, of The Observer, and a psychiatrist.

The report, price 3s. 6d., is obtainable from the Home Service Committee or the Friends Book Centre, both at Friends House, Euston Road, London, NW1.