Hard News by Russell Brown

Mr Dalrymple

Reader Stephen Walker got in touch yesterday with a WTF? as regards this Herald story about the visiting commentator Theodore Dalrymple, who told Herald reporter Simon Collins that the "sexual revolution" and a consequent plague of sexual jealousy are to blame for rising arrests with respect to family violence.

"I'm too creeped out to even google the guy," says Stephen.

Let me help. Dalrymple is not, we should be clear, your typical modern right-winger. He is a conservative, who alleges that the liberal left and the libertarian right are parts of one unholy conspiracy. He writes quite nicely in the Spectator tradition and compared to the likes of Mark Steyn he is both a gentleman and a scholar. His offerings on the mythologising of Lady Diana Spencer were dazzling, and his work as a prison psychologist (under his real name, Anthony Daniels) has offered him insights denied to most of us.

But he suffers from the usual failings of his ilk: a tendency to regard something as true merely because he has asserted it; and a predilection for fantasy about times past.

Take this essay, All Sex, All the Time (for the City Journal a publication of the conservative think-tank The Manhattan Institute, which commonly publishes his work), in which Dalrymple decries the destruction of Victorian morals around sex at the hands of a roll-call of criminals of the sexual intellect.

"A hundred yards from where I write this, 12-year-old prostitutes often stand under street lamps on the corner at night, waiting for customers," he laments near the top, going on to slate the local police chief for declining to victimise them, and local health authorities for their "proud boast that 100 percent of local prostitutes now routinely use condoms."

Not all of the prostitutes on his street corner are 12 years old, of course - in fact, only a tiny, tragic minority will be - but Dalrymple loves to generalise like this. People "often" and "frequently" do the most ghastly things in his essays.

But the very obvious flaw in his argument is not that. It is his implication that somehow such things did not exist, at least to the same degree, in the Victorian era. In fact, they were far, far worse. There were tens of thousands of prostitutes on the streets in Victorian London. And children? This brief account of the prostitution trade in that era reads like the horror novel of a madman:

"Pain became an essential ingredient for pleasurable sex … and since the defloration of very young virgins can be excruciating, Victorians were obsessed with a 'defloration mania.' The screams of children became indispensable, shrill torture was the 'essence of delight' and many gentleman would not silence a single note.

Such a process netted the child into permanent prostitution. The result is that in nine cases out of ten, or ninety-nine out of a hundred, the child, who is usually under fifteen, frightened and friendless, her head aching. ..and full of pain and horror, gives up all hope, and in a week she is one of the attractions of the house." (quoted in Edholm, 1893, p.20).

Or this passage from a Victorian newspaper:

"Flogging or birching goes on in brothels to a much greater degree than is generally believed. One of Mrs. Jeffrles' rooms was fitted up like a torture chamber... There were rings in the ceiling for hanging women and children up by the wrists, ladders for strapping them down at any angle, as well as the ordinary stretcher to which the victim is fastened so as to be unable to move. The instruments of flagellation included the ordinary birch, whips, holly branches and wire-thonged cat-o'-nine-tails."

Suddenly, the liberal intellectuals whose mores are pilloried by Dalrymple, do not seem quite as bad. The author of the page I have linked to above notes that there were occasional social alarms about child prostitution in the era, but that "left unsaid about these waves of consciousness is the entire ocean of blame for the victim surging behind it." It also notes that it was fairly common for adult males to believe they could cure their own venereal diseases by having sex with children. So, yes, the local police chief and health workers don't seem quite so bad in that light either.

Liberals, in Dalrymple's writing, are a nameless force. He creates entire armies of liberal straw men, as Curtis Bowman (who is not so much scornful of Dalrymple as disappointed in him) notes in this critique. Bowman has written a series of such critiques, including one in which he identifies the Dalrymple Manoeuvre:

What, you ask, is the Dalrymple manoeuvre? If you've been reading my posts on Theodore Dalrymple, you know that it's the dogmatic insistence that some particular instance of anti-social or self-destructive behavior is the fault of liberalism. The insistence is dogmatic because it intentionally overlooks other possible explanations of the unseemly behavior. It's not that I habitually disagree with Dalrymple's conclusions; it's that the case that he makes in support of them is almost always inadequate.

I might add that it's also a bit dated. The sexual revolution against which Dalyrymple rails peaked 35 years ago: the credibility of Dr John Money (a favourite Dalrymple target, and, oddly enough, a Brethren child from New Zealand) ebbed away with it. The radical feminism he despises peaked a decade later. He ignores the fact that many feminists are equally as horrified by the pornification of culture as he is.

But back to Dalrymple's blaming of the "sexual revolution" and a consequent wave of "sexual jealousy" for a rise in arrests associated with family violence. For a start, as this Ministry of Justice report points out, the rise in arrests since 1994 is most likely due to a renewed police focus on family violence, and a direction to take it seriously and bring stronger charges against those responsible. It's also hard to see how oversexed liberalism explains the high rate of family violence in conservative Pacific Island families. Might this all be just a tiny bit more complicated than Dalrymple suggests?

Dalrymple's theorising also falls down badly when you look at one of the New Zealand success stories: in an environment which has far more strongly encouraged the reporting of such offences, the rate of sexual offending has trended down for more than a decade. Our incidence of rape is now markedly below that of Australia, Britain and many other countries. And all this with the godless liberals at the helm.

I find it odd that Dalrymple can believe that gender and sexuality are immutable and polar and yet somehow expect people who have never felt anything other than gay to just pull themselves together and go straight for the good of society. That he can rightly champion love and commitment yet refuse to recognise that they might exist outside heterosexual marriage. That the "enduring values" he champions have in fact consistently evolved over time (indeed, we would find some commonly held values of a hundred years ago repugnant now).

Basically, the world and its ills are a more complex business than Dalrymple and the people who are hosting him here (including the dreadful For the Sake of Our Children Trust) would have us believe.

PS: On a related theme, Cactus Kate has a great piece of writing about the "modern orgasm", what women want, and why it's not a good idea to base your sexual technique on porn movies.