Sorry about the sexual explicitness of this article, but it shows how bizarre and prudish Thatcher’s attitude to sexual awareness was.
Amongst the documents released under the thirty year rule yesterday were a number that revealed the battle between Norman Fowler and Maggie over how much the general public should be told about the transmission of HIV. There was a serious fear in Britain and the rest of the world that unless action was taken, AIDS would become a massive epidemic that would carry off millions of lives. It has, it is true, done so, and continues to do so, especially in Africa. The fear in Britain and other parts of the western world was that the contagion would be far more severe, perhaps even comparable with the Black Death which destroyed between a third and a half of the European population in the late 14th century.
Governments in Britain, America, New Zealand and Australia rushed out public information films to inform people of the dangers of this terrifying new disease. The one shown in Australia/NZ was particularly horrifying, as it showed Death knocking down people like bowling pins. In America, the approach was rather more subtle. All governments were urging their peoples to use condoms during sex to prevent the spread of the infection. American prudishness and sensitivity meant that in their films, contraception couldn’t be explicitly mentioned. The film therefore showed someone putting on a sock to protect his feet, while giving a little speech urging people to put similar items on if they wanted to protect themselves while having sex. A number of comedians made jokes about how ridiculous and spectacularly uninformative this was at the time.
But Maggie Thatcher seems to have shared some of those prudish attitudes. Fowler wished to publish a string of adverts in newspapers and magazines pointing out the particular dangers of anal sex. At the time this accounted for 85% of all cases. Thatcher, however, wanted to block this, as she was afraid that if the great British public found out about it, they’d start doing it.
At which point, you begin to wonder precisely where Thatcher got her ideas on sex from, and how much she really understood the people over whom she ruled. Perhaps well brought up ‘gels’ of her class and generation weren’t supposed to know about such things, rather like the massive sexual ignorance that plagued 19th century England. Unfortunately, even my grandparents’ time, such basic biological facts as menstruation weren’t taught in schools, so that many girls were frightened and bewildered by the changes that their bodies underwent at puberty.
And in the first half of the 20th century, when homosexuality was illegal, a number of people really didn’t know it even existed until they were in the early adulthood. I can remember a friend of mine telling me about one writer or actor, I’ve forgotten quite who, who said that he was in the 20s when he found out that there were such things as gays. And even then, his first reaction was that the person who told him was pulling his leg.
But by the time Thatcher got into power in the 1980s, people knew about gays and anal sex all right. All Thatcher needed to do to find out about this was to have one of her cabinet ministers tell her some of the coarse jokes being bandied around bars and pubs. Or school playgrounds. I found out about it all in secondary school, where there were some very crude jokes. Many of the circumlocutions used for gay men also referred obliquely to anal sex. In 19th century England one of such euphemisms was ‘gentleman of the back door’. Lenny Henry had a section on his TV show at the time, sending up the contemporary vogue for screen adaptations of novels set in pre-independence India. These were The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India. Henry spoofed them and the racial attitudes behind them as ‘The Jewel in India’s Passage’, which is surely a double entendre on the back passage, the human rectum. Just a few years ago Julian Clary made the same double entendre in the title of his autobiography, A Young Man’s Passage.
Or Thatcher could simply have turned the TV on. The 1980s saw a number of dramas, which included gay characters, or dealt with gay relationships. Gay sex could not be shown on TV, along with masturbation and bestiality, but even so there was a new sexual frankness there. And some of the comedies could be extremely explicit and very coarse, despite the traditional constraints on what was fit for broadcast. One of the programmes I remember on ITV at the time was Spooner’s Patch’, a police comedy about a particularly coarse and boorish police captain and his unit. It was written by Galton and Simpson, the pair responsible for the classic Steptoe and Son, who really should have known better. One episode included homosexuality, and had Spooner making a number of very coarse and bigoted comments about ‘brown hatters’. These were very clear in describing homosexuality in terms of anal sex, even if they didn’t describe it in those exact terms. It was all a very long way away from the 1950s, when comics and comedy writers were told they could not makes jokes about ‘effeminacy in men’, along with other taboo subjects such as religion, the monarchy, disability or the colour question.
What made Thatcher’s views even more anachronistic and misplaced is that a few years previously there had been the massive scandal surrounding the gay affair Jeremy Thorpe had with a male model, leading blackmail demands and a hitman allegedly being hired to shoot the man’s dog. This was so notorious that it led to schoolchildren using ‘Jeremy’ as a term of abuse.
All this shows just out of touch and petit bourgeois Thatcher and her sexual attitudes actually were. Now there are genuine issues about how much children should be taught about sex in schools, including homosexuality. Children do need some, if only to understand their bodies, the physical changes that go with puberty, and the need to protect themselves against STDs, and not just AIDS. There are those, who would prevent them knowing even about that. Peter Hitchens, the Conservative journalist and writer for the Mail on Sunday, opposes sex education on the grounds that it was started in Hungary in order to break the power of conservative Christian parental attitudes. He believes it encourages promiscuity. This is news to me. I remember the sex education we had at school, how awkward some of out teachers looked talking about it. And despite raging teenage hormones, the dry descriptions of the act were quite enough to put you off it. In the same way, Thatcher must have been out of her tiny little mind to think that knowing about anal sex would make the rest of British society want to try it. Anyone already interested in experimenting with gay sex was far more likely to be influenced by David Bowie and the sexual ambiguity of his Ziggy Stardust persona than get even remotely turned on by an advert warning of the dangers of a terrible and debilitating disease.
There are reasonable limits to how much children should be taught about sex and when. But adults reading newspapers and magazines are different. People need to be informed. And, to paraphrase the slogan used about the disease at the time, it’s not just AIDS which will kill you due to ignorance.