Cate Haste, Rules of Desire: Sex in Britain World War I to the Present,London: Vintage paperback, 2002. 356 + xii pp. £9.99. ISBN 0-099-43795-3
This book first appeared in 1992. The reasons for republishing it ten years on are somewhat obscure (there has already been an earlier paperback edition) but may have something to do with a long tradition of republishing works on sex well after one would imagine they had exceeded their sell-by date.
Rules of Desire is a moderately useful introduction to some of the changes concerning sexuality in Britain during the designated period but is by no means authoritative and does not engage with any of the scholarly debates. This may be judging it in a contest it was not entering, but as a popular work for the general reader it is nothing like as good a read as Paul Ferris’s Sex and the British: A Twentieth-Century History. When first published it had some grave omissions, and there has been no attempt at bringing it up to date, or even correcting a number of irritating errors and typos.
It is primarily a synthetic work: some primary source materials are cited, but why these have been chosen rather than others is a mystery. For example Mass Observation archives are listed among the sources consulted, but for some curious reason there are no quotations from the rich evidence generated by its post-World War II ‘Little Kinsey’ survey of British sexual attitudes (or the earlier survey of public knowledge of and opinions about venereal disease and the Government prevention campaign). In several places there is an annoying reliance on North American sources and evidence without any consideration of whether these can be taken as valid for the UK, or at least of their precise relevance to the British situation.
Haste does succeed in steering clear of superior ‘now we know better’ condescension towards the past and eschews prurience, although occasionally one yearns for a rather lighter touch. She also avoids, on the whole, a simplistic Whiggish narrative of emergence from repression into liberation, pointing out in her conclusion that ‘frustrations, dependencies, ambiguities, [and] dissatisfactions’ persist in the final decades of the twentieth century, in spite of undeniable improvements in many aspects of sexual life.
Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library