In mid-20th-century America, the public face of anthropology was Margaret Mead (1901–1978). As her Wikipedia biography states, “Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution.”
Her distinctive cape and long walking stick became part of her public persona, which as we now crassly say, “helped to build her brand.”
Her best-known book was Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. Forty years later, paperback copies of it were everywhere, in every literate household, it seemed. Even my mother had a copy, although she would have rejected Mead’s approving description of teenaged Samoans happily slipping onto each other’s sleeping mats in the middle of the night. When I tried to read it as a teenager (having no background in anthropology then), my reaction not surprisingly was, “I wish I lived in Samoa.”
After Mead’s death, some anthropologists stated that she had been conned, that teenaged Samoan girls had filled their twenty-something American visitor’s notebooks with their fantasies, and that their society was by no means as free and easy about premarital sex as Mead reported. The arguments continue.
What popular culture (except my mother) took away from the book was simpler: It is more healthy for teens to have sex than not.
Utopian sexual ideas were in the air, as they have been at other times. Many other times. Consider the 19th century, for example: the Oneida Community with its doctrine of “complex marriage” or Joseph Smith’s re-invention of polygamy for himself and his inner circle of LDS followers.
In Complex Marriage, every man was married to every woman and vice versa. This practice was to stay only within the community and had to stay within two main guidelines. The first was that before the man and woman could cohabit, they had to obtain each other’s consent through a third person or persons. Secondly, no two people could have exclusive attachment with each other because it would be selfish and idolatrous.
Similar and new ideas both popped up in the 20th century. Your high school reading assignments might have included Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931), but I doubt that they would have included his utopian sex-and-spirituality-and-entheogens novel, Island (1962). It was popular on college campuses nevertheless, published the same year as another popular novel about sexuality, The Harrad Experiment. I could go on and on with examples, but this is just a blog post.
Colleges and universities were dropping the old rules about curfews for women’s dorms, etc. — even the whole idea of gender-separate dorms. As a student in the 1970s, I saw the walls falling faster than I ever would have imagined.
Not just marriage needed redesigning — see Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Stranger in a Strange Land(1961) — but young people did not have to wait for marriage to have sex —not that all of them ever had.
In very few years, we went from trying to constrain teen sex to trying to find ways to make it better — up until about 1969, unmarried women and girls of any age found it hard to get birth control pills or IUDs, but the pendulum swung quickly.
Intellectuals kept a drumbeat in favor of youthful sexuality: consider Jerry Farber’s The Student as Nigger (1970) or anarchist philosopher/psychotherapist Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society (1960), both of which touched on “sexual repression.”
All this is prelude to some thoughts about the reaction to Gavin Frost’s death at the beginning of the week. His and Yvonne’s Facebook page — and their daughter’s — were filled with condolences and fond memories.
At The Wild Hunt, however, the trolls came crawling out from under the furniture.
Someone whose soul must still be in middle school starts out, “From what I’ve heard the guy was a creep.” Yes, it’s the Great Dildo Controversy that refuses to die, even though some of the most outraged virtue warriors probably were not yet born when it occurred, let alone they have never met the Frosts.
People who do know them are likely to respond as did Peg Aloi on Patheos: “I’ve known Gavin and Yvonne for many years, and have always enjoyed their joie de vivre, intelligent conversation and gentle good will toward others. ”
In one version of the humorously named Witch’s Bible —probably a dig both at the Christian version and Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible (1969) — they suggested that to ease a girl’s first experience of penetrative sex, the parents beforehand should, if necessary, help her to stretch the hymen artificially.
This was another “what if?” idea, like Heinlein’s “line marriage.” Their daughter, Jo, who was a young girl at the time, has insisted vociferously that it was never proposed for her.
Part of their whole approach to teaching was to toss out ideas and say, “Try this and tell us how it goes.” If it was a good one, it would go into later lessons. If not, no.
Unfortunately for their timing, the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a pendulum swing the other way, so that we are now a point where it is considered “dangerous” if kids walk to school, or ride in the front seat of the family car before they reach age 16, or are exposed to controversial ideas in college.
So now we get Pagan mob mentality, all based on “I knew someone who talked to someone who said she knew someone who was molested by someone who had read one of the Frosts’ books.” With evidence like that, how could a lynch mob go wrong?
To quote Jo Frost on her Facebook page,
Yes, my father wrote and said controversial things that challenged you and your beliefs. . . . Armchair histrionics does not equal “warrior”– what does it say for your legacy that you stood on the shoulders of giants only to tear at them? Go get your own legacy and get the h up and do actual good works.
And, the horror, they were accused of running a “monotheistic sex cult” by one of these faceless social-media critics, which merely goes to show that (a) the writer does not know the difference between monotheism and Neoplatonic monism and should stay out of theological discussions, while (b) “sex cult” is a meaningless term, unless you do not wish to think that sex and spirituality can overlap, in which case you have ruled out much of contemporary Paganism. Pedophilia was never part of the picture.
At the very least, some critics are guilty of “presentism,” using today’s standards to condemn something that was less outrageous in the past, And granted, although he was a gentleman in person, Gavin was a stubborn Scorpio who would never apologize to anonymous critics and bullies on social media.
Jo Frost was right, you don’t make yourself a better Pagan by passing on malicious gossip about the dead. It’s ill-mannered, and sometimes it can even be bad magic. If you cannot be bothered to read the original texts — and to read them in the context of their era — then your argument is built on sand.