It's easy to forget that our immediate forebears were absurdly prudish. Consider the case of William Empson, who ran afoul of the sex police in the late 1920s.
Empson may be the most influential literary critic of the previous century. All "close reading" was pioneered by him. Seven Types of Ambiguity, written when Empson was twenty-one years old and published in 1930, was the book with which my teachers were still wrestling well into the 1950s. Prompted by their puzzlement and by their enthusiasm, I dutifully read all about "ambiguity" and I also tried my best with the equally influential Some Versions of Pastoral (1935). In all frankness, both books were far too subtle for my blunt, unphilosophical brain. In 1961, when I was a graduate student, the pious and reactionary Douglas Bush, whose course in Milton was thrice-weekly transporting me to the caves of Morpheus, dismissed Empson's ground-breaking Milton's God (1961) as the work of the "village atheist." (Empson thought that Christianity was a cruel and savage religion because it was grounded in scapegoating; he demonstrated that Paradise Lost became muddy and opaque when Milton struggled with the ethical basis of core Christian doctrines. In later years, the literary leviathanette Stanley Fish made his reputation by domesticating, diluting, and popularizing Empson's challenging ideas.)
Although I had lived with Empson's work since mid-century, I had absolutely no knowledge of the author's troubled private life until I read John Haffenden's William Empson, Among the Mandarins (Oxford, 2005) which at 695 pages is the first of a projected two-volume biography. (It's far too detailed; let me confess to skipping and skimming.)
As a student at Magdalen College, Cambridge, Empson was mostly homosexual. Haffenden says that he was interested in "male bliss and buggery." The upper-class students with whom Empson interacted were gay-tolerant and the authorities practiced a de facto "don't ask-don't tell" policy. In 1929, Empson was elected to the prestigious Charles Kingsley Bye-Fellowship, which paid the then-splendid sum of 150 pounds annually. By that time, Empson had turned his attention to the other gender and was conducting an affair with a woman named Elizabeth Wiskemann who was seven years his senior. Somehow or other, a porter, an employee of the College, "found that Empson had some contraceptives in his possession." It was a scandal and Empson was arraigned by the college authorities for "sexual misconduct." He was stripped of his fellowship, expelled, his name expunged from the college records, and he was even banished from the city of Cambridge (by what authority Haffenden doesn't make clear).
For using contraceptives! For sexual relations with a woman! For preventing pregnancy! Clearly, Empson should have stuck to boys or kept clear of condoms.
Let us remember the situation of William Empson whenever conservative commentators trumpet "family values" and call for a return to the stricter sexual codes of previous generations. Or when we might be tempted to admire the wisdom of our ancestors.