A year ago, I sang ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ by Robert Burns at the annual Scottish banquet at Manhattan’s University Club. Afterwards, my dinner partner, an American chap, asked me what it was about. Regret, I said. Just look at the last line.
But my false lover stole my rose [virginity]. And ah! He left the thorn [unwanted pregnancy] with me.
The American is a feminist metropolitan, and so responded with due sensitivity. ‘Burns must have really understood women,’ he said. I agreed. From Burns’ love letters, it is evident that he used his way with words to climb inside their heads and, from there, into their beds. Burns fathered a number of illegitimate children. In 18th-century Scotland, a relationship with him could be truly ruinous. Burns’ misdemeanours earned him a bad reputation among many of his contemporaries. At one point, he tried to flee to Jamaica. But he was summoned back to sit publicly upon the solemn Kirk’s Stool of Repentance.
Yet succeeding generations have, by and large, viewed Burns’ behaviour less severely. On ‘Burns Nights’, which will be celebrated tomorrow, Robert Burns is fondly remembered as a ‘ladies man’. Sometimes, with a cheeky wink, as a ‘womaniser’. This year, however, Burns will be trying the titles ‘sex pest’ and ‘rapist’ for size. The change of tone came earlier this month when the former National Poet for Scotland, Liz Lochhead, referred to Burns as ‘Weinsteinian’.
The incriminating article was a letter Burns wrote in 1788 to his friend Bob Ainslie, in which he describes having sex with his soon-to-be wife Jean Armour who, by this point, was in her third trimester carrying his twins. In the spirit of an unfair trial, I shall quote Burns selectively. Firstly, on the subject of Jean:
‘I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter, and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones.’
Secondly, on the subject of his penis:
‘Oh what a peacemaker is the guide wheel-willy pintle! It is the mediator, the guarantee, the umpire, the bond of union, the solemn league and covenant, plenipotentiary, the Aaron’s rod, the Jacob’s staff, the prophet Elisha’s pot of oil, the Ahasuerus Sceptre, the sword of mercy, the philosopher’s stone, the Horn of Plenty, and the Tree of Life between Man and Woman.’
Lochhead deemed this a ‘disgraceful sexual boast to his friend’, and concluded that ‘it seemed very like the rape of his heavily pregnant girlfriend.’ Striding to his defence, however, Burns scholar and playwright Catherine Czerkawska said, ‘to label as rape the events described in the notorious “horse litter letter” is to oversimplify a relationship of great complexity.’
So what should we make of this? If you’re like me, you have a hunch that the incident described was both painful and degrading. Certainly, if Jean Armour were my friend, I would not hesitate to suggest dumping her boyfriend. But in any case, the jury has been out on Robert Burns for 230 years. Armour, alas, never shall reach out of her grave and carve #MeToo upon her tombstone.
Besides, as his biographers have often sympathised, Robert Burns resented the criminalisation of his sex life and his social status as a ‘fornicator’. Burns was a libertine ahead of his time. Religious restraints, he believed, didn’t apply to him. But in the Weinstein age, Hollywood, and culture more broadly, are undergoing a great purge, which seeks out sleaze in every dark corner. In the place of 18th-century sexual ethics, it is unclear what moral criteria we can use.
As far as I can tell, the syllogism of modern feminism is as follows: all consensual sex is fine; all non-consensual sex is not fine; therefore all sexual activity which is not fine, whatever that may mean, must be non-consensual. Consent is key, clearly. But it gets murky fast: When is seduction coercion? Objectification harassment? When are womanisers rapists?
Legally, and according to common sense, the answer depends entirely on the circumstances. Case-by-case. But culturally, it doesn’t lean that way. In Burns’ society, there were sexual constraints yet mercy for the contrite. By way of parody, our own culture permits everything and forgives nothing. A few months ago, The Spectator called this reactionary puritanism the ‘sexual reformation’: a counter-revolution to the swinging sixties.
In 1792, Burns’ contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She wrote, ‘I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body’. She warned that ‘those beings who are only the objects of pity’ will ‘soon become objects of contempt.’ Burns mocked this in his poem The Rights of Woman later that year. He wrote the opposite:
‘First, in the Sexes’ intermix’d connection,
One sacred Right of Woman is, protection. –
The tender flower that lifts its head, elate,
Helpless, must fall before the blasts of Fate.’
This sentiment is now treated quite seriously – and by women themselves. For instance, take the recent controversy with an upcoming Harper’s piece. The article has not yet been published, but earlier this month mass twitter hysteria ensued when rumour broke loose that Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, intended to ‘out’ the creator of the Shitty Men in Media List.
Writing for The Cut, the spreadsheet’s creator, Moira Donegan, then came forward of her own accord. She wrote: ‘People who opposed the decision by Harper’s speculated about what would happen to me as a result of being identified. They feared that I would be threatened, stalked, raped, or killed.’ She continued, ‘All of this was terrifying. I still don’t know what kind of future awaits me now that I’ve stopped hiding.’
A radical departure from their forebears, mainstream feminism is now driven by fear. But why? I can’t shake the question: are women starting to wonder whether the sexual revolution was so liberating after all?