Sex and Drugs and The Foxtrot

The emergence of the UK rave scene in the late 1980s ushered into the lives of numerous young people experiences of another type of reality: taking place at first in illicit spaces (fields, disused warehouses) and eventually migrating into clubs, these events involved dancing to rhythmic music, an intense social environment in which the cramped identities of the workaday world were shed and the racial, class and gender hierarchies that they supported were actively reshaped or cast aside. These events also involved the use of stimulant drugs, which fuelled and facilitated the whole mix of music, movement, rhythm and transcendence.

The authorities found this night-time bacchanalia into which their children were drawn by their tens of thousands sufficiently threatening to pass the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act of 1994, which referred specifically to “repetitive beats” and provided the police with sweeping powers to stop people from “attending or preparing for a rave.” Following these legal manoeuvres, electronic dance music has tended to be associated with licensed clubs, and clubbing has become a characteristic facet of urban culture, with numerous young people enjoying dancing and the taking of (mainly) ecstasy as an alternative to the more traditional forms of night-time leisure centred on the use of alcohol.

The mixture of stimulant drugs, late nights of dancing, rhythmic music with its roots in Africa and the frisson of both criminality and social & parental disapproval is not, however, a new one. These same elements were to be found in the London of the First World War and the years that came after it, and the panic they generated in the media and among those in authority is surprisingly familiar to us, looking back across the intervening century.

Dancing, Clubs and Drugs

On June 12th 1914, The Times carried a report of a coroner’s inquiry into the death of a young woman, who went by the name of Laura Grey. The piece was headlined “A Young Girl’s Downfall”, and, in time-honoured fashion, it told the tale of a formerly good girl’s descent into madness and suicide after getting mixed up with a bad crowd.

“…She left home and went on the stage. Since then it was shown by other evidence that she had become addicted to alcohol and drugs, and for the past 18 months she had been frequenting nightclubs and leading an immoral life.”

Newspapers have, ever since, maintained this tradition of the cautionary tale, usually involving a young woman, whose departure from the path of convention is portrayed as a warning to us all. There is a distinctive element to the tale of Laura Grey: she had gotten involved with “militant suffragettes”, a fact which greatly exercised the coroner Mr Inlgeby Oddie, who opined that “the very fact that she should mix with these law-breakers and anarchists raises a very strong presumption as to her mental…unsoundness.” The coroner is here implying that she must have been at least a little mad to get involved with these political radicals demanding votes for women.

But this political element is seen as inextricably linked to a broader narrative of sexual pleasures taken outside the confines of the marital bed—“leading an immoral life”—of theatre, nightclubs and dancing; and the whole sorry pattern is somehow bound up with her use of forbidden drugs.

The Great War of 1914-18 was the first industrialized, global war unleashed with the horrific arsenal of weapons gifted to us by technology. Something else momentous happened at the same time; the state began to intervene in social and individual life to an extent that was hitherto unknown: along with mass war we got the mass organization of populations. Conscription, controls on production and consumption, the regulation of nightlife and entertainment all appeared first or grew much more intensive during this period. Pubs, for instance, which had previously been able to open from 5 in the morning to 12.30 at night, were now confined to 12 to 2.30 and 6.30 to 9.30 opening. Beer was also watered down. One of the consequences of restrictions on opening hours was the huge growth in unlicensed clubs in central London. They have their equivalent today, some of them occupying the same Soho streets they occupied in the 1920s. These clubs enabled after-hours drinking, late night dancing, socializing, mixing with other sexes, races, classes, and the taking of drugs. The police would regularly raid and close down these establishments; they would invariably open under another name a day or two later.

The agony and the ecstasy

Karl Marx made the famous observation that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. There is certainly a great deal of repetition in the didactic drug story (the story that contains a moral warning). And the case of Leah Betts, an 18 year old from Essex who died after taking Ecstasy at her birthday party, is a tragic one. Her parents stayed at home to watch over the party and specifically to make sure that no drugs were used; her mother was a nurse who gave instruction in the avoidance of drug use, her father a former metropolitan police sergeant. They had, of course, warned their daughter never to take drugs. When, on that fateful November night in 1995, it transpired that she had, her father Paul Betts told the assembled press that “If people could only see my daughter…this pretty 18 year old…flat on her back and unable to breathe…they would never take a drug again.” At this point, Leah was in intensive care, but she later died. The police stated that, “There’s a dealer out there selling poison.”

In fact, investigations proved in due course that Leah had died from drinking too much water. The Ecstasy she had taken, contrary to early reactions from the authorities, was not contaminated. In addition, there was no dealer somewhere “out there” selling the drug; Leah had been supplied by her friends, and had used the drug several times previously. Her parents have since gone on to become high-profile advocates of an ‘anti-drugs’ message. This is the very same message that failed to impact on Leah’s behaviour; she wanted to experiment, to have fun, to do things with her friends that only those in the know would recognize. “Just say No” really doesn’t begin to get to grips with these deeper questions of identity, transgression, pleasure.

But those of us at a greater emotional distance from the events of that 18th birthday party can perhaps learn a broader lesson with respect to the management of drugs in contemporary societies.

Like the young people of the years after the First World War, these groups of friends wanted to have fun, to dance all night, to feel stimulated, to generate their own symbolic space. The drug use of the 20s generation was, it seems, successfully repressed by the state and its agencies; a new body of prohibitive laws was brought to bear on it, working in combination with a set of social norms distributed through families, the education system, medicine and so on. Drug use was portrayed as being incompatible with respectability, reason and normality, and, some small sets of bohemians and localized ethnic cultures aside, was vanquished from British society.

However, events over the last few decades have shown that the entire set of norms of which abstinence from drugs was a part is currently being subjected to processes of historical change that have their roots in global processes. These processes are beyond the control of states, let alone families and teachers, nurses and policemen.

Sexual norms, those surrounding work and family, consumption and class, identity and belonging, all are in a state of flux. This has resulted in what sociologists have termed the ‘normalization’ of drug use among large sections of adolescents and young adults. Preventative education and repression through the action of the criminal justice system are not effective in stopping people using drugs. This is a fact of life at this point in history. The question is, what do we do about it?

In the long run, democratic societies are going to have to recognize the validity of some of these types of behaviours and to find ways of supporting them within the culture, rather than simply forbidding them by means of laws and norms.