The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

Hallie Rubenhold reviews a thoughtful analysis of the period when sex became a private matter

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Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Faramerz Dabhoiwala
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25

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In the early 17th century an adulterous couple caught in the act would have plenty to fear.

They could be tried publicly for their crimes and punished brutally for them. With or without the sanction of the church, communities regularly turned on those who transgressed sexual norms by shaming, shunning, denouncing and physically chastising the guilty parties.

Yet by 1800, a man could, within certain parameters of discretion, openly keep a mistress, rear a brood of illegitimates, and visit prostitutes. If caught in flagrante with another man’s wife, he was more likely to fear for his finances than for the safety of his person.

In those intervening years, something momentous had happened to change this, argues Faramerz Dabhoiwala, in his fascinating new work. True to the book’s title, he seeks to trace this fundamental shift in the perception of sex and sexuality during the Enlightenment and tackles some very broad territory along the way.

By the 18th century, sex was policed, regulated and regarded in an entirely different framework. Dabhoiwala’s principal argument is that due to religious divisions, the growth of cities, and a shift in political and cultural ideals, sex eventually came to be seen as a private matter, not something to be governed by outside forces.

The influence of Enlightenment thinking on the question of how men managed their own bodies and desires cannot be underestimated.

The concept that men should allow their consciences to lead them so long as they harmed no one, was one of many precepts to come out of this era. While this doctrine may have been responsible for libertinism, it also helped to give rise to a society with a more sexually liberal outlook.

Such philosophy soon came to bear on the relations between men and women.

As the sexual urge came to be regarded as ‘a natural impulse’, so prostitution came to be tolerated as ‘a necessary evil’, preserving innocent women from the lusts of men, and men from the lures of sodomy. However, sexual permissiveness, though expanding, would never be broad enough to embrace homosexuality and masturbation, which continued to be condemned as unnatural.

Neither was this revolution interested in promoting the notion of female sexuality. By 1800, women were no longer considered as lustful as men, but passive by nature.

As the dissemination of these ideas was ultimately as important as the discourse surrounding them, Dabhoiwala bases much of his study on an examination of the era’s printed material. He incorporates everything from engravings of actresses to Hogarth’s progresses, and pornography to a body of written work which expresses the experiences of male and female authors.

The result is an impressively illustrated argument, both literally and figuratively.

As Dabhoiwala asserts, there have been many books examining sexual cultures in this period of change, but rarely do scholars look at how this change came about. This extensive study fills in the context nicely and acts as a much needed addition to the canon of texts on sexual history. 

Hallie Rubenhold is the author of Mistress of My Fate: The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot (Doubleday, 2011)
 

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