Old body language

Sex in Georgian England:
April 7, 1995

The history of sexualities is now a very popular topic. Of course, some historians have always enjoyed recounting what to them seemed titillating tales of virgins, seducers and rapes. The current interest, however, is in deconstructing our ideas about sexuality as being natural, a single drive with the object of heterosexual genital coupling. The histories of sexuality now seek to show how ideas of the sexual have changed over time, and how the perspectives of men and women may differ on sexual relationships.

A. D. Harvey has taken as his subject the history of attitudes and prejudices. These, as his chapter headings show, are dictated by male dominance of the discussion: "Women's bodies - and how men looked at them", "The waning of female lust" and so on. He argues that during a period from 1720 to 1820, which he terms "the 18th century", attitudes and assumptions changed. The change was not sudden, but part of a long process of transformation. Men became obsessed with women's virginity and the theme of seduction as their idea that women were the more sexually demanding of the two sexes waned during the 17th century.

Harvey writes for a general audience, a laudable aim at a time when many historical studies are thick with jargon and obscure language. But his attempt is fraught with difficulty, first, because he recognises only one perspective on 18th-century sexuality, and secondly, because 18th-century concepts do not translate readily into modern parlance. He begins his first chapter with an invitation to examine the human nipple in the pages of Playboy or Mayfair. This suggests a male reader as well as an author, and as the work proceeds, it is clear that the attitudes and prejudices he wishes to discuss and to illustrate are those of 18th-century men only. Women writers, he claims, mostly steered clear of the subject of sex. This, even if it were true, surely requires some further discussion: why would women be silent? But there are sources about women's attitudes, although they would require some searching out. For example, there is the early 18th-century diary of Sarah Cowper, who recorded her distaste for sexual activity. The genre of female authored advice books would be worth examining for a different perspective.

Eighteenth-century people behaved differently from late 20th-century ones, and the attempt to help the reader to understand their sexual economy by translating their stories into our terms is misleading. Harvey writes of women as tarts, men as young studs, and of "Biblical dirty old men" and randy old queens. Male sexual activity he writes of as "having it off", "he screwed them both", and so on, although at other times he coyly refers to "goodnight embraces" between soldiers and women. By writing as though sexual categories are clear and unambiguous, he ignores serious historical differences, such as those, for example, between prostitution, and "kept mistresses". The former, he thinks, was a contemporary synonym for "any unmarried woman who had mislaid her virginity", which suggests a breezy tolerance of what many regarded as a serious social evil. It would be worth noting that the "mistresses" of kings were always in a different category from those whom society labelled "whores", and that as they were sources of patronage, men usually treated them with ingratiating respect.

There is a final problem which is unacknowledged by Harvey: how to touch pitch without himself being defiled? Some of the material he cites verges on the prurient. How to avoid appearing to wallow in this, and to find it amusing, does not seem to worry him. The illustrations are themselves a case in point. While some are related to the text, the point of reproducing a series of positions in which sexual intercourse can take place is not explained. Even his more serious points, such as that 18th-century men had difficulty in distinguishing between seduction and rape, are lost in his pages of "writhing limbs". There is little discussion of the difficulties presented by source material, and his account of the context of his discussion of attitudes lacks depth. For example, he argues, not unreasonably, that sexual restraint was "normal practice" in the 18th-century, but his conclusion that "most premarital sex was between people intending to marry" ignores a range of issues which historians have argued about. Can the illegitimacy rate be used as a measure of sexual maturity? In the end, the questions are not seriously raised or pursued. Overall, what could have been an interesting discussion remains very limited.

Patricia Crawford is an associate professor of history, University of Western Australia.

Sex in Georgian England:: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s

Author - A. D. Harvey
ISBN - 0 7156 2624 8
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £20.00
Pages - 169pp

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