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

Sarah Toulalan lauds a look at how carnal crime and punishment gave way to a stress on private consent

February 9, 2012




Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex begins with a deceptively simple statement of intent: "The emergence of modern attitudes to sex in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries...constituted a great revolution. The aim of this book is to explain how it came about." The shift from pre-modern to modern attitudes that is the subject of this landmark work consists of the movement away from prosecution and physical punishment of fornication, adultery, illegitimacy and lewd behaviour by ecclesiastical and secular law to the dismantling of this apparatus of sexual discipline and the emergence of the presumption that sexual behaviour is largely a private matter of consent between individuals. Explaining this transformation is no mean feat, especially as there is no straightforward, linear trajectory that can be traced: ideas are shifting, slippery things that are propounded, debated, accepted and rejected, disappearing and reappearing over time, and do not translate easily or obviously from initial utterance to actual behaviour. Moreover, as Dabhoiwala notes throughout, shifting ideas about the toleration of non-marital consensual sex, and to whom it should be of concern, did not lead to the widespread acceptance of sexual liberation for women or homosexual behaviour until after what he argues should be seen as the second sexual revolution, in the late 20th century.

In tracing the transformations in thinking about sexual life and its relationship with religion and morality, the law, public and private life, nature and the individual, Dabhoiwala analyses matters in light of major political, intellectual and social trends. As he shows, there were several key components to the unravelling of the public culture of sexual discipline. In the UK, the abolition of ecclesiastical discipline in 1641 and the subsequent failure to reach agreement on its longer-term replacement meant that the number of prosecutions dwindled: the 1650 Adultery Act, which imposed the death sentence for adultery, had very limited "success", and it was repealed when the monarchy was restored in 1660. Increasing urbanisation and a rising population encouraged anonymity, loosened community self-regulation and placed "the conventional machinery of sexual discipline under impossible strain". The Restoration court's licentiousness set an example of a more lax morality, which the Society for the Reformation of Manners attempted to counter, although its efforts met with popular resistance and a lack of widespread support. The gravitation to secular and paid policing from the 1740s brought with it a shift to the prosecution of crime rather than sexual immorality, which was no longer regarded as the province of criminal law. Sexual discipline had long depended upon the watchfulness of the community and its preparedness to apprehend and prosecute transgressions, but by 1800 this had disappeared.

Dabhoiwala argues, however, that the greatest spur to the first sexual revolution was the emergence of religious toleration, which brought sexual toleration in its wake. The growth of religious nonconformity, with the proliferation of sects during the Civil War years and eventual religious pluralism after the 1689 Toleration Act, ushered in a wider acceptance of liberty of thought and belief that would later be applied to other issues. Thus, "the view that men and women's ethics were essentially private and beyond legal coercion marked a notable reduction in the scope of sexual discipline". Morality and the reformation of behaviour were to be inculcated through education and the development of personal conscience. Eighteenth-century society's growing preoccupation with politeness further meant that arguments against adultery "were now increasingly couched in terms of good manners, civility, and conscience", and also that "the burden of sin and its rectification fell much more upon private conscience than on public justice".

A further consequence of the end of religious conformity was the questioning of the nature of truth and the rejection of the absolute veracity of the Bible if contrary to reason. Growing familiarity with other societies and cultures with divergent laws and practices encouraged the view that these were the result of human custom and tradition rather than God-given and immutable. Marriage and chastity could be seen as invented traditions and sexual freedom as natural. However, as Dabhoiwala points out, such liberty was the preserve of heterosexual gentlemen, as "reason" also dictated that female chastity was necessary for the preservation of family honour and the legitimacy of inheritance.

Changing ideas about male and female sexual appetite - with the shift from women to men being thought the more lustful - coincided with the rise of the novel as a genre and "the cult of seduction" as a central theme. Male predatory behaviour, especially towards servants, had always been commonplace and is extensively documented in Church court prosecutions for illegitimacy. Whereas previously they were held responsible for their own downfall through lust, now "fallen women" could be understood as innocent victims of male rapaciousness, exploitation and abandonment, and hence capable of redemption. Female authors, especially of novels, added weight to the idea of women as naturally chaste, innocent victims of male seduction. Such ideas were embodied in medical and scientific ideas about the biological foundations of male and female "nature", and these were reflected in new attitudes towards prostitution and its regulation, and in pornography. Thus, Dabhoiwala maintains, a major legacy of these shifts in thinking, and one that continues to underpin policy, legislation and public opinion, is the view that "social and economic circumstances can leave women at risk of sexual exploitation; that in such conditions their own free will and moral consciousness are compromised; and that external intervention is justified to save them from degradation".

Central to the spread of these ideas was the extension of literacy and the expansion of the popular press, where questions of sexual morality and marriage were endlessly debated and a wider diversity of views publicised, including the argument that sex outside marriage was not entirely dangerous or wrong. Hence, Dabhoiwala suggests, by the end of the 18th century, "a new openness about sex had transformed the culture of the English-speaking world. A whole range of sexual ideas and practices, within and without marriage, was now discussed, celebrated and indulged more publicly than ever before."

Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex is a huge achievement. He has brought together a wide range of ideas and issues to show how the gap between pre-modern and modern ways of thinking about sex was bridged. One obvious criticism, however, is that the book is Anglocentric, focusing on English sources and London in particular, weakening its claim to speak for Western attitudes more broadly. Claims for the particular "newness" of 18th-century phenomena such as print media, including pornography and the representation of prostitutes as "celebrities", are arguably overstated, as these were perhaps more an acceleration of earlier trends. Further questions are raised by the continuities in the condemnation of extramarital sex and the shame of illegitimacy. It could be argued that pre-modern rates of bridal pregnancy indicate greater tolerance of premarital sexual behaviour than its prosecution and physical correction would suggest, becoming problematic only when promises to marry or lack of paternal support placed the consequences of sexual immorality on the community. Moreover, 18th-century press openness on sexual matters closed down in the 19th, and salacious details were no longer reported on grounds of public decency.

Nevertheless, this is an exciting, beautifully written, persuasively and finely argued book that will inspire great debate and revision, ensuring its place as a reference point in the histories of sex and of ideas for years to come.

The Author

Faramerz Dabhoiwala was born in England but grew up in Amsterdam.

Aged 18, he was intent on studying politics and modern history, but once at the University of York, he shifted to art history and the history of the Middle Ages, inspired by Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches (1987).

He went on to the University of Oxford to complete a DPhil in the early modern period, followed by a research fellowship at the University of Sheffield, where he remained for two years under Ian Kershaw, "whom we all referred to as 'God' behind his back". On completing his DPhil, he was awarded a research fellowship at Oxford.

Thriving in the "wonderfully interdisciplinary" environment, he says he contemplated becoming a human rights lawyer or diplomat before he was given a permanent university lectureship at Oxford and "realised I couldn't let go of this fascinating research".

He enjoys music, art, wine, cooking, sailing and playing with his daughters Jocelyn, 9, and Zoe, 6.

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

By Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Allen Lane, 496pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781846144929

Published 2 February 2012

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