Some Years Before 1963
The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution
By Faramerz Dabhoiwala (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 484pp £25)
A woman born in 1600 grew up being told she was the most lustful of God's creatures. Come 1800 and the message was reversed: she was 'naturally' delicate and pure. No longer having lusts of her own to manage, her role was to control the 'natural' lust of men and thus preserve civilisation. Dogmas about sexuality had undergone remarkable change. What remained the same was female subordination.
In this ambitious and wide-ranging book, Faramerz Dabhoiwala charts what he calls 'a history of the first sexual revolution'. He examines the religious, economic, intellectual and social pressures that provided the context for a shift in attitudes towards sexuality. The move from pre-modern to modern times was towards sexual permissiveness and privacy, and away from external controls of individual sexual behaviours. The story begins with punishment and sexual discipline and the preoccupation of both church and state with fornication. Why everybody cared so much is a good question. It was not only zealous Puritans who sought out sexual miscreants but watchful neighbours of every stripe. Adultery was a crime; in 1650 it was made a capital offence, so being shopped by your neighbours was no small matter. Even if you weren't executed for having given in to sexual passion, you might be tied to the tail of a cart and whipped through the streets to satisfy the community. Meanwhile, although the evidence is limited, it does appear that the sense of wrongdoing was often internalised: Dabhoiwala cites the heart-breaking case of Mary Latham, an eighteen-year-old married woman convicted of adultery in Massachusetts in 1644 because a young man, James Britton, had once tried to have sex with her. Both were hanged, and both apparently felt justice had been done, their consciences salved by punishment.
Few would dispute the basic premise of this book - that the Enlightenment brought about transformations in social and sexual attitudes - and it is hardly surprising that religious toleration brought sexual toleration in its wake; or, conversely, that religion in the shape of Protestantism was the driving force behind sexual discipline in the West. God was understood to be watching. Mapping the movement of these forces and linking them in a coherent argument is a challenge that, for the most part, Dabhoiwala rises gracefully to meet, although his title is misleading, and is in any case belied by the opening words of the prologue: 'We could start anywhere.' It seems we could go anywhere too, for contradiction and paradox dog every step of the way. To his credit, Dabhoiwala embraces these complexities, and while his grasp is more sure in the earlier part of the period than the later, he writes attractively, always clearly, and with a good eye for apt illustration.
Familiar material seems strange at times, in the best sense: the obsession of the eighteenth-century novel with the seduction plot here takes on new meanings. And strange matters, to me at least, are explained: for example, in the 1730s Patrick Delany, a dean of the Church of Ireland and popular Dublin preacher, produced an examination of polygamy which was printed by Samuel Richardson. Polygamy, it transpires, was seriously countenanced amongst Protestant intellectuals; and it was only by the end of the eighteenth century, when it became associated with 'dark-skinned heathens', that it was viewed as alien and unacceptable. Or, to take a better-known example, fans of Jane Austen who find her emphasis on the exact sum a marriageable woman was worth upsetting, need only consult the illustration from a book of 1742, A Master-Key to the Rich Ladies Treasury, which lists the fortunes of London spinsters, with their addresses. Three Misses Cotton in Dover Street were worth £10,000 each, the three Decker sisters in Golden Square had £15,000 apiece, and so on. In some ways this directory for fortune-hunters is more surprising than Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies - the guide to local prostitutes which began to appear in 1757 and went on selling in thousands until the end of the century.
Mercenary marriage, prostitution, libertinism, the rise of public opinion, urbanisation, religious toleration, the growth of mass culture, the explosion of print, celebrity, publicity, philanthropy and its complications are all part of the picture, and if at times the canvas seems crowded that is hardly surprising. As sexuality came to be viewed as a private matter, or a personal moral issue subject to personal control, punishment was gradually replaced by philanthropy. Prostitutes were to be saved. Charities to reclaim 'fallen' women built hospitals to treat them and preach at them, the most famous being the Magdalen - named for Mary Magdalen, the prostitute who washes Christ's feet. The women taken into the Magdalen were paraded behind a screen at church on Sundays as part of their penitence, and it became fashionable to go along and stare at them.
Public interest in sexuality didn't, of course, disappear. It took new forms. Disapproval and exploitation, chastity and lechery, purity and debauchery have always been twined around each other. By the late eighteenth century writers and publishers were working together with courtesans and other interested parties to manage the commercialisation of sexuality in a new era of burgeoning (and interactive) print. A few women profited, but the majority did not. Buggery was still a capital offence. We hear little, here, about the working classes; some consideration of Mary Wollstonecraft's representation of Jemima, an intelligent prostitute, in Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, would have helped. It's also worth noting that this 'first sexual revolution' ushered in the Evangelical movement and Victorianism.
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Norma Clarke is Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University. Her recent book is Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington (Faber).