The Origins of Sex:
A History of the First Sexual Revolution
By Faramerz Dabhoiwala
Oxford, 496 pages
It is March 10, 1612. In a courthouse in Westminster, England, an unmarried man and woman, accused of having had sex with each other, are brought before the assembled magistrates. After a brief proceeding, a verdict of guilty is rendered and the two reprobates are sentenced to be “stripped naked from the waist upwards, and so tied to the cart’s tail and to be whipped from the Gatehouse in Westminster unto Temple Bar; and then to be presently banished from the city.” Harsh, even draconian, punishments for the whole panoply of sexual transgressions were routine in 17th-century England. Yet by the early decades of the 18th century, zeal for the prosecution of adultery and fornication had faded considerably, and “by 1750 most forms of consensual sex outside marriage had drifted beyond the reach of the law.” The last English prosecution for adultery as a public crime apparently took place in 1746, by which time the prostitute had become more an object of pity than of communal outrage, and the aristocratic libertine could—with a modicum of discretion—conduct his affairs without fear of earthly retribution. What happened to bring about such an extraordinary change in so fundamental an aspect of social practice and ethical norms? In this fresh and engaging book, Faramerz Dabhoiwala answers that question in terms of the interplay of two successive revolutions in European thought: the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
This is a work of serious scholarship, to be sure, but it is also a good read, entertaining, chockablock with fascinating—and often explicit—accounts of the libidinous doings of assorted “bawds,” “libertines,” “whores,” and “rakes,” “fallen women,” “harlots,” and “courtesans.” That these very terms have largely fallen into disuse and all but demand scare quotes, is linguistic testament to the sea change in popular attitudes toward what were once called “sins of the flesh.”
The evolution of the belief that sex between consenting, unmarried adults is a private matter, properly beyond the reach of criminal sanction (and, in time, beyond even the scope of social disapprobation), is a striking historical development. Dabhoiwala regards it as “one of the main differences between the premodern and the modern world.” Although we tend to associate the liberalization of sexual mores with the social and political upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries, Dabhoiwala offers up a compelling case for the view that the “first sexual revolution” was already underway in the 17th century and was more or less complete two centuries later. The change in sexual attitudes begins with the Reformation and the subsequent fracturing of the Protestant movement itself. Although “concupiscence of the flesh” had—since the time of Paul and Augustine—made sexual discipline a moral imperative for every Christian, the traditional Catholic view was that “fleshly lusts were reprehensible but inevitable” and could be only imperfectly restrained. By contrast, the early Protestants deplored the Catholic church’s laxity in the enforcement of sexual morality. They believed that unchaste behavior could be eradicated and that Christians were under an obligation to do so. Where Protestantism spread, sexual immorality was treated with ever-increasing hostility and ever more severe punishments. (Martin Luther, among others, advocated the execution of adulterers.)
In Protestant Europe, sexual discipline came increasingly to be seen as fundamental to the social order. It is not difficult to understand why: Illicit sex challenged the principle that women were the property of their fathers or husbands; bastardy, payments to prostitutes, and gifts between lovers threatened inheritance and property rights; venereal disease, the infanticide of bastard children, and general social discord were further consequences of moral laxity. The extensive regulation of personal life was understood as essential to the public good, a notion that squared well with the pre-Enlightenment conception of society as being made up not of individuals, but of households and families. Greater policing of sexual behavior found widespread support in the populace and “symbolized the central values of the culture,” writes Dabhoiwala, manifesting itself in “a system of grassroots self-regulation, of communities policing themselves and upholding collective standards of behavior.” This provided a means both of saving souls and preserving social cohesion, matters far too important to be left to the sphere of personal interpretation.
Ironically, though, the Reformation itself had sown the seeds of a radical shift in the religious, legal, and political stances toward sexual behavior. As the Protestant movement expanded and then splintered into diverse, antagonistic forms and sects, politico-theological conflicts—e.g. the Church of England vs. Puritans, Parliamentarians vs. Royalists—raised important issues of social policy, not least among them the issue of sexual policing, a central preoccupation of the times. Adultery and fornication remained no less within the scope of legal sanction—and certainly no less disapproved of—but the abolition of Church courts in the 17th century shifted responsibility for the enforcement of sexual morality to the civil sphere. Civil societies dedicated to the prosecution and—increasingly—the reformation of prostitutes (as well as other reprobates, such as Sabbath-breakers and public drunkards) grew in number as did the volume of cases prosecuted. (In England, between 1715 and 1725, the numbers approached 2,000 convictions annually.) At the same time, explosive urban population growth in London, most especially, made the business of rooting out and punishing sexual transgressions more difficult.
The ultimate result, however, of the secularization and professionalization of the policing of morals was that the task ceased to be an expression of “communal self-regulation” and fell instead to a corps of salaried employees whose motives and competence varied. The shift in enforcement from those with recognized moral authority to those with merely (dubious) legal authority “greatly reduced the willingness of ordinary men and women to take part in moral regulation.” The combination of prosecutorial inefficiency, a burgeoning population, and the steady diminution of the perceived legitimacy of the prosecuting authorities narrowed the scope of sexual policing to such an extent that by the end of the 18th century, “the machinery of criminal justice in this sphere, vigorously active for so many hundreds of years, had fallen almost entirely into disuse.”
But the social and legal aspects of the transformation in attitudes toward sexual behavior were only part of the story. As Dabhoiwala goes on to show, the Enlightenment—the “most profound intellectual earthquake ever to hit the Western world”—was essential to that transformation. He sees the sexual revolution as more than a chapter in the history of private life; it was a reflection of Enlightenment principles of privacy, equality, and freedom. Dabhoiwala understands the Enlightenment as “not merely a set of self-conscious philosophical debates amongst intellectuals, but a series of social and intellectual changes…which altered almost everyone’s conceptions of religion, truth, nature, and morality.” This understanding situates his analysis of the sexual revolution firmly in its historical and philosophical context and is one of the most admirable qualities of the book.
The notion of personal liberty in Enlightenment thought was, initially, a political and legal one. Yet, crucially, “from the later 17th century onwards…its potential scope came to be seen as much wider, encompassing not just spiritual but, in due course, moral freedoms too,” thereby putting into play the question of to what extent personal autonomy should be subject to external restraint. Although the tension between governmental authority and the rights of the individual had been at issue since the time of the English Civil War, the expansion of religious tolerance following the English Revolution of 1688 lent increasing force to the notion that individual conscience should serve as one’s ethical guide. Dabhoiwala cites this as one of the deeper intellectual trends leading to the toleration of nonconformity more generally: “As it came to be presumed that people’s consciences could not be compelled, the punishment of sexual transgression lost much of its traditional justification.” In addition, within the maelstrom of religious pluralism and conflict that followed the Reformation, new conceptions of human rights, reason, moral authority, and natural law converged, radically altering—and sometimes overturning—earlier views of sexual morality. Advances in the natural sciences, as well as in metaphysics, supported the view that nothing—including ethical matters and scripture itself—was immune from examination before the tribunal of reason. Although sexual liberty was not “a central aim of the Enlightenment,” it was nurtured by the same intellectual forces that led to the pervasive questioning of traditional views of politics and religious freedom.
Dabhoiwala is particularly insightful in his examination of how the newfound questioning of sexual morality was expressed in the works of key writers, artists, and thinkers of the period and, more generally, in the emerging popular media of the time. The new genre of the novel “exploded into the most influential fictional form of all, and became a central conduit of moral and social education.” Samuel Richardson’s wildly popular novels, Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison, established the themes of male rapacity and the seduction of females as normative: Men naturally seek to sexually dominate and exploit women; women naturally recoil at such attempts and seek to preserve their chastity and honor. The seduction narrative was the principal plot of novels of the time, with rakes and libertines preying on weak and pitiable women. The paintings of William Hogarth, depicting the lives of prostitutes and those who exploited them (among them the series “A Harlot’s Progress” and “A Rake’s Progress”), became wildly popular. Hogarth “put into an easily readable visual narrative the growing contemporary obsession with female victimization, libertine impunity, and the uselessness of punishment.” More broadly, however, 17th-century depictions of sexual liberty became a form of entertainment more than a means of moral instruction, and virtue came to be defined more in terms of secular notions of “reason, civility, and the dictates of human nature” than of divine law.
The book’s many merits notwithstanding, a few small criticisms are in order: The subtitle should more properly have been “A History of the First Sexual Revolution in England”; its coverage of developments on the Continent, and in those countries where Catholicism remained regnant, is relatively light. Also, there is little discussion of contraception and virtually none whatever of abortion. Given the book’s breadth, however, these are relatively minor quibbles.
There is a great deal more to be mined in The Origins of Sex: Issues of class, the influence of female writers and thinkers, and evolving conceptions of marriage are further topics explored in detail. Dabhoiwala writes deftly and with authority and the result is a work of scholarly heft that is also a pleasure to read.