The Origins of Sex : A History of the First Sexual Revolution Paperback
For most of western history, all sex outside marriage was illegal, with the church and state punishing any dissent.
Between 1600 and 1800, this entire world-view was shattered by revolutionary new ideas - that consenting adults have the freedom to do what they like with their own bodies, and morality cannot be imposed by force. This groundbreaking book shows that the creation of this modern culture of sex - broadcasted and debated in a rapidly expanding universe of public media - was a central part of the Enlightenment, and helped create a new model of western civilization whose principles of equality, privacy and individual freedom last to this day.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 496 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date: 17/12/2012
- Category: Social & cultural history
- ISBN: 9780241955963
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Review by Widsith
There's a pernicious assumption visible in a lot of modern treatments of sex and gender relations, which boils down to the following idea: that men want sex, and will pursue it aggressively, while women want love and have to fend off men's sexual advances until they get it – at which point sex may be offered as a sort of reward. This nonsense underlies everything from chick flicks to Apatowesque bromantic comedies, from advertising to political debates, from song lyrics to prizewinning novels, and it has been deeply internalised by a lot of people.Some writers have sought justification for it in evolutionary psychology (unconvincingly); Gordon Rattray Taylor tried to explain it by means of an extended effort at religious psychoanalysis with his <i>Sex In History</i> back in the fifties. I enjoyed that book, but its scholarly credentials seem a bit doubtful. Faramerz Dabhoiwala's <i>The Origins of Sex</i> is the book I've been looking for: measured, entertaining, convincing, and completely absorbing.First of all, he makes the important point that our idea of what men and women want is a uniquely modern phenomenon. Throughout the Middle Ages, ‘the basic idea [was] that sex was fun, and that men and women desired it, indeed required it’, and furthermore ‘it had always been presumed that women were the more lustful sex’. He locates the important change – in this attitude and in several others – as taking place over the two centuries from 1600 to 1800, and that is where the book's focus lies.Let's be clear, there was nothing utopian about the pre-modern view of sex. It was a misogynistic set-up, and it was used to justify a widespread culture of forced seduction and rape. In fact, what Dabhoiwala brings out very effectively is the tragedy of the fact that the changes towards a more modern view came about because of growing concern over women's rights. Activists thought that a developing stress on ‘the “naturalness” of female chastity’ would better protect women and lead to a more equal society; actually, it just became another way ‘in which the intellectual foundations of patriarchy were gradually reshaped’.Dabhoiwala traces this process through diaries, letters, trials – and also the growth of the novel, a medium which emerged during this period, and which is deeply shaped by these ideas. The trope of men assailing female chastity is of course central to Richardson, and we get a good look here at just how fascinated literary society in general was with this basic concept. There is also a good exploration of the rise of celebrity prostitutes, some of whom raised vast fortunes through a little judicious blackmail.Sex was seen as so polluting for women that a single incident could turn them from a respectable lady to a whore literally overnight. When the idea was mooted by legal activists of forcing a man to marry any girl he seduced, Sir Sydney Montagu MP was less than impressed: ‘he that doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it upon his head’. This book is crammed with similarly mouth-dropping anecdotes. I loved hearing about the dubious academic methods of William Acton, the great Victorian authority on prostitution, who concluded ‘merely from their appearance’ that ‘a third at least’ of all the girls he saw at a London dancehall must be whores.My only quibble really is with the title – this is basically a study in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social history rather than a comprehensive history of sex. But what there is I found deeply engaging, and this book really helped crystallise a lot of ideas for me about monogamy, sexual relations, and early feminism that I'd been thinking about for years. It's also extremely relevant. These attitudes are the ones that shaped the modern world…and sadly, the way women in this period are either ‘desexualised’ or turned into celebrity prostitutes is likely to be something you'll recognise pretty quickly after you put the book down.