Allen Lane £25

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, By Faramerz Dabhoiwala

No sex please, we're the pre-Enlightenment British

In 1644, a young married woman called Mary Latham was hanged after being found guilty of adultery. This was in Massachusetts, but public laws and attitudes towards sexual behaviour weren't far behind in England. In 1552, Archbishop Cranmer advocated life imprisonment or exile for adulterers, while one Christian writer, Philip Stubbes, was happy to suggest branding with hot irons.

What caused the change in attitudes towards sex between then and now? Faramerz Dabhoiwala's answer is at first a simple one: it was the Enlightenment, aided by divisions between Protestants and Catholics which had people questioning not only their beliefs but also their morals. And the rise of cities also encouraged new ideas about separating the public from the private. For the first time, ordinary people could expect to have a private life, and sex belonged to that private realm.

But this explanation isn't quite as straightforward as it first seems. The structure of Dabhoiwala's history is an interesting one. Each chapter is a series of circles that spin between periods and attitudes. While this lack of linearity might seem confusing, it's a highly effective way of illustrating the contradictory nature of our attitudes to sexual behaviour.

For example, while, by the early 18th century, there was a rise in the policing of people's behaviour, and societies "for the reformation of manners" were springing up across the length and breadth of the country, the period also saw the beginnings of a more liberal attitude. There was a popular resistance to the arrests of prostitutes, and religious leaders could be pilloried on stage for their hypocrisy.

As Dabhoiwala acknowledges, by 1750, "most forms of consensual sex outside marriage had drifted beyond the reach of the law". This was critical. The Toleration Act of 1689 had been designed to increase religious tolerance, but resulted in an increase in sexual tolerance, too. Philosophers such as David Hume wrote about personal liberty.

But the late 18th-century "cult of the libertine" meant a crackdown on women's public behaviour. Society couldn't be seen to encourage these cads, so while men enjoyed greater sexual freedom, women were warned against being victims of it. First Samuel Richardson and later Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth wrote novels about once-respectable women abandoned or destroyed by such men. In the new culture of victimisation, prostitutes also changed in the public mind, from social deviants who needed to be lashed to impoverished souls forced into a life of corruption.

Dabhoiwala admits that the rise of sexual freedom is "largely a jumbled, unconscious process", messy and full of such contradictions. Women were considered the more lustful sex before the Enlightenment, after which they became the civilising influence on male sexual behaviour. And social conservatives who hark back to a golden era of proper behaviour might be startled to learn that by 1800, almost 40 per cent of brides were already pregnant. (Whether or not by their future spouse, Dabhoiwala doesn't say.) Calls for polygamy and legalised prostitution as a way of controlling the unbridled male sex urge grew louder, prior to the mid-19th century view of prostitution as "the great social evil"..

Dabhoiwala's balanced and responsible study takes a fascinating subject seriously without being po-faced, and in doing so, holds up a mirror to our own contradictory times.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?