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.

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