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
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?