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The Fascinating Story of the Original Sexual Revolution

We tend to think of sex as something primal and unchanging, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Academic history — the kind backed up by piles of primary-source research and hedged with cautionary remarks — is often useful, but rarely fascinating. Most of it, however, isn’t about a subject as perennially engaging as Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s. The Oxford historian’s new book,  “The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution,” describes how sex became modern in 18th-century England, a transformation that explains “the profound chasm between our present attitudes to sex and those that prevailed for most of western history.” We tend to think of sex as something primal and unchanging, but as Dabhoiwala tells it, nothing could be further from the truth.

“The Origin of Sex” begins with an anecdote from 1612. An unmarried couple accused of fornication and bastardy (producing an illegitimate child) were dragged before the magistrates. They were convicted, then sentenced to be stripped naked to the waist, “whipped from the Gatehouse in Westminster unto Temple Bar” before the jeering public and then banished from the city — severed from their families, former friends, and previous occupations. Publicly shamed and condemned, their lives as they knew them were over.

As extreme as such penalties sound, Dabhoiwala argues, they were generally approved by the populace. Even “members of the gentry and aristocracy” would be punished for “adultery and other sexual crimes,” and that was fine by their neighbors, who saw the stern policing of sexual behavior as a communal as well as a church responsibility. By contrast, a little over a hundred years later, Londoners would be founding hospitals to rescue and reform “fallen women” and gobbling up printed accounts of the exploits of famous courtesans. It was a huge change: from a culture of what Dabhoiwala calls “sexual discipline” to one where many viewed sexual pleasure as natural, something you couldn’t really expect people to forgo — at least, as long as those people were heterosexual men of the higher classes.

The causes of this change are numerous and complex, and it’s particularly difficult to explain because most contemporary people assume that everyone in the past saw sex much as we do now — albeit, with a greater degree of “repression” and a longer list of forbidden activities. Dabhoiwala’s trickiest task is presenting a clear enough picture of pre-Enlightenment conceptions of sex that you can appreciate how profound the 18th-century revolution was.

You may have heard, for example, that in the Middle Ages women were regarded as the more erotically insatiable and adulterous gender. That’s true. However, this was not because the medievals thought women felt more lust than men; everyone was assumed to be subject to more or less the same amount of sinful desire. Women, however, were supposed to be weaker than men morally, less able to control and subdue their unchaste urges. The medieval concept of manliness owed much to the classical model, with its celebration of self-mastery, but with an added Christian suspicion of sex as fundamentally and problematically worldly, even within matrimony. As St. Paul put it, “It is better to marry than to burn” — but better yet to do neither.

All ages have their sexual renegades and bawdy humor, but looking at these doesn’t always give you a sense of how most people lived and thought. Dabhoiwala uses the rate of illegitimate births as a rough guide to just how much adulterous sex was going on at any given time. He also examined court records of trials for adultery, bastardy and other sexual transgressions. The medieval model of sexual discipline, it turns out, was quite effective, and the Adultery Act, passed by the Puritan-dominated Parliament in 1650 and making adultery a capital crime, was even more so. In 1650, only one percent of all babies were born to unmarried women. By 1800, it was 24 percent, and furthermore, 40 percent of women getting married were already pregnant.

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