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The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution [Hardcover]

Faramerz Dabhoiwala
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Feb 2012

Nowadays we believe that consenting adults have the freedom to do what they like with their own bodies. We publicise and celebrate sex; we discuss it endlessly; we are obsessed with the sex lives of celebrities. We think it wrong that in other cultures people suffer for their sexual orientation, that women are treated as second-class citizens, or that adulterers are put to death. Yet until quite recently our own society was like this too. For most of western history, all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state, and ordinary people all devoted huge efforts to suppressing and punishing it. This was a central feature of Christian civilization, one that had steadily grown in importance since the early middle ages.

In this brilliant, ground-breaking book, Faramerz Dabhoiwala describes in dramatic detail how, between 1600 and 1800, this entire world view was shattered by revolutionary new ideas - that sex is a private matter; that morality cannot be imposed by force; that men are more lustful than women. Henceforth, the private lives of both sexes were to be endlessly broadcast and debated, in a rapidly expanding universe of public media: newspapers, pamphlets, journals, novels, poems, and prints.

The Origins of Sex shows that the creation of this modern culture of sex was a central part of the Enlightenment, intertwined with the era's major social, political and intellectual trends. It helped create a new model of Western civilization, whose principles of privacy, equality, and freedom of the individual remain distinctive to this day.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (2 Feb 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846144922
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846144929
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 288,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Faramerz Dabhoiwala was born in Bristol in 1969. He grew up in Amsterdam, was educated at York and Oxford, and became a historian through a succession of happy accidents. He is now the Senior History Fellow of Exeter College, at the University of Oxford. 'The Origins of Sex' is his first book. More information can be found at his website,

Product Description


In this significant historical debut, Faramerz Dabhoiwala presents his readers with a revelation: how early, and how suddenly, the permissive society arrived in Christian Western Europe.Over three centuries ago a revolution took place in Western attitudes to sex; it began in England, but all modern Westerners are its heirs, and now it is challenging and remoulding patterns of sexual behaviour throughout the world.The book is not simply a finely-crafted work of history, but a study that will reshape the way its readers understand the most intimate level of their lives.It may even bring some sanity to modern debates about sexuality. (Diarmaid Macculloch)

In this brilliantly argued, lucid and enthralling book, Faramerz Dabhoiwala describes the first sexual revolution - a sea change in attitudes towards sexual morality, the public and the private. The Origins of Sex shows how far men enjoyed, and women endured, the new sexual world. It is a majestic and provocative history of ideas and attitudes. (Amanda Vickery)

About the Author

Faramerz Dabhoiwala was born in England, grew up in Amsterdam, and was educated at York and Oxford. He is the Senior Fellow in History at Exeter College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and the father of two children. This is his first book.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sex and the Enlightenment 10 Feb 2012
By Eleanor TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
In this his first book Faramerz Dabhoiwala argues that 'the origin of modern western attitudes to sex lies in the great intellectual and social revolutions of the eighteenth century'. By building up a detailed and well-evidenced picture of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dabhoiwala shows how England moved from a culture where sexual behaviour was seen as public matter with public punishments, to one in which the boundaries of public and private and the limits of sexual freedom were much more ambiguous.

Dabhoiwala acknowledges that this transformation 'came about in a remarkably messy and inadvertent way, from the piecemeal and sometimes incoherent assimilation of old and new points of view'. This means that for every example, there is a counterexample and for every increase in sexual freedom, Dabhoiwala can also point to a decrease elsewhere. This, however, is true of a lot of things, and it is to Dabhoiwala's credit that he doesn't ignore the evidence for the sake of a clearer narrative. The book ends with a survey of post-1800 attitudes to sexual freedom which addresses why there was a return to a more repressive culture.

"The Origins of Sex" is a readable study, full of interesting episodes and characters, from rakes, libertines, and reformers to harlots, courtesans, fallen women, and virgins. As the chapters are organized thematically, I did sometimes feel that there was too much repetition and recapping of what had gone before, however this is a minor criticism. I finished with a much clearer picture of the eighteenth century and was surprised at how many attitudes that we take for granted were not prevalent before that time. The book is made more enjoyable by Dabhoiwala's humanity, his humour, and finally his well-chosen plates and illustrations.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating, revealing and enlightening work 2 Feb 2012
By Stephen Citynskyj TOP 100 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
When thinking of the sexual revolution in the subtitle, one might leap to the 1960s, but of course the story goes back a few hundred years before then, making it not so much a revolution as an evolution, albeit one which began with revolutionary ideas.
The book is a fascinating and thorough academic look at the development of western views of sex and sexuality. It begins in earnest in the 17th century, when new ideas about sex emerged, in particular ideas that sex was not a matter for the church or the state to rule over, that lust was an innate Human trait, and that sexual morality could not be imposed.

The book is literate, academic and serious, but it is certainly not dull. Given the subject matter and the vast number of historical events, court cases and social changes that it encompasses, it offers plenty on every page to enlighten and surprise the reader. It delves into stances taken by governments and courts, religious authorities, royalty, and society at large, through the centuries, and shows their consequences on the lives of everyone through those centuries.

What struck me most in reading this book is how much the events of the last five hundred years have shaped current society, the legal system, and moral thinking. For example, adultery (and mistresses), prostitution, polygamy and homosexuality have been variously reviled and accepted through the ages, and for many reasons. There is also the important matter of media coverage of such subjects, which has often been at the cutting edge of change, challenging moral opinions, society's rules, and the laws of states and churches.

I must say I take issue with the jacket blurb: "We publicize and celebrate sex; we discuss it endlessly; we are obsessed with the sex lives of celebrities.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
No it's not Adam, Eve and the snake who went places he shouldn't. It's about the sexual revolution, enlightenment, and so on. How we went from being madly prudish to madly relaxed and then the other way around and where we are now. It's historically very interesting and most amusing without being obscene though if you don't like pictures of phalluses (phalli?) steer clear.

I found the change of opinion, whereby suddenly people started wondering whether consenting adults should have been just left alone to do what they wanted, fascinating and remarkably swift. It makes you wonder if we'll experience another abrupt 'revolution', if not an enlightenment, in the future.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Swinging 1760's... 12 Jun 2012
By stylepuppy TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
You can't help being struck, after reading The Origins of Sex, by the extent to which it's a history of guilt and shame - or perhaps more correctly a history of the manipulation of guilt and shame, usually by religious organisations, to manage social behaviours. Difficult to deny it's also largely a history of misogyny and chauvinism too, since the tightest bonds are always on the female. Of course the other striking thing, and probably the best reason for the book, is the degree to which we all still live in the shadows of this guilt and shame in our contemporary lives.

Like any good history the book makes more visible the social edicts we take for granted revealing where they began and the reasoning behind them, if any ever existed. Having established where these social strictures came from the book then reveals how they were challenged and changed through the Enlightenment, it wasn't only in the 1960's that these things were upended. It's an academic book, for example there are 80 pages of references at the end, but its a very readable and approachable one too. It's never less than interesting and, although you might need more than a passing interest in the subject to stick with it, your commitment is well rewarded.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Opened my eyes to parts of the past.
This is not a book about sex so if that's what you are looking for look elsewhere.
This is a history of British morals and attitude to sexual relationships. Read more
Published 21 days ago by zuma
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting read.....
A riveting read and so informative. Easy to see how even today's 'morals' have their roots in extreme religious and behavioural concepts from 100's of years ago!
Published 2 months ago by J C Kensway
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and well researched
I found this book extremely interesting, and I learned many things from it I didn't know.
The history of the sexual revolution is fascinating, and the author does a great job... Read more
Published 5 months ago by MemeBuendia
2.0 out of 5 stars The Origins of Sex-a very dull read
Looked forward to reading this as the reviews sounded very interesting but it was a real plodding narrative and very repetative. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Linda Greenwood
5.0 out of 5 stars Explains a lot of our current hang-ups about sex
This is a wonderfully written history of the development of sexual rules from the end of the 17th century through to the end of the Enlightenment. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Andrew Dalby
4.0 out of 5 stars Sexual Enlightenment?
This is not an easy flick through read, but if you are looking to read something intelligent and enlightening about sexual attitudes of the past then this is a good book to... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Angela Lovelace
4.0 out of 5 stars History for our generation?
When I first saw this book in Waterstones I thought that there had been a very through research made of the subject. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Mr. A. Mowatt
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb book
One of the best academic books I have ever read, and certainly the most enjoyable and consistently impressive work of history I have read. Read more
Published 12 months ago by C.T. Onions
3.0 out of 5 stars Academic
I found the writing too academic and dense in tone, so though strikingly well written and researched, and with wonderful historical detail, I didn't enjoy it as much as I would... Read more
Published 13 months ago by minty
5.0 out of 5 stars Serious Sex
Don't be fooled by the title - there is nothing titilating about this scholarly history of the 'great change'. Read more
Published 14 months ago by The Outsider
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