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." I am not the slightest bit interested in any of that. Why should I care what a celebrity does in bed? I am, however, interested in the development of sexual politics, law and society, as discussed in this book. I found it an enjoyable and enlightening read. It takes a subject rife with trivia, sniggering nonsense, and myth, and presents a thoroughly researched work on the subject.
'The Origins of Sex' is one of those rare books that actually gives you plenty to think about. The author, Faramerz Dabhoiwala, presents a convincing argument for the view that sexual freedom started much earlier than is originally thought. He theorizes that the first sexual revolution began c1600, with the advent of political and religious views that sexual behaviour and copulation was something private, between couples, whereas prior to this, sex and its attendant behaviours had been a matter for Christianity, with society doing its utmost to repress what it considered to be abberrant sexual behaviours (for example: sex outside marriage, even between couples was severely punished, as was the bearing of illegitimate offspring). However, with the rise of new modes of social, political and intellectual thought, as well as the fact that printing made dissemination of such ideas through public media - novels and pamphlets etc - meant that not only did attitudes change but that a cult of celebrity put those in the public eye under scrutiny as never before. Such dubious luminaries as Kitty Fisher, Nell Gwyn and Sir Francis Dashwood shocked and thrilled in equal measure and also set the standard by how modern celebrities are targeted by the media today. A must read, not just for students of sociology and history, but anyone with an interest in how modern culture came bout.
This book is about how ideas about sex in Britain changed between 1600 and 1800, and the significance of that change in the modern West. People same to see sex as private, to think that morality shouldn't be imposed by force and to think that men are more lustful than women. The book is well written. It's not dry, academic and boring and has lots of examples of how these changes affected real people. It is organised in thematic chapters on issues like why punishment of sexual indiscretions stopped, the rise of sexual freedom and how it was connected to ideas about political freedom, the depiction of sex in the mass media and many others. The book is also very well illustrated with appropriate pictures in black and white on the pages and a selection of colour prints. If you're interested in how our view of sex has come to be the way it is you could do a lot worse than read this book.
It is difficult to understand how behaviour, beliefs and opinions change over the years but this book shows how attitudes to sexual behaviour have changed from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century. Prior to the eighteenth century pre-marital and extra-marital sex even between consenting adults was a capital offence for both parties. Such behaviour was considered to be of public concern because it was believed to undermine the fabric and stability of society. During the Commonwealth under the Puritans attitudes and morals were particularly strict.
What I found interesting was that the majority of the population supported such seemingly draconian laws. Following on from the restoration of the monarchy in the mid seventeenth century, attitudes started to relax partly because religion was not as all powerful as it had been. During the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century reason took its place and religion took more of a back seat leading to the autonomy of the individual rather than the good of society becoming more important.
Sexual behaviour gradually became a matter of the individual's concern as it is today within certain limits. I thought the author demonstrated how attitudes to women and their sexuality contributed hugely to the change in the laws. Until the eighteenth century women had played very little part in public life and likewise did not publish books or pamphlets or write letters to newspapers or periodicals.
During that century women became much more visible and their different opinions, attitudes and beliefs helped to change society's attitude to women in general. From being the scarlet temptress who lured innocent men to their downfall women were regarded as more sinned against than sinning. Measures were taken through institutions such as the Magdalen hospitals to ensure that prostitutes had ways of giving up their objectionable calling and taking up respectable ways of earning their living.
I found this book very interesting reading. It is well illustrated and well written with copious notes on the text and references to other books - both ancient and modern. There is a comprehensive index. People interested in social history and the relationships between men and women will find the book worth reading.
If you buy this book hoping for a salacious bit of soft-porn, you won't be entirely disappointed. Although the author says he's not going to peek between the bed-sheets, he can't entirely avoid it given his subject matter. There are some interesting illustrations too of broad-sheets, book plates etc that are fascinating. The author traces attitudes towards sex and towards women from the Christian Middle Ages in England up to the present day.
And that's the critical thing to notice - it's about ATTITUDES towards sex, not necessarily about where sex came from (!) which is what you might think from the title.
The author uses a huge array of sources from which to trace these attitudes and there's a very impressive bibliography at the back if you want to follow his footsteps a little more closely.
The only small gripe I would have is that it was very scholarly and occasionally a little dry in places, but I suspect the author did that on purpose to remind us of the seriousness of the subject and to avoid us get carried away thinking it's a form of mild pornography (which, btw, he explains in the book as well).
The author throws famous names from the past about, sometimes without any other information than the point he's using them to make, which caused me to keep rushing to my computer to look them up - but maybe he intended to do that- after all, he's explaining so much, why shouldn't the reader have to do some of the work?!
I would recommend this to anyone who's genuinely interested in how ATTITUDES towards sex in England have changed over the last 1,000 years and why - what were the social conditions that bred the different attitudes, why and how did they change - how are the attitudes towards sex today dependent very much on the Reformation etc.
It's a well-written book about a serious and fascinating subject, but be prepared for some side-ways glances from fellow passengers if you read it on public transport.
on 13 January 2013
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.
This is a well-written and researched account of changes in sexual permissiveness, not since the 1960s, but since the 1600s...!It is specifically about the British experience, and I am certain that those who work in the areas of gender relations and sexuality will have their quibbles and concerns about assertions herein. Not least, why did similar sexual revolutions take place across Europe, not just here? However,for the layman(or woman!) there is a wealth of detail, some surprising facts, and a determinedly non-sensationalist take on this sensitive and controversial area of history. If you are seriously interested in this aspect of social history, then this book is highly recommended. The prose flows nicely, and the complex content is dealt with in a clear fashion. Excellent!
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. It first provides a history of how views on sex had become stricter as the Catholic Church had sought to regulate moral life and how the rules had become a mixture of pagan, church and Old Testament teaching that associated sex with the fall of Adam and Eve. There was strict regulation of adultery which could be a capital crime, as well as fornication and laws against bastardy. Most of these laws were about property rights from the pagan perspective, about inheritance and not forcing the community to support unwanted children. For the church perspective the sin of lust was the driving force. But for both women faced the brunt of the persecutions as they were the ones who could get pregnant and not deny their actions.
With the advent of Protestantism and the Puritans things got even worse and laws even tighter than under a more pragmatic Catholic regime that had tolerated prostitution. The Protestants looked back to the extreme rules of the Old Testament and looked for perfection of the human spirit and so all compromise with the reality of human desire was abandoned. Yet within 50 years of this strictest times the world had changed and all the old sexual laws had been abandoned. This is the core of the author's thesis. By having so much diversity of view with the fragmentation of religion it become impossible to assert a single moral view and so society made this move into the Enlightenment that we still benefit from today.
Faramerz Dabhoiwala begins his book in the city of Westminster in 1612, with a striking account of a couple convicted of fornication and producing a bastard child. Stripped to the waist, they are tied to the tail of a cart, whipped from the Gatehouse Prison all the way to Temple Bar, and then banished from the city, and cut off for good from their friends, family and livelihoods. This was an age of superstition, speculation and religion, an age in which the concept of sin determined what was natural or abnormal for the body and its appetites, and an age in which any supposed transgressor was thought destined to be damned by an angry and vengeful god.
What this rich, intriguing and rather imaginative history book goes on to explore is the remarkable process, over the next few centuries, whereby this attitude gives way to the quite different perspective - rationalistic, empirical and scientific - that arrives with the emergence of the Enlightenment first in Europe and later North America. The Enlightenment, in its broadest terms, promised people the possibility of acquiring greater control over themselves and their environment through the application of reason, rather than superstition, with the hope that this control would in turn deliver a greater sense of happiness and personal contentment.
Dabhoiwala sees the particular impact of this on the body, and on sexuality and sexual activity, develop in stages over this period, with all of the traditional opinions about such matters being gradually challenged, revised and in some places replaced. This 'first sexual revolution,' he argues, begins partly in relation to the movement of population from the country to the towns, where there were more places and occasions for the sexes to meet and fewer opportunities for the community at large to monitor, evaluate and attempt to influence individuals' behaviour, but also in relation to the new model of civilisation created by the early phase of the Enlightenment that was founded on the principles of 'privacy, equality and freedom'.
Just as Enlightenment methods and insights encouraged people to challenge every presumption from the workings of the cosmos to the basic laws of nature, and question everything from the supposed right and proper grounds of political obligation to the most meaningful definitions of freedom, so, at the sexual level, the same kind of far-reaching critique could - in some places, at varying volumes - be heard. New arguments came to be articulated - often only tentatively or incompletely - regarding the legitimate attitude, and response, to such issues as prostitution, adultery and sexual activity in general, as well as to gender as such.
The author thus guides us along as the common concerns of the age - regarding the balance between nature and nurture, private liberty and public responsibility, self-interest and civic virtue, free expression and public probity - dare to accommodate, or in some cases hypocritically exclude, the sexual level, and also considers the accompanying activities and industries that arose during such a process, including an increasingly inquisitive and salacious media and a new business relationship involving sex, love and celebrity.
This is a fascinating topic to consider within the broader context of the history of the Enlightenment, not least because, as Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first to acknowledge, the so-called universalist and all-inclusive scope and ambitions of most (male) Enlightenment thinkers tended, for the first century of so at least, to overlook, ignore or consciously explain-away the claims of a genuinely rationalist study of sexuality alongside all other, more conventionally academic-sounding, levels and areas.
The author therefore provides us here with a clear, well-researched and wide-ranging supplementary study to the many other Enlightenment histories, and one that will generate new questions and concerns about what the previous studies omit. It explores issues relating to law, sociology, politics, culture and ethics, assesses the flaws as well as the strengths of the process and prompts further thought as to the implications for the attitudes of the present day.
Scholarly but engaging, measured but often adventurous, this is an admirable and informative book that ought to be of interest to many sub-divisions within academia, from History through to Cultural Studies, as well as a fascinating introduction to the curious lay reader. An impressive and valuable contribution.
The western world, particularly England where this book focuses, hasn't always been as free in its sexual attitudes as it is now; indeed, for most of recorded history, all of the world has been more or less the same as the Taliban is now, with little concept of individual sexual freedoms or privacy. Adulterers, homosexuals, and prostitutes are among those who were deeply stigmatized as there was no real conception of individual privacy or the idea that your sexual history might be only your own business.
When did this change? Beginning in the late 17th and moving into the 18th century, a series of fundamental shifts happened in the understanding of privacy, sexuality, and even celebrity that resulted in concrete changes to the way people in Europe viewed their lives and those of the people around them. Dabhoiwala tracks this cultural shift, which has echoes running straight to the modern day, through its origins in a variety of different spheres to understand how and why it happened and how the attitudes creates are actually still being rewritten into the present day.
I found much of this book to be absolutely fascinating. The Enlightenment isn't really my period of particular interest, so I knew very little about this subject. Coming into it from a medieval background, though, with a comprehensive knowledge of medieval attitudes towards sexuality and an idea of what happened in the Renaissance, I could recognize easily that this was actually a very significant shift. While medieval people weren't necessarily as brutal or as hard on women as we necessarily think, that doesn't mean that their society was particularly free. Sexuality outside marriage - sometimes even inside marriage - was routinely targeted as something to avoid wherever possible.
I also liked the approach that the author took here. Rather than strictly chronologically laying out exactly what was happening, he instead takes several themes and explores those and how each of them changed understanding in its own particular way. A chronological approach could have easily gotten confused; separating out particular themes and segments of history, like the rise of sexual celebrity with Charles II's numerous mistresses, helped give the book focus and lend weight to the author's arguments.
One section I particularly liked was the emphasis on the change in attitudes towards prostitution. Prostitutes were reviled in the period before this one, often viewed as tempting men into adultery and causing them to sin with their alluring ways. By the eighteenth century, the pendulum swung completely the other way, and prostitutes were viewed with extreme pity as fallen women who had fallen into impossible circumstances. The Victorians created workhouses where these women were rescued from their immoral lives, given religious training and isolated from all aspects of their former lives, and essentially forced to work for their upkeep. While this approach worked for some, with women emerging into the Victorian version of success with marriage and children, it failed monumentally for others, and the success rate really wasn't high - nor did these workhouses make much money.
A truly fascinating look into a society that radically changed the way people thought, The Origins of Sex is a work of history that is well worth your time.