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The Origins of SexReview - The Origins of Sex
A History of the First Sexual Revolution
by Faramerz Dabhoiwala
Oxford University Press, 2012
Review by Hennie Weiss
Oct 9th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 41)

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution is Faramerz Dabhoiwala's first book and a massive undertaking. When focusing on the time period between 1660 and 1800 in England, and employing various forms of research, such as books, pamphlets, letters, newspaper, art and prints, it is understandable that altogether this book is close to 500 pages.

Dabhoiwala starts by discussing the views concerning sexual immorality in medieval times where sex was deemed unclean, to the Reformation where religious ideas permeated the beliefs about sex, and illicit pregnancies and bastardy were deemed societal problems, and were socially policed. The foundations of sexual discipline were based on patriarchal principles where women were considered property and sexual and spiritual impurity were very much intertwined.

According to Dabhoiwala the sexual revolution began with the collapse of public punishment. Different campaigns and societies sexually policed the people of England. As metropolitan areas (especially London) increased in size and numbers of inhabitants, public policing became increasingly difficult, which helped formalize the idea of law enforcement for payment. Moral policing was therefore moved into the civil sphere through bills and acts used to curb inappropriate sexual behavior (such as premarital and extramarital sex), even though social policing and punishment, especially against the poorer classes, prostitutes, and brothel keepers remained common.

Alongside the collapse of public punishment was also the spread of religious division. In 1689 the Toleration Act legalized religious plurality, even though people's beliefs were slow to change. Religious toleration did however help develop sexual toleration. The ideological concept of liberty also helped weaken the belief that religious plurality caused social disorder. Alongside the Enlightenment emerged never views of sexual behavior. Chastity was sometimes deemed artificial and sex outside marriage was said to have its benefits. Therefore, by 1800 every previous belief about sex had been challenged. But sexual toleration was not equally distributed. Women, homosexuals and prostitutes still faced discrimination, prosecution and ridicule.

Dabhoiwala states that since the dawn of civilization it was presumed that women were more lustful and sexual than men. By 1800, the complete opposite was deemed true. In light of the never-ending problem of sexual harassment, abduction, rape and other nonconsensual behavior, the notion that men were corrupting women was common. The belief in male sexuality was spurred by the increasingly relaxed attitudes concerning religion, chastity and communal moral regulations. Prostitutes were increasingly deemed victims, seduced by men, a notion popular and common in writing, such as fiction and novels. As more women became writers, stories about women focused increasingly on men as dangerous seducers. The alternative views of prostitutes lead to a great increase in workhouses and asylums for sexually immoral women and prostitutes (known as the Magdalen houses or Magdalen asylums). The increase of such establishments were philanthropically funded and designed to make bad women into good ones. Success rates varied, but the focus on sexual charities was immense.  

Alongside the views that men were sexually aggressive grew the notion that women were morally superior, and that women ultimately should tame male sexuality. As science became more widespread, and the intellectual foundation of patriarchy more solidified, the ongoing discussion of nature versus nurture helped sharpen the sexual division between women and men. Morality and chastity were believed to be both innate as well as learned. Therefore, education was deemed important to curb sexual feelings and behaviors, especially for prostitutes. Based on their lack of education, the lower classes were considered to be less moral (which was also based on an innate assumption of inferiority). Except for education, several different proposals for safely channeling male sexuality existed. Accepting prostitution seemed a reasonable outlet for curbing male sexuality, as did suing for breaching a marriage promise, as well as having a man marry and care for a woman he had sex with, even if forcible rape occurred.

Even though influential books, texts, poems and engravings existed before the rise of the periodical press, its invention spurred the transformation of communication and inevitably the origins of modern attitudes towards sex. There was a "…growing public fascination with the lives of low-born whores" (p. 296), where biographies, pictures and gossip helped perpetuate a culture of celebrity. The growth in printed media and literacy, alongside the mass publishing of printed materials contributed to public discussion, reader interaction and the spread of news and new ideas. The earlier notion that sexuality was a public matter, solved through communal policing, became a private matter as cities grew and religious diversity deepened. With the help of the periodical press, sexual behavior yet again became a public matter, but in a different way than before. The celebration of sexual pleasure (foremost male and heterosexual) resulted in a new openness of sex through men's clubs, but also through the distribution of erotic pictures and pornography.

Dabhoiwala notes that the increasingly relaxed views concerning sexuality and sexual behavior of today are recent constructions, based on the intellectual and social revolutions of the 18th century. Dabhoiwala therefore spends the last chapter focusing on sexuality after 1800 to present day (the Victorian era and the 21st century). As we have come a long way in our attitudes towards sexual behavior, it is important to remember that severe punishments and restrictions have sustained western culture for much of its history and the modern views on sex are indeed, very recent.

Noted throughout the book is also the concept that the sexual revolution did not benefit everyone equally. Gender, class and social status were constant factors of inequality throughout the sexual revolution, which is something that Dabhoiwala discusses throughout the chapters. Although not mentioned much in this review, Dabhoiwala also discusses the trend of marriage through monetary transactions, the discussions concerning polygamy, its benefits and drawbacks, as well as detailed discussions concerning sexual orientation. His analysis therefore provides a multifaceted discussion of sex based on different characteristics.

The intended audience is foremost scholars in history or those interested in the history of sexuality, such as sociologists, those who study gender, feminism and the sexual revolution. Nonetheless, a general audience will also find the book intriguing. The fact that the book is almost 500 pages, and the language is fairly complicated may detract readers although it is well worth the time. It is important to note that much of the material concerning sexuality and sexual behavior uses mature language and may be triggering to some. The same is true for some of the art used throughout the book.


© 2012 Hennie Weiss


Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.


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