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The Origins of Sex: A History of the First…

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (2012)

by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

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There's a pernicious assumption visible in a lot of modern treatments of sex and gender relations, which boils down to the following idea: that men want sex, and will pursue it aggressively, while women want love and have to fend off men's sexual advances until they get it – at which point sex may be offered as a sort of reward. This nonsense underlies everything from chick flicks to Apatowesque bromantic comedies, from advertising to political debates, from song lyrics to prizewinning novels, and it has been deeply internalised by a lot of people.

Some writers have sought justification for it in evolutionary psychology (unconvincingly); Gordon Rattray Taylor tried to explain it by means of an extended effort at religious psychoanalysis with his Sex In History back in the fifties. I enjoyed that book, but its scholarly credentials seem a bit doubtful. Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex is the book I've been looking for: measured, entertaining, convincing, and completely absorbing.

First of all, he makes the important point that our idea of what men and women want is a uniquely modern phenomenon. Throughout the Middle Ages, ‘the basic idea [was] that sex was fun, and that men and women desired it, indeed required it’, and furthermore ‘it had always been presumed that women were the more lustful sex’. He locates the important change – in this attitude and in several others – as taking place over the two centuries from 1600 to 1800, and that is where the book's focus lies.

Let's be clear, there was nothing utopian about the pre-modern view of sex. It was a misogynistic set-up, and it was used to justify a widespread culture of forced seduction and rape. In fact, what Dabhoiwala brings out very effectively is the tragedy of the fact that the changes towards a more modern view came about because of growing concern over women's rights. Activists thought that a developing stress on ‘the “naturalness” of female chastity’ would better protect women and lead to a more equal society; actually, it just became another way ‘in which the intellectual foundations of patriarchy were gradually reshaped’.

Dabhoiwala traces this process through diaries, letters, trials – and also the growth of the novel, a medium which emerged during this period, and which is deeply shaped by these ideas. The trope of men assailing female chastity is of course central to Richardson, and we get a good look here at just how fascinated literary society in general was with this basic concept. There is also a good exploration of the rise of celebrity prostitutes, some of whom raised vast fortunes through a little judicious blackmail.

Sex was seen as so polluting for women that a single incident could turn them from a respectable lady to a whore literally overnight. When the idea was mooted by legal activists of forcing a man to marry any girl he seduced, Sir Sydney Montagu MP was less than impressed: ‘he that doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it upon his head’. This book is crammed with similarly mouth-dropping anecdotes. I loved hearing about the dubious academic methods of William Acton, the great Victorian authority on prostitution, who concluded ‘merely from their appearance’ that ‘a third at least’ of all the girls he saw at a London dancehall must be whores.

My only quibble really is with the title – this is basically a study in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social history rather than a comprehensive history of sex. But what there is I found deeply engaging, and this book really helped crystallise a lot of ideas for me about monogamy, sexual relations, and early feminism that I'd been thinking about for years. It's also extremely relevant. These attitudes are the ones that shaped the modern world…and sadly, the way women in this period are either ‘desexualised’ or turned into celebrity prostitutes is likely to be something you'll recognise pretty quickly after you put the book down. ( )
  Widsith | Apr 8, 2013 |
No matter how fascinating the topic, I always approach nonfiction skeptically. While some is well-written and engaging, it sometimes seems the authors are intentionally trying to put their readers, mostly luckless students, directly to sleep. Much as I love sleep, I can generally manage it just fine on my own, so I have no interest in such tomes. Thankfully, the writing of The Origins of Sex, while highly scholarly, is also pretty readable so far as serious scholarship goes.

What strikes me perhaps most of all, having read this book, is how little progress we have actually made as a culture with regards to sex. Sure, we went through a sexual revolution and all of that, and we definitely see ourselves as being way more open to sex than our antecedents, but this just isn't the case. I mean, the idea, which is most definitely still pervasive, that women don't have as much of a sexual drive as men do, for example, stems from the mid eighteenth century. Prior to that point, women were believed to be lusty tempters, like Eve. Really the only real difference lies in the treatment/place of women in society, but that's not too different in all countries, and it doesn't apply much to the sexual realm for many.

It should be noted that Dabhoiwala is speaking specifically to the development of opinions of sex in Europe. The discussion is, in fact, limited almost exclusively to Britain. However, the thought there obviously impacts the United Stated quite a bit. I'm not sure how helpful this would be to completely different cultures, except perhaps to get people thinking about their own cultures treatment of sex throughout the ages.

Scholarship may not be your thing (honestly, it's usually not mine either), but there are some seriously shocking facts in here, as well as some facts I'm just going to store away. The focus is definitely on the treatment of women with regards to sex, so I definitely recommend this to feminists. Now, just so you can see how entertaining history can be, I'm going to share a couple of fun facts with you about special 'masculine sex clubs':

"One of its most vigorous proponents, the politician Sir Francis Dashwood, founded several libertine societies. At the centre of his estate he built a temple to Venus, landscaped to resemble a gigantic vagina."

"Even more remarkable was a much humbler club called 'the Beggar's Benison,' which from the 1730s onwards spread from the east coast of Scotland to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and as far afield as St. Petersburg in Russia. Its members met regularly to drink, talk about sex, exchange bawdy jokes and songs, and read pornography. They paid young women to strip and display themselves naked. Their central purpose was to compare penises and masturbate in front of one another, singly and together, in elaborate rights of phallic celebration."

"In the United Kingdom it is now legal for a man to brand his wife on the buttocks with a red hot iron during sex."

Men are WEIRD. What blows my mind most is that there were so many societies doing this. And they had accoutrements. It's like they thought they were a special phallus religion. Gross. As for the last, what I want to know is can the woman brand him? If not, that is RUDE. These are just a couple of historical goodies you can learn in The Origins of Sex.

I found this to be an entirely enlightening read, and recommend it highly to anyone interested in scholarship on the history of opinions on sex. It will definitely make you question some of our modern thoughts, as you realize that they're not really modern at all. ( )
  A_Reader_of_Fictions | Apr 1, 2013 |
Western sexuality was, until the Enlightenment, more or less like that of the Taliban, with execution of homosexuals and adulterers, and no notion of individual privacy. Most histories of sexuality get started around 1800, but Dabhoiwala catalogues the fundamental change between 1650 and 1800 that created modern sexuality: the idea that sex was benign, that it was a private secular matter, that men not women had the greater sexual appetite, that prostitutes were to be pitied not feared, and other assumptions that largely shaped Victorian sexuality and were only re-examined in the late 20th century. It’s a bit discursive, with more than strictly necessary on the economics of prostitute reform or the trade in plagiarised pictures of notorious courtesans. He also chooses to run a range of topics in parallel over the same time period, rather than tell a chronological story, which works but covers the same ground several times. ( )
  adzebill | May 5, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199892415, Hardcover)

A man admits that, when drunk, he tried to have sex with an eighteen-year-old girl; she is arrested and denies they had intercourse, but finally begs God's forgiveness. Then she is publicly hanged alongside her attacker. These events took place in 1644, in Boston, where today they would be viewed with horror. How--and when--did such a complete transformation of our culture's attitudes toward sex occur?

In The Origins of Sex, Faramerz Dabhoiwala provides a landmark history, one that will revolutionize our understanding of the origins of sexuality in modern Western culture. For millennia, sex had been strictly regulated by the Church, the state, and society, who vigorously and brutally attempted to punish any sex outside of marriage. But by 1800, everything had changed. Drawing on vast research--from canon law to court cases, from novels to pornography, not to mention the diaries and letters of people great and ordinary--Dabhoiwala shows how this dramatic change came about, tracing the interplay of intellectual trends, religious and cultural shifts, and politics and demographics. The Enlightenment led to the presumption that sex was a private matter; that morality could not be imposed; that men, not women, were the more lustful gender. Moreover, the rise of cities eroded community-based moral policing, and religious divisions undermined both church authority and fear of divine punishment. Sex became a central topic in poetry, drama, and fiction; diarists such as Samuel Pepys obsessed over it. In the 1700s, it became possible for a Church of Scotland leader to commend complete sexual liberty for both men and women. Arguing that the sexual revolution that really counted occurred long before the cultural movement of the 1960s, Dabhoiwala offers readers an engaging and wholly original look at the Western world's relationship to sex.

Deeply researched and powerfully argued, The Origins of Sex is a major work of history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:02 -0400)

SOCIAL & CULTURAL HISTORY. For most of western history, all sex outside marriage was illegal, with the church and state punishing any dissent. Between 1600 and 1800, this entire world-view was shattered by revolutionary new ideas - that consenting adults have the freedom to do what they like with their own bodies, and morality cannot be imposed by force. This groundbreaking book shows that the creation of this modern culture of sex - broadcasted and debated in a rapidly expanding universe of public media - was a central part of the Enlightenment, and helped create a new model of western civilization whose principles of equality, privacy and individual freedom last to this day.… (more)

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