The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

Faramerz Dabhoiwala

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

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 book, Oxford academic 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. 3.9 out of 5 based on 11 reviews
The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History, Sex & Sexuality
Format Hardback
Pages 496
RRP £25.00
Date of Publication February 2012
ISBN 978-1846144929
Publisher Allen Lane
 

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 book, Oxford academic 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.

Reviews

The Times

Ian Kelly

… some of Dabhoiwala’s best work is on “sexual celebrity” and the nexus of fame, fashion and scandal that has dominated public discourse ever since. Yet the depth of detailed historical research is as eye-catching as the breadth and topicality of Dabhoiwala’s argument. There are discourses on the Hell Fire Club and the changing face of prostitution in early modern cities, but it is also impressive to read of the impact upon sexuality of the Glorious Revolution, or the execution of Charles I on English libertarianism. This masterly debut demonstrates that sex was an integral part of the Enlightenment, not an accidental fringe benefit.

28/01/2012

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Times Higher Education

Sarah Toulalan

... a huge achievement ... One obvious criticism, however, is that the book is Anglocentric, focusing on English sources and London in particular, weakening its claim to speak for Western attitudes more broadly. Claims for the particular "newness" of 18th-century phenomena such as print media, including pornography and the representation of prostitutes as "celebrities", are arguably overstated, as these were perhaps more an acceleration of earlier trends. Further questions are raised by the continuities in the condemnation of extramarital sex and the shame of illegitimacy ... Nevertheless, this is an exciting, beautifully written, persuasively and finely argued book that will inspire great debate and revision, ensuring its place as a reference point in the histories of sex and of ideas for years to come.

09/02/2012

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The Guardian

John Barrell

To some small degree Dabhoiwala seems to me to exaggerate his sexual revolution by allowing his eyes to drift up the social scale as his story moves forward in time. In particular, I was left wondering how far ordinary, lower-class heterosexual men shared in the freedoms enjoyed by their social superiors in the 18th century; they don't get much attention. Overall, however, he has done a wonderful job. Determined to acknowledge the limitations of the sexual revolution he describes, unwilling to minimise the advantages it brought, careful to remind us that the sexual discipline often violently enforced by some non-western cultures was, for most of its history, enforced as eagerly in the west too, Dabhoiwala has to tread a difficult path through a more or less limitless field, and he manages it with great care and unselfconscious aplomb.

11/02/2012

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The Independent on Sunday

Lesley McDowell

Dabhoiwala's balanced and responsible study takes a fascinating subject seriously without being po-faced, and in doing so, holds up a mirror to our own contradictory times.

05/02/2012

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The Economist

The Economist

The Origins of Sex is a splendidly informative and entertaining book, but Mr Dabhoiwala leaves us with quite a few frustratingly loose ends. He has little to say, for example, about contraception, which was central to the sexual revolution of the 1960s ... And by restricting himself to the period running roughly between 1600 and 1800, the author is able to bypass the late-Victorian return to sexual discipline, which lingered well into the last century.

11/02/2012

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The Scotsman

Stuart Kelly

If there is a message to be taken from Dabhoiwala’s study it is that things other than debates about sex change attitudes towards sex. In contemporary terms, we can see that communication technologies provide the same kind of anonymous spaces that sprawling metropolises once did; and that the same forms of sexual exploitation can occur in them.

11/02/2012

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The Daily Telegraph

Noel Malcolm

This is a marvellously rich and thought-provoking book, written with clarity and humanity, and drawing on a huge range of materials … But one might almost say that the great strength of this work — its openness to factors of all kinds, involving changes in society, culture, literature and philosophy — becomes a problem when it comes to pinning down the actual cause of the revolution in sexual attitudes.

20/01/2012

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The Sunday Telegraph

Michael Deacon

Grimly enthralling … The author’s prose style can at times seem inappropriately earnest, as if he were recounting, say, the economic influence of the development of shipbuilding techniques, 1450-85 … Regardless, Dabhoiwala has a fine nose for detail.

03/02/2012

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The Sunday Times

Cosmo Landesman

Like all great revolutions the victories tend not to go to everyone in society — at least not at first. This was as true of the first sexual revolution as the second. And, in both, it was men who got the best deal. Even as ardent a defender of the Sixties as Jonathon Green, the historian, concedes in It: Sex Since the Sixties that the revolution “was almost wholly a male phenomenon . . . in the end the much-touted sexual revolution was shorthand for male self-indulgence”. This closely resembles Dabhoiwala’s observation about the first revolution and its limited impact at the time: “It was primarily the heterosexual libido of the white, propertied men that was celebrated.”

22/01/2012

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The Financial Times

Lucy Worsley

Dabhoiwala has plenty to say but I found it quite hard to chisel a coherent and convincing argument out of his 496 densely written and occasionally repetitive pages … This isn’t a book, Dabhoiwala claims, which seeks “to enter the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past”. His aim is bigger: laudably so, but there’s a gap where the real bodies, and real people, should be.

03/02/2012

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The Observer

Germaine Greer

Perhaps because he is a member of the other place, Dabhoiwala ignores the kinds of economic, social and demographic history that were systematised at Cambridge. It is not enough to show that somebody somewhere was thinking thoughts that we might think of as amazingly progressive, without investigating whether those ideas were leavening public discourse or changing the attitudes of the multitude. Dabhoiwala's sources, 100 closely printed pages of them, are modish theoretical discussions of the topics he chooses to address. He nowhere tests his basic assumptions against actual behaviour.

22/01/2012

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