Review: The Origins of Sex by Faramerz Dabhoiwala (2012) Assessment 8 out of 10

This is the work of a professional historian relying on detailed reading of documents to reach long researched but quickly written (or at least quickly read) conclusions. To begin with I thought just the introduction would be like that. It all was. It was breathless.

The story is illustrated both on the pages and in plates. Demonstrating the “media revolution” there is more from the 18th then the 17th Century, so that your reading pace if anything speeds up towards the end of the book. Throughout there are references to literature and drama; to Shakespeare ’s “Measure for Measure”. The playwright Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote “Most stage-players are courtesans”, with the response “and most courtesans good actors”.

The Duke and Duchess of Newcastle

The assumption of whether men or women were responsible for sexual licentiousness changed in the 17th and 18th centuries. The traditional view, following scripture, was that Eve tempted Adam leading to the Fall.  Women were presumed inferior in virtue and self-control. Knowledge of sexual biology was incomplete. To conceive a women was assumed to have had an orgasm, so it was thought that in any circumstances including rape where a women conceived that she must have encouraged/enjoyed it. By 1800 this view had completely reversed. Men were considered the more libidinous, women the “weaker sex” liable to be seduced.

17th Century conflicts involved three liberties, political, religious & moral. “Radicals” considered any form of change, but only if it could be seen as following scripture. Puritans were enthusiastic punishers of whoredom. Some of them suggested to Cromwell that he should make polygamy lawful as it was allowed in the Bible.

Royalist female camp followers were massacred or their faces were slit by the Parliamentary cavalry after Naesby. (Dabhoiwala may be wrong here in assuming the massacred camp followers were Irish. Some of them at least were Welsh.) In 1650 under the Adultery Act adultery and incest became capital crimes, fornicators were jailed for three months. Following the Restoration the Act was repealed.

Until 1642 religious and sexual conformity was policed by church courts. The defence of compurgation, proof of non-liability based on the view of the community dated back to the Anglo-Saxon period. It was only abolished in 1833. Church courts under Charles I and Laud had acted against non-conformists leading to such courts being abolished during the Protectorate. However this led to a gap in effective action against fornicators.  

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was followed by a movement for moral and spiritual reform. Dabhoiwala suggests the 1689 Act of Toleration (of Non-Conformists not Catholics) was followed by greater sexual toleration. Not the thing the Puritans wanted.  Unchastity was punished under common law.  Execution of the King and the dethronement of James II contributed to the unbundling of authority and personal and religious freedom. Bundling in the way the puritans wanted continued in most US States into the 20th Century with un-chastity a criminal act.

I liked the English idea of half-adultery, if only one of those involved was married.

By 1703 prosecutions for fornication and adultery in London had halved compared with the previous decade. By 1730 the general opinion was that such matters were beyond the criminal law. The effect was significant. In 1650 only 1% of births were illegitimate. By 1800 a quarter were. In addition almost 40% of women who married were pregnant.

Tories and religious conservatives attacked dissenters and moral activists for basking in the liberty they denied others. Societies for moral improvement paid for information leading to venality. Wesley was a supporter of the London Society for the Reformation of Manners. General warrants empowered constables to round up harlots who were protected by soldiers and sailors. John Fielding a magistrate raided brothels and then interrogated prostitutes before an invited audience. The streets were emptied. At Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes the inmates were dressed in grey, their time occupied with religious instruction. They were locked away but on Sunday displayed to strangers. Attempts to find work for them were disappointing.

In 1705 in “The Fable of the Bees” Mandeville made the case for prostitution suggesting “the necessity of sacrificing one part of womankind to preserve the other and present a filthiness of a more heinous nature”. He followed this in 1724 (anonymously) with “A Modest Defence of Publick Stews.”

At all levels of propertied society marriages involved negotiations over money, settlements, portions etc. Competition for wealthy partners was visible in the growth of resorts and provincial towns. The 1753 Marriage Age prohibited clandestine marriage. Marriages had to be announced in advance. Women couldn’t marry under 21 without parental consent. Some of this legal formality was echoed at the recent marriage of my daughter, Catherine. The UK government had wanted all attending church weddings to be masked (not in a good way), but had to back track. It was found the masking of the marrying couple would have been contrary to the law as they might not have recognised by the officiating priest as registrar.

Civil legal actions could be pursued for breach of promise (see Pickwick) and for criminal conversation, under which a husband could sue his wife’s lover to obtain monetary compensation for adultery.

Politeness became fashionable in the early 18th Century, the company of women providing softness and delicacy. Rakes might be reformed by a good woman. Byron wrote “The worst woman would have made a man of very passable reputation”. It seems he himself was unaffected. A more modern or feminist view would be that the belief women’s innate modesty could tame male sexuality perpetuated female inferiority, desexualisation of women persisting into the 20th Century.

Between 1700 and 1800 the population increased from 5 million to 9 million. After the American and French Revolutions the English “Ancien Régime” was desperate to survive. Between 1800 and 1900 childbirth fell 50%, according to Dabhoiwala, a permanent change, the result of sexual restraint.

I had some reservations. The title is misleading. The book is not of course about the Origins of Sex, it is about how sexual behaviour, and how it was viewed, changed in the 17th and 18th centuries in England, specifically London. The Media Revolution of the 18th century should only have been referred to as far as it impacted or illustrated the central theme. The chapter on it becomes an outline of a book in itself.

 However overall this is a fine book.   In particular I liked the way attitudes to sexuality were related to political and religious events and property ownership. The link with the position in the US was interesting. It suggests that a book taking a longer durée and less Anglo-Saxon approach could be at least as good.

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