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

by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 05:37 PM

So I was starting to hear what sounded like bad news about this book's treatment of Christianity and traditional morality along the lines that our modern views on morality and sexual mores have their origins in the "natural law" philosophers of the Enlightenment. It's a little more formidible because it sounds like Dabhoiwala is a legitimate historian who meticulously and comprehensively documents, cites and references his work. I just started reading it yesterday, and it's looking difficult. His summary of the Apostle Paul's teaching on sexual morality is unsatisfying, particularly since it mistakes Paul's criticisms of Gnostic viewpoints as Paul's own viewpoint.

The Browser's FiveBooks Interviews has a extensive discussion with Dabhoiwala:

... London is a major focus of my work, because new ways of living in these cities created all sorts of opportunities for sex and the communication of ideas. The mass media was also born at this time in London. Intellectually, this is a point at which people in western societies move from a fundamentalist belief in the validity of the Bible and external authority to belief that individual conscience and reason is the only real foundation for ascertaining what’s true and what’s false. That, again, is a seismic shift and undermines the old way of thinking about ethics and sex ...

We have very good data on births outside marriage and births within seven months of marriage, which is a pretty good indicator of people having had sex before marriage. These are aggregate statistics covering the whole [of England], and show that in the 16th and 17th century the effect of this sexual discipline resulted in a very low number of births outside marriage. In 1650, 1% of all births were illegitimate. But by 1800, almost 25% of all first-born children were born outside marriage and 40% of women came to the altar pregnant. That explosion is unprecedented, and that kind of level was the new norm. So I think we can measure a real change in behaviour that went along with these changes in attitudes to sex in the 18th century ...

In the book [Social Bliss Considered], he [Peter Annet] does two things. He applies to the question of sexual morality the same kind of reasoned, rational outlook that he applies to all other subjects in life. He becomes mildly infamous for doing this with respect to religion in the early 18th century, in trying to strip away what he sees as the superstitions of priests and so on and return to what he understands as the essence of Christianity. He has an archetypal 18th century faith in reason as the only true guide. The second thing he does is think: “What does this mean for sexual ethics? Is it true and right that we should, as the Bible and church teaches us, only restrict ourselves to sex within marriage?” His answer is a resounding “no”

He tries to reason – from natural law, from conscience and from all the other bases that 18th century people like to use – for a new kind of sexual morality. In doing that he puts forward in this book a remarkably modern set of proposals. He says men and women should be free to have sex with whomever they like for as long as they like, and to co-habit freely and divorce freely. The only thing that mattered, in his eyes, was the care of children. In a nutshell, this book put forward views in 1749, more than 250 years ago, that we now take for granted as being common sense in terms of sexual morality ...

Edited by Persiflage, 19 April 2012 - 05:38 PM.

#2 NBooth


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Posted 19 April 2012 - 06:43 PM

The Guardian had an excerpt from this book (now taken down, alas) a while back, and I almost pre-ordered it. There's also a review:

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. His ignorance of the bookselling trade, for example, leads him to confuse Grub Street productions by the likes of John Dunton, whom he mistakenly dubs "a leading journalist and bookseller", with mainstream publication.


Dabhoiwala spends so much time reading about libertine literature, he barely registers that the vast mass of publication in print in the English-speaking world between the 16th and 18th centuries is religious in character. Pornography was always available for those who sought it out; the difference is that in the 21st century pornography is as ubiquitous as religion once was. Its sadomasochistic stock in trade is still the same. No sexual revolution will happen until the role of penetration as a mechanism of domination is obliterated[....]


For Dabhoiwala, "the whole of western history" begins somewhere in the middle ages, but every gentleman learned his vices from reading Petronius, Ovid, Martial and Virgil in his impressionable adolescence. He also learned how to vilify his political opponents by depicting them as repulsive lechers. Dabhoiwala quotes Rochester's famous lampoon of Charles II, whose sceptre and prick were of a length – apparently without realising that in the poem, the king's fictive priapism stands for his lust for absolute power. Obscenity has been an essential tool of political satire at least since Juvenal. As a way of discrediting a political opponent, the imputation of sexual irregularity is as effective in the fatness of these pursy times as it ever was. Ambitious gay male politicians are still having to get married – to women. Plus ça change…

Edited by NBooth, 19 April 2012 - 06:47 PM.