Book World: ‘The Origins of Sex,’ an early awakening

May 23, 2012

During the 17th and 18th centuries in England, people’s attitudes toward sexual behavior — and, of course, sexual misbehavior — changed dramatically. To a large degree, this revolution pivoted on the dynamic between private actions and public, civic and religious ideals. How much, or in what way, should society police the erotic life of individuals? Was adultery a crime? Were prostitutes the devil’s snare, or were they the pathetic victims of male callousness and exploitation? Should both sexes be held to the same moral standards? And exactly what standards should those be?

In his anecdote-rich, crisply written and impressively well-researched “The Origins of Sex,” Oxford historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala tracks the answers to questions like these. Up until the 17th century, he stresses: “The fundamental principle of conventional ethics was that men and women were personally responsible for their actions, no matter how powerful the temptation. Only beasts and savages gave ‘unrestrained liberty’ to ‘the cravings of nature’ — civilized Christians were rather ‘to bring under the flesh; bring nature under the government of reason, and in short bring the body under the command of the soul.’ ”

Allied to this view was the patriarchal principle “that every woman was the property of her father or husband, so that it was a kind of theft for any stranger to have sex with her, and a grave affront to her relatives.” Dabhoiwala cites the aristocratic Margaret Cavendish, who declared that a woman who had been defiled should be immediately put to death by her kinsmen because such unchastity was “an offence to the gods, a reproach to her life, a disgrace to her race, a dishonour to her kindred, and an infamy to her family.”

In effect, such views aimed to ensure the health and spiritual wholeness of the community. As Dabhoiwala notes, paraphrasing Saint Augustine, “heresy and adultery were the same kind of crime”: In both instances, “people claimed only to be following their hearts.” But, ultimately, they were guilty because it was “folly to leave religion and morality to personal interpretation.”

During the civil and religious unrest of the 17th century, however, the public disciplining of sexual miscreants began to collapse. The stringency of the Puritans — who reintroduced the death penalty for adultery — gradually backfired. Their overharsh principles appealed only to zealots. Instead of a culture based on neighbors watching neighbors and calling them to task when necessary, sexual policing was outsourced to paid professionals and mercenary informers. Inevitably, complaints arose that regulation had grown inequitable: The rich and the aristocratic were flouting the laws and codes of conduct, while the poor were being unduly punished.


”The Origins of Sex” by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Magistrates in their stead no longer felt it was their charge to correct the morals of harlots and scoundrels. They simply judged “particular actions, rather than a person’s general character.” By 1750, writes Dabhoiwala, “most forms of consensual sex outside marriage had drifted beyond the reach of law.” By then, too, England had come to accept a view of society that allowed for a diversity of beliefs about human behavior. Travelers, explorers and scholars reported on the relativity of sexual practice around the world, even the untroubled acceptance of polygamy and incest. Enlightened reason, not hidebound faith, should obviously regulate our behavior. Provided people didn’t injure each other, they should be free to act as they saw fit. Wasn’t the pursuit of happiness the highest goal of life?

This ethical open-mindedness led to a surge of fresh thinking about sexual instincts. Didn’t the Old Testament condone polygamy? Weren’t priests the source of all these unnatural sexual constraints? Even some clergymen began to defend the liberty of men and women to cohabit with as many partners as they liked. John Dryden touches on these speculations at the beginning of his poem “Absalom and Architophel”:

In pious times, e’r priestcraft did begin,

Before polygamy was made a sin;

When man, on many, multiply’d his kind,

E’r one to one was, cursedly, confined:

When nature prompted, and no law deny’d

Promiscuous use of concubine and bride.

During the reign of Charles II — “the Merry Monarch” — libertine attitudes toward sex and women also emerged as the mark of an aristocratic gentleman. As the king himself said, he “could not think God would make a man miserable only for taking a little pleasure out of the way.” Sex was a natural appetite, a physical delight to be enjoyed, and not “an unclean passion to be bridled.” It was unreasonable, against nature, to restrain it.

Eventually, the ideal of female chastity itself began to be questioned as an artificial construct, merely an instrument to preserve the purity of a bloodline and the proper inheritance of estates. Throughout the 18th century, more and more women revealed their intimate lives in letters, diaries and novels. Courtesans wrote their memoirs. A culture of sexual openness began to flourish, as the doings of famous whores and notorious rakes became the fodder for cheap broadsides. Gradually, tentatively, even homosexuality began to be acknowledged rather than simply vilified. The great utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham argued for the toleration of virtually every sexual act.

Perhaps the most engrossing chapter of “The Origins of Sex” is that devoted to the Cult of Seduction. Here, Dabhoiwala opens with the grabber sentence: “Ever since the dawn of western civilization it had always been presumed that women were the more lustful sex. The most extreme, misogynist version of this argument asserted that women’s minds were so corrupt, their wombs so ravenous, their ‘amorous fire’ so voracious, that truly ‘if they dared, all women would be whores.’ ”

But by the 19th century, the poles were reversed: “Women had come to be seen as comparatively delicate, defensive and sexually passive, needing to be constantly on their guard against male rapacity.” This perception of a woman’s fragility and innate moral superiority, along with the consequent conviction that the society of ladies alone would convey polish to otherwise loutish brutes, ultimately reinforced the double standard and further constrained a woman’s personal freedom. These attitudes wouldn’t change, at least in the Western world, until the 1960s, if then.

There’s a lot more to “The Origins of Sex,” though I think Dabhoiwala scants the impact of sexual behavior on children and family life. He ends with some reflections on the present, when we “assert the essential privateness of sex and sexuality” and “simultaneously seem to have a growing desire to expose the most intimate details of our lives to the broadest possible public gaze.” He also reminds us that many parts of the world still follow “the same practices that sustained western culture for most of its history,” these being “the theocratic authority of holy texts and holy men, intolerance of religious and social pluralism, fear of sexual freedom, the belief that men alone should govern.”

Today, equality and responsibility have become our sexual watchwords, although men and women somehow continue to have their hearts broken. At least in the West, they don’t also have to suffer branding or execution.

Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room .

THE ORIGINS OF SEX

A History of the First Sexual Revolution

By Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Oxford Univ. 484 pp. $34.95

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