Faramerz Dabhoiwala – The Origins of Sex

In The Origins of Sex, dr. Faramerz Dabhoiwala (fellow & tutor in history, Exeter College Oxford) provides a thorough study on the origins of sexuality in our modern Western culture. For millennia, sex had been strictly regulated by the Church, the state, and society. Until the 17th century harsh punishments were given to men and women that had sex outside of marriage. But by the 19th century everything had changed. And for us, 21st century westerners sexuality is so woven into our culture, literature, television programmes, ads en ethics, that most of us even think about alternatives.

Dabhoiwala has done a lot of research from laws, court cases, novels, pornography, history, paintings and diaries and letters, that illustrate the changing opinions on sexuality. To give some summary on the 512 pages (of which 140 are reserve for notes and the index), I draw from the book’s Epilogue.

The Enlightment‘s influence

The most basic modern novelty was a perennial indeterminacy about the limits of sexual freedom. In place of a relatively coherent, authoritative world view that had endured for centuries, the Enlightenment left a much greater confusion and plurality of moral perspectives, with irresolvable tensions between them. That has been part of our modern condition ever since. So, too, have been the growth of sexual liberty; the increasing dominance of urban ways of living and discussing sex; the presumption that men are naturally more sexually active and women more passive; an enduring association between morality and class; and our endlessly fluctuating obsessions with ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ behaviour, pornography and celebrity, and the distinction between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’.

Beyond punishment

At a basic level, attitudes after 1800 evolved in two contrasting ways. On the one hand we can trace continued, or even tightened, social control over various forms of sexual behaviour. Though the machinery of public punishment had been largely abandoned, its ideals were not. Against this backdrop of apparent national decline and social upheaval, the importance of religious faith and of social conservatism came to be widely reaffirmed: only by going back to basics would the nation find its way again. This outlook was part of the inspiration for the great religious revivals that swept the period, both in England and in North America, and for the intellectual Counter-Enlightenment.

Cultural malaise and reassertion of moral discipline

Christian and conservative observers often saw the spread of sexual freedom as the central manifestation of a broader cultural malaise, and the reassertion of moral discipline as the most urgent task in national regeneration. A vital component in this re-emphasis on discipline was the relative desexualization of women. This book has tried to explain the eighteenth-century origins of this remarkable trend: but it reached its fullest development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For women of all classes, sexual ignorance and passivity came increasingly to be valued as essential components of respectable femininity and heterosexual love. This was not just a male ideal: most women themselves deeply internalized it, and policed it in others. Just as important, especially in the English context, was the further development of social double standards. Regulating, controlling, and forcibly improving the sexual mores of the working classes became in the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, an immense fixation for many middle- and upper-class politicians, commentators, and social reformers.

Looking for a balance between liberty and repression

The final key feature of modern boundaries on sexual freedom was the growing frequency and harshness with which homosexual men were persecuted, both legally and socially. At the root of this collective nineteenth- and twentieth-century concern to restrict supposedly unnatural sexual practices was an important development in how such behaviour was conceived. Rather than as sinful actions, they were increasingly likely to be viewed as the marks of a deviant personality, whose origins (whether in nature or nurture) now became the focus of intense debate. Even after 1800 , therefore, sexuality continued to be policed in a variety of important ways. Though the machinery of public punishment had been largely abandoned as far as sex between men and women was concerned, it was directed with increasing practical and symbolic force at ‘unnatural’ behaviour. Over the past fifty years the balance between liberty and repression, equality and inequity, individual rights and communal morality, has therefore been constantly shifting. Though their form keeps evolving, questions of sexual morality, private and public, constantly recur: right now, in various ways, they threaten a crisis within the worldwide Catholic church, are tearing apart the global community of Anglican churches, and continue to stir up great passions in American politics. Yet all these disagreements have taken shape within essentially new parameters, based on the modern ways of living and thinking that first emerged in the eighteenth century. What is more, the ideals of the Enlightenment are ever more firmly entrenched: the basic idea that sex between consenting adults, irrespective of their sex, sexual orientation, or marital status, is protected by a constitutional right to privacy is now, though still controversial, enshrined in the fundamental law of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States.

Sexual freedom’s trajectory still unfolding

The ultimate legacy of the Enlightenment has thus been far from straightforward, and its consequences are still unfolding. Yet in retrospect it is easy to see that it marked the point at which the sexual culture of the west diverged onto a completely new trajectory. If anything, the characteristics of that culture – its individualism, its explicitness, its permissiveness, the equal status claimed by women and by homosexuals – have become more distinctive in recent decades, even as the world has grown smaller. They have also been widely influential: just as western feminism has had an impact across the globe, so too have western concepts of sexual freedom.