It was generally assumed that while it was “natural” for men to pursue sexual opportunity, women were instinctively more virtuous (in complete contrast with the prior belief that women were the more uncontrollably lustful sex).Thus women were seen as vulnerable to male seduction, particularly by unscrupulous rakes who plotted with bawds to ensnare the innocent.Should a woman have sex with a stranger, her family would feel that a crime had been committed against them. For affluent families the sudden arrival of a bastard child could wreak havoc with rules of inheritance.
Yet it would be wrong to view late-18th-century attitudes towards sex as a prototype of our own.Sexual liberation was largely confined to the ranks of well-to-do chaps.A public agog for salacious gossip followed the lives of courtesans and high-society prostitutes (such as the oft-painted Kitty Fisher), and pornography was widely available.The assumption in early modern England that sexual persecution was essential to good social order was not unlike that of the more conservative Islamic republics today.“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.
By the mid-18th century sexual mores in England (and in much of Europe, too) had undergone a revolution, writes Faramerz Dabhoiwala, an Oxford historian who has spent much of the last 20 years researching the subject.
This rupture was far more dramatic than anything that happened in 1963 when, according to the poet Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began”.
It was everyone's business to bear down on illicit sex because of its awful consequences.
Policing was effective because most people lived in villages or small towns where privacy was unknown. The latter half of the 17th century saw the start of a backlash against extreme Puritanism, particularly among the upper classes who observed the louche goings on at court, led by the libidinous Charles II.
William Hogarth's 1732 engravings of “The Harlot's Progress” were wildly popular, as were Samuel Richardson's moralising novels, “Pamela” and “Clarissa”.