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Summer 2015: The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Oxford University Press, 2012. 483 pp. $US 34.95 (hardback)

Reviewed by: Satu Lidman, University of Turku

This is one of those history books one does not want to put down, as it deals so smoothly with a subject that inevitably touches every human being; sexuality. The author is a gifted storyteller, who has a lively, well-readable way to popularize history without losing the scientific accuracy. The Origins of Sex discusses the limits of accepted, tolerated and criminalized sexual behavior and acts in the context of English culture after the Reformation until the end of the early modern period.

For those who are familiar with the history of discipline and punishment in early modern Europe, the first eighty pages may not offer much entirely new. Although this episode is crucial for understanding perceptions on sexuality in the Western past, it is rather the following entities of the book that offer the most to think about. Especially interesting are the questions concerning the relations of religious and sexual toleration, and the conflicts that they inflicted within the legal sphere.

The main focus of the book lies on the liberalizing and secularizing culture of the Enlightenment, beginning from its early phases in the late seventeenth century. At that time a new understanding concerning the rights of an individual, personal freedom and privacy sprang to life. Voices that had earlier been silenced now became noisier, yet these belonged to the privileged in the society, to educated classes. They also almost entirely represented male attitudes and conceptions towards sexuality. This means, that a historian in many ways has to be content in demonstrating only some sides of the multifaceted past reality.

Dabhoiwala clearly admits that history writing always has the effect of viewing the past through some kind of glasses; a researcher decides to concentrate on something and ignores something else. To my mind this is also the beauty of it, as it guarantees the impossibility of putting history into just one mold. Nevertheless, I still think that some more emphasis on the aspect of gender would have added the value of the book.

The Origins of Sex analyses many dimensions of sexual life such as seduction, polygamy, perceptions of chastity in relation to social standing, prostitution in the perspective of philanthropy, as well as the contemporary philosophical approaches to masculinity and femininity. The argument on “politeness” as a marker for new interpretations of male-female-relations in the eighteenth century is worth highlighting. In the puritan era women had been seen as the weaker sex in the sense of a natural calling for promiscuity. Now men became lustful seducers, who should improve their manners against the opposite sex. However, as Dabhoiwla states, in practice this seems to have merely resulted in strengthening the sexual double standard.

The aspects of sex life that steered contemporary discussions were, of course, not only linked with the illegal dimensions. The heterosexual monogamous marriage of the eighteenth century was seen to be in crises for people seem to often only marry for money. An interesting notion is that upper class men even published guides with information on unmarried wealthy women for their fellow bachelors. At the same time, the idea of marriage as a personal choice, free from demands of the family or even economical facts and more based on romantic attraction, slowly gained strength.

An especially thought giving part in the book that also offers much to ponder over in relation to our own time, is Dabhoiwala’s analyses of the increasing impacts of the mass culture. Prostitution in particular seems to have inspired the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s print both to labeling propaganda on fallen creatures of lewdness and to popular stories about the well-off courtesans, partly also to a more objective discussion on social challenges of poverty. These newspapers, pamphlets, novels and engravings left permanent marks in the cultural understanding, and it seems to me that their traces still color the attitudes among others towards victims of human trafficking.

The Origins of Sex is based on a vast amount of source material, and every body who has been into archives in order to find and use historical sources knows, that there is a lot of work behind any satisfactory end result. However, I would have very much appreciated a list of the literature and sources, at least of the most central ones. Now this information can only be found within the endnotes, which is not a very useful way if one would like to grasp an overview or aims at further research.

A special thanks has to go for the excellent index, which enables the use of the book for more detailed subject questions. There are nearly eighty illustrations to unwrap the world of ideal, desired, feared and disapproved representations of sexuality. Clearly, pornography was not invented during modern times – a fact that might even make teenagers more interested in history through this research.

As the basic theme of the book – controlling and enjoying sexuality – is no English invention but rather an all-European if not global phenomenon, it would have been a possibility to add some more comparative aspects. However, the writer now has succeeded in mastering his voluminous sources and avoided the quite likely danger of a too massive or detailed presentation. Actually, when coming to the end of book, one might wish for a second volume that would focus on the Victorian era and on the more resent developments of the 20th century.

As it seems, and as Dabhoiwala argues, the growing openness towards sexuality and its societal and legal implications in the course of the eighteenth century, could be called “the first sexual revolution”. Unquestionably this was mainly a masculine celebration of increasing heterosexual freedom. That there was need for a second “revolution” in the 1960’s is related to the developments of the nineteenth century and the gender inequality that the Enlightenment had left unsolved.

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