History Books » Early Modern History (1400-1800)

The best books on The 18th Century Sexual Revolution

recommended by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

The roots of our (generally) open attitude to sex lie not in the sixties but the 1760s, says the historian and author of The Origins of Sex, who explores this earlier sexual revolution through its literature.

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There can’t be many Oxford academics who can say that reading one of their books can improve your sex life – but you have.

I didn’t say that! To the best of my recollection, what I said was: “I wish I could say that reading my book could improve your sex life.” I suspect that when [The Guardian] printed it, they abbreviated that a little. I would be delighted if it were the case.

Oh well, never mind. Tell us about your book The Origins of Sex anyway.

I was very lucky as a historian – irrespective of what effect my work might have on people’s private lives. As a historian you always dream of stumbling across a subject that is important and unexplained, and that’s what I was lucky enough to do. There were all these things that happened in and around the 18th century – the age of the Enlightenment – that are both extraordinary in themselves and collectively add up to a sexual revolution. None of them have been really explained or put together, and so I tried to write a total history.

“The ethos of western culture until the 18th century was dominated by the idea that sex is essentially a sinful act.”

Let me give you an example of the kind of shift that my book charts. Until the 17th century, sex outside marriage was illegal and people were punished for it with increasing severity. The last person to be executed for adultery in England was hanged in 1654. If you fast-forward a hundred years to 1754, people have started to think and behave differently. There was a huge explosion in the amount of sex outside marriage, which was no longer punished. In 1754, [English radical] John Wilkes writes this great line in his Essay on Woman: “Life can little more supply, than just a few good fucks and then we die.” I think this is a wonderful encapsulation of a completely new way of thinking about the purpose of life, the greatness of sexual pleasure and the role of sex in life on earth. That’s just one of the huge shifts that take place, and that’s why I call it the “first sexual revolution”.

Why did this shift in attitudes take place?

There were important social transformations, one of the most important being urbanisation. Until the 17th century, only a tiny minority of people in England lived in towns. Most lived in tiny villages and communities of no more than a few hundred people at most. It was easy to enforce religious, sexual and political conformity in places like that. But then there was an explosion of urbanisation which started in the late 17th century. At the end of the middle ages, 40,000 people lived in London. By 1800, London was the biggest city in the world and more than a million people lived there.

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.

You talk about a seismic shift in attitudes towards sex, but prostitutes have always been around and sexual shenanigans were hardly something new.

It’s a very pleasing idea that nothing ever changes and human nature remains the same. But I would push back against that a bit. Of course, lots of people had sex outside marriage before the 18th century. Apart from anything else, we know that because thousands of them were punished for it every year. Thousands more got away with it completely and were not even arrested. But the more important point is about the ethos of the culture, and the ways in which people are even able to think about what sex is about. The ethos of western culture until the 18th century was dominated by the idea that sex is essentially a sinful act, that it is potentially a very dangerous thing to allow, and that it only has a place within marriage. Huge amounts of effort were put into the controlling and disciplining of people sexually by the church, by the state but also by ordinary people. There was no professional system of policing before the 18th century. It was ordinary people taking their turns as constables, magistrates and watchmen, and enforcing collective justice within their communities.

The outcome of this can be measured using hard data. We can measure the amount of sex people had outside marriage because it was a pre-contraceptive society, and people didn’t really understand how conception works properly yet so they didn’t practice contraception. 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.

You’ve selected five very interesting books for us. They’re all from the 18th century, which has to be a first for a Five Books interview, but all bar one are available to buy online. What ties them together?

I selected them because as a historian, what I think gives history the most human interest and flavour is the richness of the sources that we historians base our studies on. The 18th century is so rich with material, much of which is not well known. I thought it would be nice to highlight some really good reads, as well as books that bring people close to the experience of what 18th century men and women thought about sex.

Peter Annet was a notable 18th century free thinker. Before we talk about his book, can you tell us a little more about him?

He deserves to be much better known than he is – even among scholars he’s a fairly obscure figure. He’s from a very ordinary background in Liverpool and was, as far as we can see, pretty much self-taught. We find him first as a school teacher, and then he developed a system of shorthand that became very well known. I chose him because he’s an obscure guy from a humble background and yet if we look into his mind – and we can do that through his writings – he epitomises the revolution in outlook that had already taken place by 1749, the date Social Bliss Considered was published, in thinking about ethics and morality.

“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 the book, he 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.

He was quite a brave character. He ended up going to prison in the 1760s for questioning the stories of the Old Testament in his journal The Free Enquirer.

He was incredibly brave. He did not back down. If he thought something was rational and he was battling against superstition, he would never compromise. And that’s what makes him such an attractive and interesting character. This book is also a great read – it’s very funny.

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James Boswell is probably best known as the author of The Life of Samuel Johnson. What do his diaries tell us about sex in his times?

Boswell’s diaries are extraordinary, and may be one of the most underappreciated set of diaries in the English language. They are in 12 volumes, and cover the period from the 1760s all the way to his death in the 1790s. What’s astonishing about them, first of all, is how incredibly self-conscious he is about everything that he does. It’s like being inside the mind of someone who is not just acting but always reflecting on what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He does it with a very light touch – he’s a fantastic writer. Second, he is an incredibly libidinous man. He spends his life seeking out women and sexual pleasure. So his diaries give us a first-hand view of the sex life of an 18th century gentleman with a rather powerful sex drive. That in itself is fascinating.

And third, because he’s always so self-reflecting about what he’s doing, he is constantly talking to himself about having sex and what it means – why he’s so constantly attracted to these women and what he does to seduce them. He’s often attracted to women until he seduces them and then he turns away in disgust. He is fascinated by this aspect of his character, and by his inability once he’s married to contain himself. He talks about what his adulteries mean and whether he – or any man – is meant to be monogamous. The diaries are full of sexual adventure but also fascinating reflections on what sex means, and what the relationship is between sexual pleasure and the purpose of life.

The diaries contain a memorable letter he wrote to a friend in 1767 about a night he spent in a “bawdy house” with “a whore worthy of Boswell, if Boswell must have a whore”. I love that line, and I think it says a lot about the man.

The other thing about Boswell is that he knew everyone who matters in 18th century England. It’s a wonderful kaleidoscope. Through his diaries you meet all these other fascinating people, and they are all described with great immediacy. So it’s not just about Boswell, it’s about his entire society.

With his confidence and libido, how unusual was Boswell for his times? Was he a member of an elite, literary class who enjoyed pushing the social boundaries, or was the manner in which he lived more common?

He’s entirely typical of an upper class man of his time. But one of the themes of my book is the strong and increasing division of sexual morality by class and by gender. Different standards are increasingly being applied to men and women of different classes in terms of what is considered OK and what is not. So in that respect he’s not typical, because the upper classes were a tiny proportion of the general population. But he’s also typical of men more generally. This is a point in history where the old idea that women are the more lustful sex – which dominated western culture until the 17th century – is suddenly overturned and replaced by exactly the opposite presumption, that men are naturally promiscuous and can’t help it, and women are more chaste and naturally asexual. That’s another part of the great sexual revolution that happens at this time, which Boswell also epitomises.

Onto your third book, which is one of the longest novels ever written in English. Before we discuss the book’s importance, can you give us a brief outline of the plot?

The plot is essentially very simple. There’s a heroine called Clarissa Harlowe, the daughter of a gentleman. The anti-hero is a libertine called Lovelace. Lovelace is the archetypal rake, a man who lives primarily to seduce women. He seduces women, humiliates them sexually, takes his pleasure and then abandons them. He sets his sights on Clarissa, who is initially attracted to him because – like all rakes – he is attractive, dangerous, witty and seductive. But because she is a true Christian and a virtuous woman, she won’t have sex with him before marriage, which is really what he wants. So she gradually changes her view of him, pushes him away and tries to keep him at bay. But she’s no match for him ultimately. He tricks her and traps her in London, far away from all her friends and relations. He keeps her imprisoned in what is actually a brothel, although she doesn’t know it, and then ultimately when she refuses to give way, he drugs her, rapes her and takes her chastity.

That’s the climax of the book, although not the end. Because the author, Samuel Richardson, wants to show that even a woman who is raped in these horrible circumstances – and he portrays it in such a way that is heartbreaking – still transcends Lovelace by refusing to stoop to his level. She takes to her bed and basically dies in order to maintain her moral integrity. She dies a true Christian and the implication is that even though she’s been raped, she maintains her virtue. But she has to die, because it’s a terrible fact of the double standards of the times that she would have been deemed unchaste even after a rape. On her death bed she forgives him, but of course he comes to a horrible end in the final pages, and gets his comeuppance.

“The last person to be executed for adultery in England was hanged in 1654.”

That’s a terrific overview. Now, why did you choose it?

It’s probably the most influential novel of the 18th century. The mid-18th century is when the novel was invented, so it’s possibly the most influential novel ever written in English, because it influences everyone who comes afterwards, from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen onwards. And it is particularly influential in cementing this new presumption that men are dangerous seducers and women are, at heart, morally superior and more chaste. That’s the message of Richardson’s fiction, and that’s why it’s an important book. Even though Richardson himself is a man, it’s one of the earliest works to show the female point of view in courtship, in love, in sex and indeed in rape. Richardson did this under the influence of previous female writers, and lots of female admirers and friends who helped him in the writing and talked to him about these things from a female perspective.

One of the themes of my book is that the 18th century was one of the first periods in which women’s voices were heard in the public sphere in a big way, and that influenced the more general outlook in the culture on courtship, love and sex. Before the 18th century, women didn’t really publish their ideas in any sphere easily, but this changed with the growing numbers of journals and newspapers in which women’s voices were heard.

“The 18th century was one of the first periods in which women’s voices were heard in the public sphere in a big way.”

The other reason why I chose Clarissa is that it’s a fantastic read. I say this with conviction because I never read it until I wrote my own book. I had known about it – it was a looming presence in the background – and I knew that if I was going to talk about courtship, seduction and sex, I would have to read it. I really wasn’t looking forward to it because, as you say, it’s so long. I bought it and I had it sitting on my desk. I didn’t want to read it from cover to cover as it would take me forever, I just wanted to get the gist of it. But, in a wonderful lesson of the power of great fiction, I started dipping into it and was just hooked. It’s such a powerful read. In what is a great innovation of 18th century literature, it gives you the same story from the point of view of lots of different actors, through a series of letters between the major characters. You see all the same episodes through the evil eyes of Lovelace but also through the eyes of his victim Clarissa Harlowe and all the ancillary characters. It’s a fantastic kaleidoscope and a real page-turner.

Please tell us more about your next pick.

Let me talk about the author first, because she is absolutely fantastic. Mary Robinson, whose stage name was Perdita and who was known as Mary “Perdita” Robinson, really epitomises the new opportunities for women that opened up in the 18th century. She was a fantastically successful actress, a writer and a poet, and also a famous lover. If you were to put it unfairly, you’d say she was a successful courtesan. She had a string of affairs with very powerful men, most importantly the Prince of Wales himself, and she did it on her own terms. She was not a call girl or a prostitute, but an independent, feisty and sexually free woman. This was the first period in history in which it was possible for someone like that to even exist.

She made a career for herself across a variety of spheres. There’s a bit in my book about her career as a blackmailer as well. She is cast off by the Prince of Wales because he tires of her, but she kept all his love letters. So she publicly threatened – quite a conventional thing at the time – to publish all his letters unless he treated her better. She was granted a pension for life of £5,000 a year, which is a huge sum of money. So she was one of the originators of the kiss-and-tell – or rather the kiss-and-not-tell – on rather a large scale.

What is particularly fantastic is that she wrote so much and expressed her views so forthrightly. I wanted to include this book to show the extraordinary degree to which early feminists of the 18th century were able to look clearly at the sexual mores of their time – and the double standard in particular whereby men were allowed to get away with so much more than women – and dissect them, talking about their unfairness and how they are socially constructed rather than natural. In her own life, she also epitomised both the opportunities and the limits of sexual freedom for women at this moment of the first sexual revolution. She was able to lead this life, but it was not the same as a man like James Boswell, who gets away with it scot-free.

Everyone has heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Mary Robinson writes about sex much more forthrightly and with much more humour that Mary Wollstonecraft ever did, and this tract A Letter to the Women of England is a great short pamphlet. It points out the unfairness of the social, political and sexual constraints that women were under, and it calls for them to be lifted. Another thing it does, which might come as a surprise to modern readers, is show how far back the origins of modern feminism really go.

Onto your final choice, which was only discovered five years ago and is the earliest published defence of homosexuality in English.

That’s right. It was originally published, advertised and available in bookshops but then when the authorities turned against it, it was suppressed so thoroughly that no printed copy had ever been found. But I found, in the archive of the Public Records Office a few years ago, the public indictment against Thomas Cannon for having written it – which happily transcribes the entire pamphlet to show why it was quite so dangerous and should be suppressed. So we have it in manuscript.

I wanted to include it because another theme of my book is the way in which the first sexual revolution is also a moment of great change, both good and bad, in terms of attitudes to same-sex behaviour. It’s the point at which the persecution of homosexuals became much more intense – because as people started to think that what is sexually natural should be allowed, it sharpened their focus on where the limits of what is natural were. That lead to increasing persecution against what was supposedly unnatural, and most people said that sex between two men was unnatural.

Thomas Cannon said that unnatural desire was a contradiction in terms.

Exactly. The other point about the first sexual revolution is that people also started to argue for the toleration of homosexual behaviour in private, on exactly the same grounds on which they argued for heterosexual behaviour. Thomas Cannon is the bravest example of that. I think it will surprise most people that the first public defence of gay rights occurred so early. You can trace from that everything that came afterwards, through the 19th century and Oscar Wilde down to [the] Stonewall [riots of 1969 in New York] and the arguments for same-sex relations that we now take for granted.

It’s interesting that this was published in 1749, the same year as the publication of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, the first pornographic work written in English. Cleland and Cannon actually knew each other, and fell out over something quite obscure. I think it is a rather nice parallel that in the same year were published both this pioneering work on gay rights and perhaps the greatest celebration of heterosexual pleasure of the 18th century.

April 3, 2012

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Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Faramerz Dabhoiwala is Senior History Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford University. His book The Origins of Sex examines how the emergence of radical new ideas between 1600 and 1800 came to forge the modern culture of sex, and how that new culture was a central part of the Enlightenment

Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Faramerz Dabhoiwala is Senior History Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford University. His book The Origins of Sex examines how the emergence of radical new ideas between 1600 and 1800 came to forge the modern culture of sex, and how that new culture was a central part of the Enlightenment