Faramerz Dabhoiwala – The Origins of Sex

Words: Nicci Talbot

I’ve just bought a copy of his new book The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution and was looking forward to listening to the live stream tonight via IQ². Alas, it’s not happening now, as the internet connection isn’t reliable at RIBA so they will upload a podcast and video on YouTube later this week. The book has had excellent reviews in the broadsheets with the exception of Germaine Greer’s in the Guardian; she picks a few holes in it.

Here’s the book blurb:

“Rising star historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala will describe how the permissive society arrived in Western Europe, not in the 1960s as we like to think, but between 1600 and 1800. It began in England and is now shaping and challenging patterns of sexual behaviour all over the world.

For most of western history, all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state, and ordinary people all devoted huge efforts to suppressing and punishing it. This was a central feature of Christian civilization, one that had steadily grown in importance since the early Middle Ages. Three hundred years ago this entire worldview was shattered by revolutionary new ideas – that sex is a private matter; that morality cannot be imposed by force; that men are more lustful than women. Henceforth, the private lives of both sexes were to be endlessly broadcast and debated, in a rapidly expanding universe of public media: newspapers, pamphlets, journals, novels, poems, and prints.

In his account of this first sexual revolution, Dabhoiwala will argue that the creation of our modern culture of sex was a central part of the Enlightenment, intertwined with the era’s major social, political and intellectual trends. It helped create a new model of Western civilization, whose principles of privacy, equality, and freedom of the individual remain distinctive to this day”.

The book examines a period in history – 1600s to 1800s, which Dabhiowala describes as the first ‘sexual revolution’ in terms of how attitudes towards sex changed. In the 1600s, adultery was a capital crime, punishable with death. In 1589 a prison was built in Dundee just for adulterers. In 1650 with the new Sexual Offences Act, brothel keepers were branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’ and in Rye, East Sussex, those who committed adultery were forced to wear a yellow and green collar in public, making them recognisable for their ‘sin’ . The general attitude was that women were the more lascivious sex and needed reigning in, i.e. by making them someone’s ‘property’ via marriage.

The sexual revolution that he describes happened for several reasons. Adultery became harder to police as people were moving from rural areas to towns. By 1850 most of the UK population lived in towns. Sex was talked about more with the emergence of the printed press yet was perceived as a private matter – i.e. rich men could have a bit of whatever they fancied as long as it didn’t interfere with their public duties (much the same attitude in France today and the press can’t publish such information). The printed press also gave spurned mistresses an opportunity for revenge. They could threaten to go public and some launched successful marketing campaigns, create a buzz around their ‘stories’, bribing men for money and setting themselves up with a pension for life. The circulation of ideas and printed material meant that sex became a talking point and attitudes were freer. There was also a general shift in attitudes towards how women were perceived – less libidinous temptresses, more as passive victims of randy men. The courts accepted prostitution.

Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
66 Portland Place
Wednesday February 15th, 2012
7.00pm – 8.30pm

The Origins of Sex by Faramerz Dabhoiwala: Review by Michael Deacon, The Telegraph, 3rd February, 2012.

Click here for an audio and video recording of the event.


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