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Profile Image for Warwick.
844 reviews14.6k followers
January 7, 2015
There's a pernicious assumption visible in a lot of modern treatments of sex and gender relations, which boils down to the following idea: that men want sex, and will pursue it aggressively, while women want love and have to fend off men's sexual advances until they get it – at which point sex may be offered as a sort of reward. This nonsense underlies everything from chick flicks to Apatowesque bromantic comedies, from advertising to political debates, from song lyrics to prizewinning novels, and it has been deeply internalised by a lot of people.

Some writers have sought justification for it in evolutionary psychology (unconvincingly); Gordon Rattray Taylor tried to explain it by means of an extended effort at religious psychoanalysis with his Sex In History back in the fifties. I enjoyed that book, but its scholarly credentials seem a bit doubtful. Faramerz Dabhoiwala's The Origins of Sex is the book I've been looking for: measured, entertaining, convincing, and completely absorbing.

First of all, he makes the important point that our idea of what men and women want is a uniquely modern phenomenon. Throughout the Middle Ages, ‘the basic idea [was] that sex was fun, and that men and women desired it, indeed required it’, and furthermore ‘it had always been presumed that women were the more lustful sex’. He locates the important change – in this attitude and in several others – as taking place over the two centuries from 1600 to 1800, and that is where the book's focus lies.

Let's be clear, there was nothing utopian about the pre-modern view of sex. It was a misogynistic set-up, and it was used to justify a widespread culture of forced seduction and rape. In fact, what Dabhoiwala brings out very effectively is the tragedy of the fact that the changes towards a more modern view came about because of growing concern over women's rights. Activists thought that a developing stress on ‘the “naturalness” of female chastity’ would better protect women and lead to a more equal society; actually, it just became another way ‘in which the intellectual foundations of patriarchy were gradually reshaped’.

Dabhoiwala traces this process through diaries, letters, trials – and also the growth of the novel, a medium which emerged during this period, and which is deeply shaped by these ideas. The trope of men assailing female chastity is of course central to Samuel Richardson, and we get a good look here at just how fascinated literary society in general was with this basic concept – it was absolutely everywhere. There is also a good exploration of the rise of celebrity prostitutes, some of whom raised vast fortunes through a little judicious blackmail.

Sex was seen as so polluting for women that a single incident could turn them from a respectable lady to a whore literally overnight. When the idea was mooted by legal activists of forcing a man to marry any girl he seduced, Sir Sydney Montagu MP was less than impressed: ‘he that doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it upon his head’. This book is crammed with similarly mouth-dropping anecdotes. I loved hearing about the dubious academic methods of William Acton, the great Victorian authority on prostitution, who concluded ‘merely from their appearance’ that ‘a third at least’ of all the girls he saw at a London dancehall must be whores.

My only quibble really is with the title – this is basically a study in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century social history rather than a comprehensive history of sex. But what there is I found deeply engaging, and this book really helped crystallise a lot of ideas for me about monogamy, sexual relations, and early feminism that I'd been thinking about for years. It's also extremely relevant. These attitudes are the ones that shaped the modern world…and sadly, the way women in this period are either ‘desexualised’ or turned into celebrity prostitutes is likely to be something you'll recognise pretty quickly after you put the book down.
Profile Image for Kinga.
479 reviews2,255 followers
December 6, 2014
This book is an excellent ice-breaker on the public transport. Trust me on this one. No one will talk to you about the book you’re reading on the bus unless it says ‘sex’ on the cover. It just really does bring the teenage boy out of everyone.

The book itself is not as dirty as an average schoolboy’s mind but there are a few really juicy anecdotes to spice up its academic tone. Dabhoiwala presents us with a thesis that the first sexual revolution happened a couple of hundred years before the 1960s. Admittedly, it was a revolution that dragged, went back and forth, and included mostly white heterosexual men from the middle class and up. Yet, it is certain that something shifted between 1600-1800. It probably had to do with more religious freedom which usually goes hand in hand with other freedoms. Up until 17th century sex between two consenting adults was not a private affair. It was everybody’s business to make sure any fornicating (I love the word ‘fornicate’!) was suitably punished, even by death.

Then fairly suddenly a new idea appeared, that maybe the Bible doesn’t always get it right and from this originated the fresh conviction that fornicating, while perhaps morally wrong, should not exactly be against the law. And if anyone wants to fornicate and burn in hell for this, that’s their problem. The society will restrict itself to scorning the adulterers and not having them flagellated, because that’s just, well, medieval.

Another new concept was the supposed moral superiority of women. Up until then women were more or less seen as Sin incarnated. They were too weak and not smart enough to resist any temptation therefore gave themselves easily to any desire and have been the cause of the downfall of a man since Eve gave him that apple. Female sexual powers were to be reckoned with and it was even believed that female orgasm was necessary for conception. That’s an interesting and empowering idea, ladies, but luckily it has been abandoned as that would surely be the saddest form of contraception (except for abstinence I suppose).

It all changed around the 18th century when men suddenly came to the humbling conclusion that women are actually pure and innocent naturally while men are the lusty ones. And then enters the Rake! A rake is a man who seeks out innocent maiden and ruins them. That’s his job. A rake is the worst thing that can happen to a young lady. Now, if you think that being believed to be morally superior is somehow good for you, then think again. Especially if you are also at a disadvantage physically, economically and socially, which women were. With this brand new attitude men earned themselves a free get out of jail card and shifted all the responsibility onto women. "We men, are lusty, we can’t help it. It’s our nature and that’s that, now you, young maidens, are chaste and pure by nature, so it shouldn’t be that hard for you to resist the temptation, unless, of course, there is something seriously wrong with you."

This review is now getting a bit longish and I haven’t even got through half of my notes because I ended up rambling. So to be concise: There were lots of other things that changed and lots of news ideas were discussed. Some brave thinkers proposed the legalization of polygamy (which culminated with Joseph Smith who went as far as to start a new religion just so he can have more than one wife. Very funny, as these days most men have to be coerced to taking even one wife,) other men proposed complete abolition of marriage as some sort of anachronistic nonsense, and Jeremy Bentham heterosexual himself wrote an essay urging to give full rights to homosexuals, but no one wanted to print it.

The attitude toward prostitutes changed accordingly, as well – they were no longer evil, they were to be pitied, as obviously being naturally chaste must’ve been at some point spoiled by a lusty man or two (males were excused though, because it’s better they do it with prostitutes than other men, God forbid, and they surely would because they couldn’t control themselves). It created a new fashionable branch of philanthropy: helping fallen women. The rich in their amazing generosity built Magdalen Houses where all fallen women could be brainwashed and come out pure and clean. The prostitutes who escaped the clutches of Magdalen Houses could become real celebrities and have proto-tabloids follow them around and publish sensational stories about how they fell off a horse et cetera. If they were smart they could make quite a lot of money before dying of syphilis by taking on rich lovers, blackmailing them and then selling the stories to the press. The fact that now everyone could print anything definitely helped changing attitudes to sex. Nothing relaxes morals better than the knowledge that other people are doing it as well.

To summarise I will quote a certain self-published author I have read: “Everything changed and many things stayed the same”. To say that there was a sexual revolution in the 18th might be a bit of an overstatement, but something has changed and many of the attitudes to sex which were born then remain in the way we think about sex and gender still. “The Origins of Sex” is a compelling read rich with anecdotes and illustrations and it was often hard to put down. A few times when I was reading it late in the evening my boyfriend would call out from the bedroom frustrated:

“Oh, I can’t believe you’d rather be READING about it!”
Profile Image for rameau.
553 reviews187 followers
April 30, 2012
Let's see if we can divide that blurb into more palatable chunks.

A man admits that, when drunk, he tried to have sex with an eighteen-year-old girl; she is arrested and denies they had intercourse, but finally begs God's forgiveness. Then she is publicly hanged alongside her attacker. These events took place in 1644, in Boston, where today they would be viewed with horror. How--and when--did such a complete transformation of our culture's attitudes toward sex occur?

The Origins of Sex is full of these little examples, though majority of them is from England, not from the Colonies. I usually heartily agree with the usage of examples, but here, I felt like the individual examples weren't given the breathing room they deserved, although, I understand that further exploring independent cases would have added to the already substantial length of the work. With almost four hundred pages (my ebook version) for the structured study and another hundred pages for notes, list of illustrations and an index, I can't really call this book light reading.

In The Origins of Sex, Faramerz Dabhoiwala provides a landmark history, one that will revolutionize our understanding of the origins of sexuality in modern Western culture.

I'm sure that was the purpose of this book and for some it will do just that. For me however, it didn't quite work. I think I'd rather use this as a handbook if I were ever called to write something about the English sexual revolution. This is where I'd begin. I'd use this to find the references and start looking at other, more specialised texts. And I would only do it were I coerced. There's a reason why I picked natural sciences in uni.

For millennia, sex had been strictly regulated by the Church, the state, and society, who vigorously and brutally attempted to punish any sex outside of marriage. But by 1800, everything had changed.

That right there, that sounds interesting. It sounds fascinating. However, what I found on the page was only partially so. The subject matter remained thrilling and I've always found the Christian Church history intriguing, but the text itself was painfully dry to read. The poor readability can't be blamed on the academic approach alone, because I've read just as engrossing scientific texts as I've read unexciting ones.

I did think it intriguing how the Reformation and the split of the Catholic church affected the general outlook and added tolerance.

Drawing on vast research--from canon law to court cases, from novels to pornography, not to mention the diaries and letters of people great and ordinary--Dabhoiwala shows how this dramatic change came about, tracing the interplay of intellectual trends, religious and cultural shifts, and politics and demographics.

After reading this book, I was left with a feeling like I'd been hit by a stack of books instead of just one. The vast research is indubitable. Unfortunately, I have very little recollection of individual events and examples that were used to show this dramatic change. It didn't matter whether I read or listened to the pages (although, I do remember better the chapters I listened to), the text just didn't hold my attention sufficiently for an enlightening learning experience.

The Enlightenment led to the presumption that sex was a private matter; that morality could not be imposed; that men, not women, were the more lustful gender. Moreover, the rise of cities eroded community-based moral policing, and religious divisions undermined both church authority and fear of divine punishment.

I think I mentioned this already. Where people were used to only one authority and accepted way of life, there were now several. And then they started persecuting one another.

Sex became a central topic in poetry, drama, and fiction; diarists such as Samuel Pepys obsessed over it. In the 1700s, it became possible for a Church of Scotland leader to commend complete sexual liberty for both men and women.

I do remember an example of moral policing Pepys provided. Late at night on his way home from dinner, Pepys' coach was stopped to examine whether the travellers were "husbands and wives". In the coach with Pepys were his wife and friends.

Would you like to be stopped in this way?

Arguing that the sexual revolution that really counted occurred long before the cultural movement of the 1960s, Dabhoiwala offers readers an engaging and wholly original look at the Western world's relationship to sex.

Dabhoiwala certainly puts the 60s movement into a new perspective, but I'm not sure the view is wholly original either. Then again, this is not my field of study and I don't know if anyone else has bothered to attempt putting it all on paper before.

Deeply researched and powerfully argued, The Origins of Sex is a major work of history.

It is that. I just wish it were a bit more exciting to read.

I received an Advanced Readers Copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Ana.
2,352 reviews323 followers
November 26, 2015
The conversational tone and the thematic structure of this book made me read it in one day. The book is basically about attitudes towards sex before Western modern times and how those attitudes changed with what Faramerz Dabhoiwala calls 'The First Sexual Revolution' which lead to the Victorian model of sexual morality.
Profile Image for Elaine.
808 reviews375 followers
December 22, 2012
I thought this book was very interesting -- although I didn't necessarily agree with all of Dabhoiwala's claims -- trying to stake out A moment when defining changes in the perception, regulation and portrayal of sex took place seems problematic to me, given the ups and downs and infinite variety of those things throughout history. Nevertheless, the portrayal of so many fascinating phenomena of the 17th and 18th centuries in England -- libertinism, nascent feminism, the cult of celebrity prostitutes, prurient campaigns to save fallen women, the growth of the novel, the explosion of the press and "interactive" media -- is really quite riveting. The use of original materials is rich but I still was left wanting more -- it's great stuff!

One caution though: The Kindle edition is TERRIBLE. Full of egregious typos and stray symbols, and horribly formatted so that it's often difficult to tell what is a quote from another text. But worse yet, the prints and illustrations that make up such an important part of the story are rendered too small to see or, in the case of many of them, are simply MISSING. A fat book with copius notes like this deserves to be read electronically -- better care should be taken with the graphic content. FRUSTRATING!
Profile Image for Avril.
433 reviews13 followers
August 2, 2012
This was an absolutely fascinating read by a historian who definitely knows his period. The sheer volume of sources, primary and secondary alike, is almost overwhelming - there are pages upon pages of notes, many referring to manuscripts and other archive material. But the book isn't just well-researched, it's also extremely well-written. I read it relatively quickly, entertained and amused as well as enlightened.

Some of the elements of this first 'sexual revolution' were familiar to me: the move from an overwhelming concern with issues of public order to a notion of sexual privacy; the change from women being considered the lustier sex to women being thought of as almost asexual. The material about the social context in which 'rescuing' fallen women became a possibility illuminated for me the novels by George Eliot and Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell which make that a plot point.

What was completely new to me was the section on 'The Media and the Message', which talked about the ways in which new media like pamphlets and prints enabled the spread of sexual material to a new 'general public'. It was the 'Internet promotes pornography' of its day! The men who then carried tiny pictures of famous prostitutes in their watches would now, I imagine, simply look for images of naked women on-line. As Dabhoiwala argues, the foundations of the modern obsession with pornography were laid in the 18th century.

Dabhoiwala also points out what various feminists have argued for decades; Western sexual revolution(s) - the one that we believe began in the 1960s and the much earlier one that he describes - have usually been wonderful for straight men, but have been much less liberating for women and homosexuals. As 'natural' sex became more acceptable, 'unnatural' sex like homosexuality became more strictly policed, and the continuing sexual double standard meant that men were able to enjoy extra-marital sex without it affecting their lives in the way that it impacted on women. I definitely do not want to go back to a pre-Enlightenment policing of sexuality, but sexual revolutions haven't been unmixed blessings.

Reading this history in the context of the sexuality debate of the Uniting Church in Australia, which I've been observing and participating in for decades, I understand a little more why there is such a sharp division between the Anglo-Celtic members and the Pacific Island and indigenous members of the Church on issues to do with sexuality. If it is the case that Anglo-Celts are coming from a culture that started to prioritize privacy and individual sexual freedom several centuries ago, while Pacific Islanders and indigenous people are coming from cultures that prioritize public order and discipline of sexual matters, we're approaching issues of sexuality from absolutely and completely different perspectives. No wonder we're struggling to discuss homosexuality! I'm not sure that knowing this will help me participate better in the debate, but it certainly helps explain why the debate keeps stalling.

One final note: Dabhoiwala quotes an entry from John Wesley's journal on reading an account of James Cook's voyages: "Meeting with a celebrated book, a volume of Captain Cook's voyages, I sat down to read it with huge expectations. But how was I disappointed. I observed, 1. Things absolutely incredible. A nation ... without any sense of shame! Men and women coupling together in the face of the sun, and in the sight of scores of people! ... Hume or Voltaire might believe this: but I cannot.' Sexuality debates in the Uniting Church frequently include someone mentioning the sexual ethics taught to their culture by Methodist missionaries as one reason that they cannot accept same-sex relationships. I wish John Wesley had been just a little less judgemental of what he read in Cook. My life today might be much easier!

Profile Image for Anna.
1,741 reviews677 followers
November 30, 2016
‘The Origins of Sex’ is an absolutely fascinating account of how British views on sex evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries, transforming sexual discussion, behaviour, and law to an incredible extent. The book synthesises a huge amount of material and picks out particular factors, relating to religion, the economy, politics, and technology, that contributed to the changes. The author sees the sexual revolution as a critical part of the Enlightenment. Prior to this, women were assumed to experience more sexual desire than men, sex outside marriage was seen as a public crime worthy of punishment up to and including execution, and religion was considered the arbitrator of appropriate sexual behaviour. By the beginning of the 19th century, all this had changed. Women were seen as victims of men’s greater levels of desire, sex outside marriage was disapproved of but decriminalised, and wider public sexual mores were shaped by more than religious doctrine. As the book emphasises, the legacy of this transformation is still very evident today, especially in attitudes to prostitution. Also notable is the extent to which attitudes to sex (the act) were shaped by attitudes to sex (the division of men and women). As women’s voices started to be heard in the popular press and in novels, views of both altered. Nonetheless, it is dispiritingly impressive that a misogynist culture managed to completely reassess women’s sexuality, yet continued to consider women inferior and to oppress them. Likewise, sexuality started to be seen as innate, allowing prejudice and laws against sodomy (the act) to evolve into prejudice and laws against homosexuality and homosexuals as people.

As well as providing a broad understanding of the sexual revolution, this book also allows you to pick up various interesting facts like the origin of the term ‘Lothario’ - originally a libertine character is an extremely popular play of 1703 whose name became proverbial. The writing style is clear and accessible throughout and the text interspersed with images. In fact, there is such a quantity of images that at times they became intrusive. I don’t think quite so many prints by Hogarth and his imitators were needed. Nonetheless, this is a really good read. Interrogating the reasons behind social attitudes to sex in the 17th and 18th century also inevitably throws light on the 21st. I appreciated this comment from the epilogue in particular:

Others assert that the most fundamental aspects of sexual behaviour are neurologically hardwired into our brains, so that studying the history of sexual attitudes doesn’t reveal anything significant. But that is like saying that politics is always about the pursuit of power, without trying to understand how government evolved from tribal conflict to parliamentary democracy, or why even today it takes such different shapes around the world.

One of the current themes of sexism is the exaggeration and misinterpretation of neuroscience findings to support stereotypes, as discussed in Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. This book gives an inkling of where this tendency came from, as the retreat of religious influence over sexuality opened up a vociferous philosophical debate as to what was ‘natural’. For example, there was discussion of whether polygamy was natural and thus appropriate. In a very real sense, the same debate on what constitutes ‘natural’ gender and sexuality is still dragging on, as ever supported by dubious interpretation of scientific findings. ‘The Origins of Sex’ is a useful reminder that sexual norms are so socially influenced as to make it impossible (and pointless) to say something is ‘natural’. Even defining the term natural in this context is fraught with difficulty. Just as there was in the 18th century, there is still a tension between the perception of sex as a personal matter in which the individual is allowed freedom over their behaviour and the social norms that mean they will nonetheless face censure if they transgress.
Profile Image for Ruth.
592 reviews62 followers
June 4, 2013
The title of this one, provided by netgalley, is a bit misleading, but the subtitle is not. This is an absolutely fascinating study in sexual etiquette, power, society and, well, so much else, that it's almost too much to take in.

If you picked this one up hoping for a lascivious bit of smut-tastic "history" with lots of juicy anecdotes, then you'll probably be disappointed. This really is a serious, but accessible, study in all things sexual, and how we evolved from medieval attitudes towards morality and sin to where we are now. What changed that the church lost its power as the essential arbitor of sexual behavior? Why were aristocratic women so protected from any sexual knowledge at all? Why was virginity in women so prized, yet why could men essentially get away with whatever they wanted?

This book is really surprisingly relevant for today, especially when considering that its journey begins in the 1600s, and I most enjoyed it as a commentary on how power has shifted, and continues to shift. It's taken centuries for (some) societies to move away from expecting women to "police" the sexual activity of all by being pure and asexual ("you can't go out dressed like that, you're asking for it!.."), and yet it's taken only a few years for gay marriage to start being accepted as a normal household structure. So how did that happen?

Great book. Very thought-provoking. 4 stars.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,492 reviews2,735 followers
March 18, 2019
This is a sweeping historical analysis that argues for a distinctive moment in which the modern so-called `permissive society' was born - post-1688 and before c.1800. As other reviewers have pointed out, this book concentrates almost solely on Britain and ties this `revolution' to distinctively British events such as the Reformation, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It does rather, then, beg the question of why other European countries, both Protestant and Catholic, offer similar general movements, although an all-encompassing idea of the European Enlightenment goes some way towards this.

On the plus side is it elegantly-written, and fulfils all the standards of a scholarly work: the research, as we would expect, is deep and immaculate, with academic apparatus and references.

However, I was surprised that the text doesn't situate itself theoretically, and returns, self-consciously, to a broad and rather sweeping view of history as a teleological trajectory: the idea of a `watershed' moment, a `before' and `after' seems a rather naive perspective to me, when post-modern historical thinking is far more sensitive to negotiations, compromises, subversions and challenges. As a result, notions and ideas become de-politicised here so, for example, the text avoids the implicit link between the growth of a capitalist economy and the increasing commoditisation of sex, as something to be produced and consumed.

The enormous, glaring omission is a reference to Foucault whose ground-breaking 3-volume The History of Sexuality has to inform any contemporary engagement with the idea of `sexuality', even if we want to disagree with it. Dabhoiwala mentions Foucault just once, on p.358 in his epilogue, which is especially odd given his emphasis in the early chapters on discipline and self-policing, very Foucauldian terms of analysis.

So for the general reader this is bound to be enlightening, but for an academic audience, especially those who work on issues of gender and sexuality, this is a tad disingenuous. I certainly enjoyed reading it and will hold onto it for references, but overall I think it's a bit too neat, orderly and uncomplicated: 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Naftoli.
190 reviews16 followers
December 27, 2012
This book caught my eye when Nick Stibbs read and commented on it. I bought it and about 30 pages into it, asked myself, “Hey why are you reading yet another book on human sexuality? Is it really going to offer up a new idea? Come on now!’ I spent most of my time in graduate school researching and reading on this topic and recently books of this nature have helped me get to sleep at night! However, Mr. Dabhoiwala surprised me! About midway through the book he began to present new analyses regarding the slow, steady paradigm shifts that brought us to the present day.
Like all academic books on sexuality, this book is not really about sex. It’s about the uses and abuses of power, class conflict, double-standards, the tension between the private and public domains, theocratic authority, and many other factors of interest to social scientists, religious studies scholars, political scientists, cultural studies, European history, and the like.
It is remarkable that this is Mr. Dabhoiwala’s first book. He shows a particular grace and sophistication that one does not always find even in academic writing. He refrains from using adjectives to convey his personal feelings (which is the way expository writing should be written!) in an attempt to let the reader come to her own conclusions. From where I sit, I think Dabhoiwala’s greatest contribution in this work is to chart the shifts in English thought that lead us to our current views/confusion on sexuality, the public & the private, and hot button issues such as prostitution, rehabilitation, marriage, and the government’s role in policing interpersonal behaviors.
He spends much of the time discussing the developments of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries then presents “The Victorian compromise,” something I had never heard of. The Victorian compromise struck a very uncomfortable balance between private and public behaviors but viewed differently than one would think as nowadays we harbor very different notions of the private/public than the English did during the reign of Queen Victoria.
Finally, he introduces the new wave of thought – actually a chaotic stream of ideas that were never congealed or clearly sorted – by the Enlightenment and makes the assertion that the unfinished work of the Enlightenment continues its unfinished business and unfolds before us even onto the present day. This argument is not comforting but certainly sheds light on controversial issues of today such as birth control, abortion, criminalization of prostitution, and even ingrained ideas that men are sexual wanderers whilst women are, by nature, passive and sexually monogamous.
I’d like to share a few sentences from page 362:
How far, then, have we really come? We like to think of social change in terms of linear progress: that, too, is a legacy of the Enlightenment. Yet this predisposes us to historical short-sightedness – we easily forget how contingent our present state is, that the past is littered with alternative paths not taken, that even within the last few generations the boundaries of the right to sexual privacy have been continually challenged and redrawn. Both in law and in social practice, the widespread acceptance of sexual freedom for women and unmarried persons is a comparatively novel development. Even today, across the English-speaking world, the provision of contraception and of abortion remains highly contested, as does the issue of prostitution. (end of quote)
Further, though Islam is never discussed in this book, the author’s presentation of western individualism and personal freedoms – the entire trajectory of western culture – it occurred to me, has no counterpart in the Islamic world. The author attributes secularization, i.e., the loss of religious authority after the Protestant Reformation to an ever-widening interpretation of morality and thus a bridge to personal freedoms, this also has no counterpart in the Muslim world. It is a small wonder that women have comparatively no freedoms in Muslim-majority countries as compared to European-based cultures. The idea that parents in the U.S., Europe, or Israel would force a clitorectomy on a young girl, deny a woman a driver’s license, force unwilling women to wear a hijab, etc. is absolutely unthinkable. Yet it makes complete sense when one realizes that Muslim-majority countries have not relinquished religious authority and that a handful of men in those countries get to interpret the holy book for the entire population. Some sort of “Reformation” is necessary in those countries to facilitate a collective move toward individualism. But I digress.
Obviously I give this book 5 stars and eagerly recommend it.
Profile Image for Nick Stibbs.
21 reviews6 followers
January 17, 2019
This book, which has an academic flavour, takes a journey through the 17th, 18th and 19th century, exploring how Enlightenment thinkers tussled with Puritan reformers, to etch out the sexual mores of post-Reformation England. Whilst we might think the battle was won by those on the more libertarian end of the spectrum, we can observe echoes of anti-prostitution campaigns in such contemporary movements such as Stop the Traffik, which share much of the fervour initiated by liberal Christian reformers like William Wilberforce, driving the abolitionist movement.

The main beneficiaries of the questioning of old standards such as fidelity and chastity seems to have been upper-class male libertines, since the dominant paradigm seems to have emphasised men's sexual drive rather than women's. But as the religious mould was broken, so various waves of do-gooders sought to scoop people back into the safety of conventional norms - so institutions such as the Magdalene Asylums formed to take in women who were promiscuous or prostitutes.

The writer clearly thinks that the shift towards sexual freedom, catalysed by key thinkers such as JS Mill, Rousseau and Bentham (in private letters), was a good thing and an impulse we are still evolving and consolidating now in society. The book, whilst both considered and constrained in style, has a potent energy behind it and was a pleasure to read.
Profile Image for Karan Nagarajan.
21 reviews2 followers
January 26, 2015
"The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off."

"‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of [God’s] Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’."

If these don't make you want to read this book. I don't know what will.
Profile Image for Oliver Brackenbury.
Author 5 books39 followers
January 11, 2015
A thorough text, this is both a strength and a weakness. About a third in I felt compelled to put it down for several weeks as there was a frustrating habit to repeat/reinforce information past the point of necessity, making reading a bit of a slog at times.

And yet, when I came back to the book I appreciated the level of detail as it helped me draw the intended lines between The Enlightenment and today, as well as adding color. So who knows, this could have just been an issue of mood on my part.

What definitely isn't, is how this book is one of those very vital texts that helps remind you how many ideas which we think are new, aren't, and many societal changes we think of as being abrupt have actually got roots going back further than we imagine.

If you enjoy this book, I highly recommend "Inventing The Victorians" on similar grounds.
Profile Image for Bri.
81 reviews14 followers
August 1, 2015
Very interesting history of how Western/English speaking parts of the world's attitudes have changed towards sex during the Enlightenment. It was a very packed history book that took a while for me to finish, because there was so much to uncover.
Profile Image for Elaine Skinner.
653 reviews25 followers
March 27, 2020
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it to be accurate and thought provoking. I could see how some found it more scholarly than easy reading. I had to use Google more than once! The author has a habit of making a statement about something during the 18th century then backtracking for as much as a page or 2 to explain how those thoughts took root in the 17th century then picking back up with the 18th century. I found that somewhat confusing at first. At times the author seemed deliberately provoking such as using the word whore over and over instead of prostitute. I did not enjoy the chapter regarding the changes in media in the 18th century. I think I'm just completely over the idea of celebrities and media.

If you read a lot of historical fiction centered around 18th and 19th century British life most of the information will not be new to you but the author does explain how society went from punishing sexual "deviancy" to being more accepting which isn't something you come across in Regency romance. At least I haven't and I've read a ton of them! All in all I would happily read more from this author and recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of sex or the Enlightenment period.
Profile Image for Ada.
248 reviews21 followers
March 16, 2017
'The Origin of Sex' is a misleading title. Clearly, to claim that sex originated in the 1700s is equally as absurd a claim as that it originated in 1968. Yet the this misleading title must have generated a great part of its huge publicity.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala's book is best read as a study of 17th and 18th century attitudes towards sex. Adultery was originally perceived as a matter of public concern (with culprits being whipped or punished in other ways) and only later it began to be seen more as a private matter, exempt from the interference of the law. Dabhoiwala is especially useful on his Hogarth's prints, the establishment of centres for reformed prositutes (such as Magdalen House in London) and the ambigious portrayal of the rake in 18th century literature (ie in Richardson's 'Pamela' and 'Clarissa') .

Dabhoiwala is very good in elaborating on Laqueor's thesis that the perception of female as essentialy different from the male was a partial invention of the 19th century. He is keen to remind us that in the middle ages women were seen as particularly susceptible to sexual desire. Indeed, it was believed that children were only conceived when a woman orgasmed. In the late 18th century it was men's passions which were primarily blamed. In all honesty, if I was still studying 18th century literature I would be very likely to use 'The Origins of Sex' as a reference in an essay.

So far, I have elaborated on aspects of the book which would have received a four star rating if they could only be rated separately. But I think that before Dabhoiwla arrives at the benchmark of the 17th century his analysis is rather one-sided. He dwells on the possibility of the death penalty being used for both the raped and the rapist as an example of the strictness of medieval law. But he fails to analyse the indecentness of a great deal of Chaucer's poems or to mention the supreme ideal of adulterous courtly love.

Equally importantly, Dabhoiwala's celebration of sexual freedom in the 18th century is written from a rather 21st century perspective. Sexual freedom in the 18th century is seen here primarily as a good thing- but it was enjoyed mainly by rich, white men at the cost of impoverished women. In a time when knowledge of birth control and STD prevention was severely limited, women often bore the costs of their partners' sexual liberty. Equally, men all too often presumed consent. Pepys's account in which he forces himself upon the wife of a friend would easily be seen as rape in modern terms, and Dabhoiwala acknowledges this.

Yet Dabhoiwala aches to criticise the charities 18th century benefactors set up with the aim of rescuing of fallen women- he seems to think they are almost an instance brainwashing- even though applicants mostly volunteered themselves, and there were always more applications than places available.

Likewise, the methods of birth control used by London prostitutes are not mentioned in this book and neither is the fate of their offspring. Indeed, sex seems completely disassociated from procreation. The author fails to mention mortality rates in childbirth which must have affected women's ambiguous attitudes to sex at the time. Indeed, sex in this book is mainly studied in extramarital terms.

Another aspect missing from this account are the lives of the famous prostitutes that are described as examples of celebrity culture. I am indebted to Google for my knowledge of the lives of Nell Gwynn, Sally Salisbury (who probably died of syphillis) and Kitty Fisher (died 26 of unknown causes) even though countless less relevant lives have been related to me through the course of this work and Kitty Fisher featured on the book's front cover.

Even though the subject is undoubtedly a fascinating one, I remain somewhat displeased with the content of this book.
Profile Image for Christina (A Reader of Fictions).
4,282 reviews1,655 followers
May 4, 2012
No matter how fascinating the topic, I always approach nonfiction skeptically. While some is well-written and engaging, it sometimes seems the authors are intentionally trying to put their readers, mostly luckless students, directly to sleep. Much as I love sleep, I can generally manage it just fine on my own, so I have no interest in such tomes. Thankfully, the writing of The Origins of Sex, while highly scholarly, is also pretty readable so far as serious scholarship goes.

What strikes me perhaps most of all, having read this book, is how little progress we have actually made as a culture with regards to sex. Sure, we went through a sexual revolution and all of that, and we definitely see ourselves as being way more open to sex than our antecedents, but this just isn't the case. I mean, the idea, which is most definitely still pervasive, that women don't have as much of a sexual drive as men do, for example, stems from the mid eighteenth century. Prior to that point, women were believed to be lusty tempters, like Eve. Really the only real difference lies in the treatment/place of women in society, but that's not too different in all countries, and it doesn't apply much to the sexual realm for many.

It should be noted that Dabhoiwala is speaking specifically to the development of opinions of sex in Europe. The discussion is, in fact, limited almost exclusively to Britain. However, the thought there obviously impacts the United Stated quite a bit. I'm not sure how helpful this would be to completely different cultures, except perhaps to get people thinking about their own cultures treatment of sex throughout the ages.

Scholarship may not be your thing (honestly, it's usually not mine either), but there are some seriously shocking facts in here, as well as some facts I'm just going to store away. The focus is definitely on the treatment of women with regards to sex, so I definitely recommend this to feminists. Now, just so you can see how entertaining history can be, I'm going to share a couple of fun facts with you about special 'masculine sex clubs':

"One of its most vigorous proponents, the politician Sir Francis Dashwood, founded several libertine societies. At the centre of his estate he built a temple to Venus, landscaped to resemble a gigantic vagina."

"Even more remarkable was a much humbler club called 'the Beggar's Benison,' which from the 1730s onwards spread from the east coast of Scotland to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and as far afield as St. Petersburg in Russia. Its members met regularly to drink, talk about sex, exchange bawdy jokes and songs, and read pornography. They paid young women to strip and display themselves naked. Their central purpose was to compare penises and masturbate in front of one another, singly and together, in elaborate rights of phallic celebration."

"In the United Kingdom it is now legal for a man to brand his wife on the buttocks with a red hot iron during sex."

Men are WEIRD. What blows my mind most is that there were so many societies doing this. And they had accoutrements. It's like they thought they were a special phallus religion. Gross. As for the last, what I want to know is can the woman brand him? If not, that is RUDE. These are just a couple of historical goodies you can learn in The Origins of Sex.

I found this to be an entirely enlightening read, and recommend it highly to anyone interested in scholarship on the history of opinions on sex. It will definitely make you question some of our modern thoughts, as you realize that they're not really modern at all.
Profile Image for Brian.
646 reviews250 followers
January 4, 2013
(4.0) The 'sexual revolution' from 17th century up to Victorian England

Reviews and description seemed to suggest a more broad treatment of sexuality in society, but turns out it's almost exclusively about England. That's fine, but should've been able to see that earlier. The book tackles a few perspectives on sexuality and trace them through the transition from the 17th century through mid-19th century (at times touching on 20th).

We see how marriage begins as completely controlled by the church, but can be as simple as consensual sex after betrothal to a more formal institution. We spend a lot of time learning about adultery and prostitution, how more formalization of matrimony led to more commission of adultery with the same the Church became lax in enforcing moral behavior and Protestants (esp. Puritans) took it upon themselves to protect society from adultery (and God's ensuing wrath) enforcement transitioned to the state, and when the state became lax, vice societies took over until society eventually lightened up.

Dabhoiwala points out an interesting contemporary argument for permitting prostitution: that it prevents more violent crimes by giving men an outlet for their lesser desires. Initially women of ill repute are blamed for their 'chosen' profession. Later on, people blamed poverty or even over-education (!) of women for their descent into prostitution.

Much less time is spent on other areas of sexuality including homosexuality, self-pleasuring etc.

This book turned out to be quite dense, but interesting. It relied heavily on literary citations, especially for the older decades, which felt a little indirect, perhaps because there are fewer sources to pull from.
Profile Image for Joseph Sverker.
Author 3 books56 followers
March 21, 2014
I must say that this is historical writing at its best. Dabhoiwala takes a concept, such as the sexual revolution, that we think is very recent and shows that it has a long history, even back to the 17th century. He argues very convincingly that sexual liberty was in a strange way linked with the call out for religious liberty. Sometimes they were directly connected, but only rarely. It was more a way of thinking that came with the Enlightenment - the growing trust in reason as guide and the independent moral subject. In this Dabhoiwala in a way affirms Charleys Taylor's theory of the internalization of moral subject. Morality, according to Taylor, was something that was given for outside in the ancient days, and slowly, slowly, from Augustine and onwards, but even more so with the Enlightenment, this morality was moved inwards to the moral subject.

There are many things that I found interesting in this book. There is the expected criticism of some of the actions and views of the Church. But that is not a one-sided description. However, the slightly more novel aspect is how the scientific view, or obsession, to find out what is natural vs. unnatural also lead to stricter views on homosexuality. In a way from Dabhoiwal's argument it is science together with normatively of the white heterosexual male that singeled out male homosexuality as THE unnatural sexuality.

I would love to bring out more things that I come to think about, and maybe I will. But this book is well worth to read for yourself and I am sure you will find it as enlightening as I did.
Profile Image for Jonathan Jeckell.
103 reviews18 followers
November 10, 2013
This book was richly scattered with historical quotes and footnotes that demonstrated the author did a lot of work researching this book. Unfortunately, at times it read like reading the notes pages. These quotes and the context he added illuminated the varying attitudes by people (in England) throughout history, albeit heavily skewed towards elites.

A couple of insights I got from this book: At some point during the 1700's the blame of promiscuity flipped from women to men, with the popular belief that men were morally weak and rapacious, while women are demure and innocent. This seems to have led to the social proof to men that this was normal for them, and the general victimization or cloistering to protect them.

Social attitudes about sex seem to have strongly correlated with concerns about population; it was encouraged (in the proper ways) when under population was feared, and shameful when Malthusian overpopulation concerns arose. Also, promiscuity, particularly by the lower classes started to be even more ruthlessly condemned following the American and French Revolutions due to frequent analogies made between fathers in a family and the monarchy.

While richly researched, it seemed a little incoherent by portraying diverse contemporary opinions as a vehicle to show how attitudes "evolved".
Profile Image for Steve Scott.
970 reviews49 followers
March 28, 2013
This was a well researched book that digs into the history of the first sexual revolution.

Dabhoiwala makes a good argument that the Enlightenment and the decline of religious power, along with the spread of print media in its various forms, brought huge changes in how society looked at sex. He outlines the 16th and 17th century traditions of state and church imposed sexual discipline. These mandated punishments for fornication, adultery, prostitution, and sodomy. Within a hundred years the standards had loosened dramatically, leading to titanic shifts in the perceptions of expected behavior for men and women and their roles in society.

Dabhoiwala also discusses at length the role of print media in bringing the debate on sexuality to the general public. That was, perhaps, the most interesting part of the book. When we lament the discourse of sex today we might keep in mind that scandal, prurience, and sexual celebrity existed three hundred years ago. The media was limited, but it served the purpose that the modern press, the internet and cable television do today.

I learned of this book of of a talk he gave during a podcast. I believe it was an Intelligence Squared podcast, but I can't recall. He's a witty and engaging speaker. If you can find that talk, I recommend it...along with his book.
93 reviews
March 8, 2013
This always seems a bit of an odd book to have read: to be honest title doesn't help, especially when you borrow it from the library. However, once you have mastered your blushes and borrowed/brought your copy be prepared for an interesting read.

While the book p reports from its title to look at sex through time, it begins with recorded time, with the middle ages and other earlier periods opening the main argument of the book, lumped into the same period. Here we see the small mindedness of religions, mixed in some cases with its usual mix of hypocrisy (that is right, shock, Victorians didn't invent that!) moving on to the Tudor period and onto the period of the enlightenment, where it seems, fittingly enough, that attitudes really begin to change, although not entirely.

I think one of my favorite parts was how you had c18th ladies of ill-repute had pamphlets and stage shows, had their image sold... and we talk about reality TV stars and Playboy bunnies as being a new curse on the morals of society, where as it is all, as Dame Shirley of Bassey tells us, 'all just a little bit of history repeating...'

An illuminating study that shows how far we have come, but how far we have still yet to go...
Profile Image for Annie.
1,170 reviews13 followers
January 16, 2013
By turns intriguing and disturbing. How did society's (read English society) attitude towards sex change so much in 200 years? When did public and private switch? How did women change from being perceived as sexual predators to sexual prey?
I found the section dealing with seduction the most difficult to read. Extracts from Samuel Pepy's diary detailing his pursuit of a business partner's wife is difficult to read through a 21st century woman's eyes. This is not seduction. She is not a willing partner.
One the more intriguing side, there's the rise of celebrity - of media publicising and promoting people famous for being famous - something very familiar to today's famed-centred media. The media beat-up of courtesan Kelly Fisher's fall (off a horse) presages the modern obsession with any celebrity being caught in an embarrasing situation.
13 reviews
June 11, 2013
I just started this book a few days ago. The author, Faramerz Dabhoiwala, focuses on 17th century societal changes in attitude and law calling it the 'first sexual revolution.' The writing is clear, concise and has a compelling narrative style.

The book is published by the Oxford University Press, which offers a webpage on the book with three short YouTube interviews with the author here:

I bought the e-book from Barnes & Noble.
Profile Image for Seán Ó Séaghdha.
24 reviews1 follower
June 20, 2013
A fascinating look at the radical change in attitudes to sex in England from the late 17th century onwards.

A good mix of anecdote and thesis, though at times it did feel there could have been more of the thesis in there. It's good to be reminded what a radical change widespread printing produced and the parallels with the rise of the Internet are so obvious that they don't need to be (and aren't) stated. The obsession with celebrity is also startlingly modern. I'll bet many people in early 18th century England would have taken to the net like ducks to water.

Definitely recommended.
Profile Image for Jenny.
698 reviews38 followers
August 15, 2013
This book was very lengthy and in-depth. The author definitely knows a lot about the topic- and is obviously very knowledgeable of European history in general.

At times, mostly at the beginning, this book was a little dry and intimidating but it definitely gets easier to read as the book progresses.

I enjoyed this book- it took me a little bit to read but was definitely worth it. I feel like I learned a lot!
2,146 reviews
March 10, 2015
from the library

Acknowledgements --
Prologue: the culture of discipline --
Power and punishment --
The decline and fall of public punishment --
The rise of sexual freedom --
The cult of seduction --
The new world of men and women --
The origins of white slavery --
The media and the message --
Epilogue: modern cultures of sex: from the Victorians to the twenty-first century.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Stephen.
170 reviews6 followers
July 19, 2012
Kind of disappointing in that it was totally confined to 17th and 18th century England. The epilogue at the end was very good but the time of the English Revolution and Charles II is just really not that interesting as far as a Sexual Revolution is concerned. I think there was a whole bunch of stuff going on in France, Europe, and the US at the time.
Profile Image for Brian Watson.
Author 2 books20 followers
January 1, 2016
this is a good introductory work for a non academic or someone new to the field. it offers a good overview a d rehashes some of the most common ideas in history of sexialiyy, specifically, British sexuality. however, for someone who has read a lot in this field, its a bit lacking, but entertaining nonetheless.
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