The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 496 pages
The beautiful cover of The Origins of Sex shows a lady with an enigmatic smile, hiding her breast beneath a shawl. She’s serene and lovely but there’s nothing overtly sexy about her.
You’ll need to read what’s inside to discover that she was the celebrity Georgian prostitute Kitty Fisher. That blur in the foreground is, in fact, a fishbowl, punning on her name. Peer closely and you’ll see reflected in it the window of the room in which she sits, with the silhouettes of a curious crowd outside, gazing at this woman just as we look at the fish trapped in her bowl. It’s a powerful image but you need patience to decode it, and questions will still remain. The same goes for this book itself. Philip Larkin facetiously claimed that “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen-sixty-three ... Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And The Beatles’ first LP”. If perchance you thought that Larkin was being serious, Faramerz Dabhoiwala will put you right. The Oxford historian sets out to show that sex began in the 18th century – or, to be fair, that’s when people started thinking and talking about it in a recognisably modern way.
Today we believe that women are less lustful than men – it was vice versa before 1800. Today we believe that everyone is entitled to be treated the same regardless of race or social class; certainly not so then. Today sex is a private matter, and what they get up to next door is nobody’s business but their own. However, if you suspected that your 17th-century neighbour was committing adultery, you could send her off to the church courts. There she might (at least theoretically) even lose her life just on the strength of your word. Is our modern obsession with the sex lives of celebrities some crude and vulgar 20th-century phenomenon? No, it actually kicked off in the 1660s.
This is a fascinating subject and also an important one, not least in that it reveals as transient and relative so many of the values that seem non-negotiable today. Dabhoiwala argues that the ironies, double standards and contradictions we all have to face with regard to sex are not new (that’s reassuring). But he also shows that some setbacks, particularly to women’s rights, arose from the extension of liberty in the 18th-century Enlightenment. (That’s worrying. Isn’t rationality supposed to be good for us?)
However, while the disjunctions between sex then and now that Dabhoiwala sets out may sound mind-bending to the uninitiated, historians since Foucault have been perfectly familiar with them. So what’s new about The Origins of Sex? Dabhoiwala has plenty to say but I found it quite hard to chisel a coherent and convincing argument out of his 496 densely written and occasionally repetitive pages.
For me the book kicked off on page 143, when Dabhoiwala gets round to addressing Thomas Laqueur. Laqueur’s is the big name in the recent writing on the history of sex. He argued in 1991 that practically all the differences between past and present sex outlined above have their explanation in contemporary medical understandings of the body. Because doctors thought at first that female bodies were simply weaker versions of male bodies, says Laqueur, they also, for example, thought that women’s orgasms were essential for conception, hence the belief that women were ravenously lusty.
But for Dabhoiwala, the medical explanation is not enough. Changes in biological understanding, he argues, were mirrored by parallel transformations in plays and novels, journalism, poetry, works of theology, philosophy and moral commentary. Perhaps the closest Dabhoiwala gets to a single replacement for Laqueur’s biological theory is his argument that the Reformation, which broke down the monopoly that the church had on authority, led to the toleration of various religious sects, and that more relaxed sexual mores soon followed.
“The transformation of sexual attitudes by 1800 thus came about in a remarkably messy and inadvertent way, from the piecemeal and sometimes incoherent assimilation of old and new points of view,” Dabhoiwala suggests. Very well, but the problem is that it leads to a somewhat “piecemeal” book. When an author begins consecutive sentences with the words “in short”, you start to wish that he would, indeed, be a bit shorter.
He organises his voluminous material into chapters successively dealing with how the Enlightenment changed people’s views of sex under the law, in the etiquette of seduction, in manners, in the institution of prostitution and in the media. The discussion is all rather elevated, and this, too, is a problem. The main criticism levelled at Laqueur is that whatever a few doctors might have believed, there’s no evidence that it filtered down to normal everyday life, and that people just went on having sex anyway. And the same accusation could be levelled at Dabhoiwala: using literary and philosophical writing as source material is all fine, but what did it mean for everyday folk? We can’t take vox pops from Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace as if he were a man on the street.
This isn’t a book, Dabhoiwala claims, which seeks “to enter the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past”. His aim is bigger: laudably so, but there’s a gap where the real bodies, and real people, should be. Just occasionally there’s a glimpse of them. In one vivid passage, we’re told about reformed prostitutes entering a penitentiary and having to give up even their names for the duration of their stay. But this is a brief flash of colour amid a lot of grey.
The Origins of Sex is a brave running jump at a big subject. I salute its ambition but found it landed a little short.