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The First Sexual Revolution

Salon has an interesting interview with historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala about sex during the 1760’s. Apparently, there was a sexual revolution during this time. Prior to the 1760’s sex was only to be inside marriage and was severely punished (by death). This curtailed people’s sex activities. But, as Dabhoiwala explains, urbanization began and people began moving from the countryside to cities. This made lots of people come closer together, and have more oppritunities to have sex in ways they didn’t have before:

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.

During this time, also, men and women were thought of differently. Women, not men, were considered the more sexual sex, rather than being pure, chaste and asexual.

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.

I recommend reading the full article if you are interested in the history of sex.  Dabhoiwala gives five books recommendations for those interested in reading more about that time, and the sexual activity and mores of the era.

Detail from Francisco Goya's "La Maja Desnuda"

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About Jen

Have been a jack of all trades. I'm a former philosopher who specialized in ethics and political philosophy. I'm a sex positive feminist.

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