Bowled over by the first sexual revolution

Jaclyn Keast 

“Who here has ever had sex with a person without being married?” As hands somewhat hesitantly rose across the Sydney Theatre, historian and Oxford scholar Faramerz Dabhoiwala apologised for making his audience feel awkward by asking such a personal question.

“Nowadays, we think of sex as something that is quintessentially private. Sexual privacy and sexual freedom are things that we take for granted,” he said. Faramerz’s book, The Origins of Sex, is an account of how such attitudes came to be. “I’ve called it the first sexual revolution,” he said.

Prior to the 18th century, to admit to sex outside marriage would be to admit to a capital offense. “We think it wrong that in other cultures the discussion of sex is censured, women are treated as second-class citizens, people suffer for their sexual orientation and that adulterers can be put to death. But our own Western society used to be like that too,” he said.

Faramerz illustrated his talk with some of the sources used in his book. One of his first photographs, of a pewter dish, looks ordinary at first glance. However, Faramerz caused shock and laughter among the audience when he explained the dish was what members of the Begger’s Bension, an 18th-century Scottish sex club, communally ejaculated upon.

How did society make the seemingly impossible jump from public executions for adultery to sex parties in under a century? In the 1700s there was a mass shift away from small rural villages towards urban living, where it was more difficult to keep tabs on people’s sexual behaviour. “Urbanisation creates entirely new ways of living, for young men and women to meet and new ways of communicating,” he said.

Intellectually, this was the time of the Enlightenment. People began to question the Bible as the only source of morality. It became popular instead to look toward nature and reason to inform an internal, private conscience about sex. “Sexuality becomes, in the mainstream view, part of human nature and so to repress it is artificial and unnatural,” said Faramerz.

The 18th century also marked the dawn of mass media and with that came “an unprecedented interest in the discussion and the publicising of sex,” an irony he is quick to point out when he spoke of ideas of sexual privacy. As a result, we see the beginnings of the reporting we’re familiar with in gossip magazines today: sexual exposé and sexual celebrity. Faramerz chose his favourite image of one such 18th-century celebrity, the courtesan Kitty Fisher, as the cover of The Origins of Sex.

He also reminded the audience that despite everything, sexual freedom was not equally distributed. “A new permissiveness towards what seemed to be natural, also led to a sharper definition and an increasing abhorrence of supposedly unnatural behavior,” he said. One such “unnatural” behaviour was homosexuality, still a capital offense into the 20th century.

Historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala

When asked to comment by an audience member on issues of same-sex marriage today, Faramerz said “the passion that’s been raised around the issue … is a direct playing out of the contradictions that formed in the 18th century. On the one hand, people who are opposed to gay marriage think this is the epitome of unnatural behaviour. On the other hand, people see this as a perfectly natural consequence of equality.”

Similarly, natural sexual behaviour was seen as different for men and women. “[There] established a new commonplace that men were naturally, inevitably promiscuous, that sexual freedom was normal and tolerable in men. Women were generally seen as sexual victims of men and actually were naturally chaste and asexual,” says Faramerz. And women, it was argued at the time, were morally superior to men because they were less controlled by their sexual instinct. The effect of this idea led to ever-tightening restrictions on how women should behave in order to control the urges of men. Even today, Faramerz said, this informs our distinctions between the sexes. However that this notion also informed the beginnings of modern feminism, he said.

Faramerz’ concluded the impact of the first sexual revolution in the 18th century changed our world forever, both socially and intellectually. “From this point onwards, sex is increasingly celebrated, not just as pleasurable and important, but perhaps the greatest and most important pleasure in life.”