J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

The New Sexual Freedom of the 1700s

Larry Cebula at Northwest History alerted me to this interesting extract in the Guardian from The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala. Although Dabhoiwala focused on life in England, some of the findings would also apply to eighteenth-century America, even New England:
The most obvious change was a surge in pre- and extramarital sex. We can measure this, crudely but unmistakably, in the numbers of children conceived out of wedlock. During the 17th century this figure had been extremely low: in 1650 only about 1% of all births in England were illegitimate. But by 1800, almost 40% of brides came to the altar pregnant, and about a quarter of all first-born children were illegitimate. It was to be a permanent change in behaviour.

Just as striking was the collapse of public punishment, which made this new sexual freedom possible. By 1800, most forms of consensual sex between men and women had come to be treated as private, beyond the reach of the law. This extraordinary reversal of centuries of severity was partly the result of increasing social pressures. The traditional methods of moral policing had evolved in small, slow, rural communities in which conformity was easy to enforce. Things were different in towns, especially in London. . . .

Urban living provided many more opportunities for sexual adventure. It also gave rise to new, professional systems of policing, which prioritised public order. Crime became distinguished from sin. And the fast circulation of news and ideas created a different, freer and more pluralist intellectual environment.

This was crucial to the development of the ideal of sexual freedom. By the later 18th century, for the first time, many serious observers had come to take it for granted that sex was a private matter, that men and women should be free to indulge in it irrespective of marriage, and that sexual pleasure should be celebrated as one of the purposes of life. As well as reinterpreting the Bible, they found support in new ideas about the importance of personal conscience and in the laws of nature, which were regarded as more clearly indicative of God’s will than the inherited dogma of the church and the text of the scriptures. In his 1730 work, Christianity as Old as the Creation, the Oxford don Matthew Tindal ridiculed traditional sexual norms as priestly inventions, no more appropriate to a modern state than the biblical prohibitions against drinking blood or lending money: “Enjoying a woman, or lusting after her, can’t be said, without considering the circumstances, to be either good or evil. That warm desire, which is implanted in human nature, can’t be criminal, when perused after such a manner as tends most to promote the happiness of the parties, and to propagate and preserve the species.” . . .

It’s no accident that all these early celebrations of the new sexual world were voiced by white, upper-class men. In practice, sexual liberty was limited in important ways. The bastardy laws continued to apply to the labouring classes: their morals remained a public matter. The new permissiveness towards “natural” freedoms also led to a sharper definition and abhorrence of supposedly “unnatural” behaviour. . . .

James Boswell’s diary records the tragic story of Jean, the brilliant only daughter of Henry Home, Lord Kames, one of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the early 1760s, when she was only 16 or 17 and already married, she embarked on a passionate affair with Boswell, arguing to him that they were doing nothing wrong:

“She was a subtle philosopher. She said, ‘I love my husband as a husband, and you as a lover, each in his own sphere. I perform for him all the duties of a good wife. With you, I give myself up to delicious pleasures. We keep our secret. Nature has so made me that I shall never bear children. No one suffers because of our loves. My conscience does not reproach me, and I am sure that God cannot be offended by them.’”

A decade later, when her husband divorced her over another affair, she declared “that she hoped that God Almighty would not punish her for the only crime she could charge herself with, which was the gratification of those passions which he himself had implanted in her nature.” But her father, the scholar and moral authority, took the conventional view that adultery in a man “may happen occasionally, with little or no alienation of affection”, but in a woman was unpardonable. After his daughter’s divorce, he and Lady Kames exiled her to France and never saw her again.
Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex is being published in the U.S. of A. by Oxford University Press in May.

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