The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution covers the changing attitudes toward sexuality that occurred in the 18th Century, plus some spillover before and after.
Prior to this first revolution, the author notes that “Ultimately, the right to have sex, and to form a family, was regulated by the community. … when paupers had children out of wedlock they could be taken away from them.”
Boston was not a great place to party: “In the early seventeenth century, all the colonies of New England enacted harsh laws against unchastity: banishment, imprisonment, severe public flogging, the wearing of scarlet letters and other shaming garments for the rest of one’s life. Many of them, affirming with the founders of New Haven that ‘the Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule’ of government, followed the Old Testament and made adultery punishable by death.” (Though Glastonbury might have been: “To get a young relative of hers to sleep with men, for example, a bawd called Margery in early seventeenth-century Glastonbury encouraged her ‘that she had a good cunt and bid her make use thereto for if she did not she would do her self wrong, for if ground were not tilled and manured it would be overgrown with thorns and briars’.”)
Commercial sex providers lawyered up:
A deeper problem was therefore the rising legal expertise of hardened sexual criminals. Litigation against such people must always have been particularly difficult; but in the eighteenth century the balance seems to have shifted decisively in their favour. It was dismaying to see how easily lewd and disorderly houses brushed aside justice by ‘the suborning of false witnesses, and perjuries in the open courts’, complained a preacher in 1734. Compared with their opponents, bawds and their associates increasingly had deeper pockets and greater confidence in manipulating the law. An important contributory factor appears to have been the growing involvement of lawyers, whose influence is evident from around the turn of the century in several procedural challenges to the prosecution of whores and bawds.11 By the 1730s it was not uncommon in cases of all kinds for solicitors and barristers to offer themselves for hire to offenders taken before a magistrate, put on trial, wishing to appeal, or looking to sue for damages.
By the middle decades of the century even ordinary street-walkers sometimes had recourse to lawyers, and by the end of the century the legal confidence of some of them was remarkable. In 179I, when one young woman was picked up by Viscount Dungarvan and the transaction between them went wrong, she promptly sued him for theft. She lost, but only after an extraordinarily long trial, lasting almost six hours. For an illiterate London prostitute to have put an aristocratic client on trial for his life over such a matter would have been inconceivable in any earlier age. (Her name was Elizabeth Weldon, alias Troughton, alias Smith. When cross-examined she spoke frankly and confidently about her life and profession. Her attorney had been recommended to her by her hairdresser.)
Gay rights were substantial in the 18th century:
A similar mindset appears to have underlain the first extended public defence of homosexual relations in English, Thomas Cannon’s Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d (1749), which, disingenuously pretending the custom was now universally ‘exploded … and disowned’, described it as ‘that celebrated passion, sealed by sensualists, espoused by philosophers, enshrined by kings’, and set out to ‘discuss it with freedom, and the most philosophical exactness’. As Cannon pointed out in his introduction, ‘every dabbler knows by his classics … that boy-love ever was the top refinement of most enlightened ages.’ … Especially in private, homosexual freedom was also justified with growing confidence as natural, harmless, and commonplace.
Knowledge of the human body was imperfect:
Because women’s easy arousal was taken for granted, it was also generally believed until the eighteenth century that female orgasm was essential to pregnancy: without it, no child could be conceived.
It equally explains the breathless speech of the maidservant Anna Harrison, who in the 1690s supplemented her income through casual sex with acquaintances. ‘Pray make haste, make haste, make haste,’ she would exclaim, as a man penetrated her body, ‘I am afraid you should get me with child … no, no, I must take care for that, ‘tis a very troublesome thing to have a child, and no father, who owns it.’
By 1800, however, exactly the opposite idea had become firmly entrenched. Now it was believed that men were much more naturally libidinous, and liable to seduce women. Women had come to be seen as comparatively delicate, defensive, and sexually passive, needing to be constantly on their guard against male rapacity. Female orgasm was no longer thought essential to procreation.
Then, as now, cash was exchanged, but attitudes towards vendors varied with the era:
As the East End prostitute Anne Carter put it in 1730, what she did for a living was not the desperate resort of a ruined woman, but simply the exchange of money in return for ‘the satisfaction of her body … according to contract’.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this new way of regarding prostitutes – not as wilful, independent sexual agents, but as the victims of seduction, entrapment, and impoverishment – was to remain the overriding view of sexual trade.
In the work of more radical thinkers such as Mary Hays and Mary Wollstonecraft the critique went further still, and prostitution sometimes was held up as an epitome of all female suffering. In Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman, when the protagonist hears the horrific story of a former prostitute, it makes ‘her thoughts take a wider range … she was led to consider the oppressed state of women’ more generally. Such assertions had particular force in the difficult economic climate of the 1790s. Yet by then the idea that inadequate opportunity of employment was one of the main causes of prostitution had been long established. ‘Women have but few trades and fewer manufactures to employ them’, it was observed in 1758: small wonder that so many ended up as whores.
The rise of the word ‘prostitute’ itself epitomized this development. Before 1700 it was not a term often used, or differentiated from general notions such as ‘whore’ or ‘harlot’. In the course of eighteenth century it took on a much sharper definition. As the focus of public policy narrowed from whoredom in general to the problem of the unchaste poor in particular, ‘prostitutes’ and ‘prostitution’ became pre-eminent categories in the classification of immorality.
The best way into these questions is through one of the most striking novelties of eighteenth-century culture: a growing public fascination with the lives of low-born whores. Around 1700 this would have been unimaginable. Even in London, few prostitutes ever became famous enough to be widely known or written about. By the end of the century, however, even as ever-greater stress came to be placed on the sexual passivity of respectable women, a whole culture of celebrity had grown up around their most immoral counterparts. Their actions were routinely reported in newspapers and magazines, their personalities analysed in pamphlets and poems, their portraits painted, engraved, and caricatured. So ubiquitous did this type of material become that a few decades later it gave rise to a new term, ‘pornography’, literally meaning the description of harlots.
Think that tabloid stories about the sexual escapes of the miscellaneously famous are new?
In the case of sexual celebrities even the most apparently trivial incident could be amplified a hundredfold. When in March 1759 Kitty Fisher was thrown off her horse whilst riding in St James’s Park, it inspired months of public comment, songs, verses, pictures, pamphlets, and entire books
Above all, there was an immense new appetite for biographies of real people. The eighteenth century was the first age of biographical dictionaries, of regular obituaries, of collected letters, and of published memoirs on a large scale.
This was also the age in which scandalous women first published real autobiographies and vindications of their own behaviour. Such writings served a variety of purposes. They allowed the author to present a favourable picture of herself to the world, and to name and shame her enemies. They earned her money from eager readers and booksellers. Most lucrative of all was the practice of blackmailing former lovers and clients, by threatening to publish their names and letters. This was one of the central aims of the serialized Apology of the courtesan Teresia Constantia Phillips, which was a runaway bestseller when it started appearing in 1748. In the same year were published the first two volumes of the Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, denounced by her estranged husband as ‘an incorrigible prostitute’. By 1800 the genre had become well established. When Margaret Leeson, the most fashionable prostitute and brothel-keeper of eighteenth-century Dublin, found herself down on her luck in the 1790s, it was thus obvious to her what to do. Like any modern celebrity seeking to capitalize on her moment of fame, she began publishing her memoirs. In three volumes, over several years and several hundreds of pages, she told all, drawing on her extensive private papers, accounts, and correspondence. It was a heady brew. There was the inevitable narrative of her own seduction into unchastity and courtesanship, with vignettes of her many keepers; the even fuller story of her life as a madam to some of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom; copious tales of high jinks in high society; letters from her lovers; histories of all the famous prostitutes she had known; and endless details of sexual commerce and scandal (see illustration 50). No wonder the work was ‘bought up with the greatest avidity’.3
In 1781, the actress, author, and feminist Mary Robinson, who also happened to be one of the most celebrated courtesans of her day, publicly threatened to publish the letters of her former lover, the Prince of Wales – until she was granted a ‘reward’ of £5,000 and an annuity for life. In 1806, when the Duke of York cast off his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, without an adequate financial settlement, she likewise threatened to publish details of their affair. … Her reward was a gigantic pay-off from the government (a lump sum of £10,000, and large annuities for life for her and her daughter), in return for the suppression of this dangerous text … The great courtesan Harriette Wilson went further still, maximizing her profits through a combination of extortion and titillation. First she announced the imminent appearance of her memoirs, which caused consternation amongst her innumerable former lovers, not least the king. Next she wrote privately to each man, threatening to expose him unless he immediately sent her hundreds of pounds. This tactic alone netted her several thousand pounds.
The pendulum swung back in the 1800s:
By the 1820s, most commentators agreed that public manners had become more decorous in recent decades, and sexual vice more restrained
And many historians would now concur that this ‘Victorian’ avowal of strict boundaries on sexual freedom, and the repression of various forms of sensuality, lasted well beyond 1901–indeed, that it was a dominant feature of western sexual culture until the 1960s. So pervasive did this outlook become that it gradually affected sexual relations even within marriage. Between 1800 and 1920, for example, rates of childbirth in most western countries plummeted by fifty per cent or more. This was a permanent change, and it appears to have been brought about not principally by any innovation in birth control, but by the mass adoption of techniques of sexual restraint within settled relationships–abstinence, limits on intercourse, the use of coitus interruptus.
A vital component in this re-emphasis on discipline was the relative desexualization of women. This book has tried to explain the eighteenth-century origins of this remarkable trend: but it reached its fullest development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For women of all classes, sexual ignorance and passivity came increasingly to be valued as essential components of respectable femininity and heterosexual love.
The final key feature of modern boundaries on sexual freedom was the growing frequency and harshness with which homosexual men were persecuted, both legally and socially. … Throughout the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of prosecutions and convictions per year [in England] for sodomy and homosexual indecency.
This book came out in 2012, long before publications such as the New York Times became saturated with reports of sexual activities among college students and debates about how to control them. But the text makes it clear that, even within a single society, it is hard to create long-term agreement about what kinds of sexual behavior are acceptable. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we are covering the same ground that the English covered in the 1700s.