Interview by Katherine Harvey with Jennifer Evans

A sweeping history of changing sexual attitudes and behaviours in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex explores the history of the ‘first sexual revolution’. The book traces the transformation of western approaches to sexuality during the Age of Enlightenment. Dabhoiwala detects a decline in the influence of church and state over individual sexual behaviour, and an increasing sense that consenting adults should have the freedom to do with their bodies as they wish. The significance of these changes was so wide-ranging that their impact was felt far beyond the bedroom, creating new ideas about equality, privacy and individual freedom which continue to influence our lives even today.        

Katherine Harvey: Can you tell us the story behind The Origins of Sex? How did you come to work on the history of sex, and what prompted you to write this book?

Faramerz Dabhoiwala: It all started when I was an undergraduate. I’d happened to grow up in Amsterdam in the 1970s and 1980s. When I returned to England to go to university, it was at the height of the AIDS crisis, and the fight over the passage of Section 28 by the Conservative government, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality to children. So it was impossible not to be interested in sexual politics. As a student, I was inspired by taking courses in women’s history, and history from below, and by the excitement of using legal records to uncover the lives of previously ignored social groups. This was also exactly at the time that gender took off as an analytical concept. The first thing I ever published, soon after I graduated, was a tiny review in one of the early issues of Gender and History. So for all those reasons, I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on prostitution and attitudes towards it in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That’s how I first came to work on the history of sex.

And then I had two great strokes of luck. The first was that I more or less stumbled across a vast, unexplored subject, what I ended up calling ‘the first sexual revolution’. By the time I’d finished writing my thesis I was struck by a remarkable change over time. If you were a prostitute in England in the 1650s, you were technically liable to be executed, under the Adultery Act. Yet exactly a hundred years later, in the 1750s, people were setting up hospitals to save fallen women – prostitutes were now increasingly viewed not as wilful, lustful sinners but as the innocent victims of male seduction and social circumstance. I was really intrigued by this contrast, and wanted to find out what had caused it. And what I found was not just a change in attitudes towards prostitution, but a huge revolution in ideas about men and women in general, about human nature, about the very purpose of life, and so on.

The more I pursued the subject, the bigger and richer it turned out to be. For example, I started by looking at the records of policing, and social policy, and popular culture. But then at a certain point it became clear that there were also some really important and unexplored intellectual changes in attitudes to sex, conscience, and natural law, that could be traced through the philosophical and religious writings of the period, so I had to go off and master those.

I also decided fairly early on that it would be crazy to write a book about sexual attitudes and behaviour without drawing on all the literature and art of the period – that’s often, in any society, where one finds the richest and most complicated engagement with sexual themes. So I spent a lot of time looking at fiction, and drama, and poetry, and visual materials, as well as reading lots of secondary work on those topics.

And finally the chronology got more and more ambitious. I needed to go backwards as far as the early middle ages to understand various aspects of the subject; but I was also very keen to trace the influence of the eighteenth-century revolution on later developments, right up to the present day. It’s folly to think you can read everything relevant, but I did try to read everything that was really important. Because, as the subject turned out to be so huge and significant, I wanted to write a book that did it justice, and encompassed it all – as much of a total history as I could make it.

This all took a very long time. I’d finished the doctorate in 1996. But my second stroke of great good fortune was to be elected to a post-doc, and then to a tenured fellowship at Oxford, when I was very young. So it was easier to ignore the pressure to publish things quickly, and to take the time to read widely and to figure things out on a larger scale. In the end, I wrote the book mainly in a single year when I had a sabbatical – but that was only possible because by then I’d been researching and thinking about it for well over a decade.

KH: The book is a history of ‘the first sexual revolution’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Can you explain what you mean by that phrase, and why this revolution happened when it did?

FD: In simple terms, it’s about the origin of modern western attitudes to sex. Nowadays, we take for granted that consenting adults have the right to do what they like with their own bodies. We value sexual privacy and sexual freedom much more than other cultures around the world do. But that is only a recent development, whose origins lie in that first sexual revolution. Before that, for most of western history in the Christian era, all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church and state and ordinary people put huge (and increasing) efforts into policing and punishing it.

So the book begins by describing and explaining this pre-modern world, and its culture of increasingly strict public sexual discipline, from the middle ages into the seventeenth century. Then, in the decades around 1700, that age-old, traditional world-view was shattered by remarkable combination of developments. The system of public discipline collapsed. There was a huge explosion in the amount of pre- and extra-marital sex. The modern idea of sexual freedom was systematically developed and defended by a whole range of serious thinkers. In addition, ideas about male and female sexuality were turned completely on their head. Since the dawn of Western civilization, it had always been presumed that women were the more lustful sex, but in the eighteenth century exactly the opposite idea took firmly hold. Intertwined with this dramatic change in the ideology of gender there was also a tremendous sharpening up of other ideas of sexual difference, especially of class and race. And the final key development was the birth of a new universe of public communication and mass media in the eighteenth century. This helped to create new attitudes towards privacy and publicity, new ways of shaping public opinion, and a new openness about sexual affairs. All in all, as I try to show in the last part of the book, this radical transformation laid the ground for the sexual cultures of the Victorians, of the twentieth century, and of our own day.

To find out why all this happened when it did, you’ll have to read the book! And, seriously, I really do hope that people who work on nineteenth- and twentieth-century sex and gender will pick up The Origins of Sex, because unfortunately there’s often a remarkable ignorance, even in some of the best academic work, of what the world was like before 1800. And that leads to all sorts of misjudgements and short-sightedness. I say that as someone who has himself learned tremendously from reading the work of modernists. When I started my own research, the most sophisticated and stimulating things I read were usually by scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth century. There wasn’t much in the secondary literature by medievalists and early modernists that could match the sheer theoretical and analytical brilliance of, say, Judith Walkowitz, or Jeffrey Weeks, or Elaine Showalter, or Frank Mort. But I do think that, at a basic level, you really can’t understand modern sexual cultures properly without appreciating their origins in the Enlightenment, and the scale of the intellectual and social changes that occurred in the eighteenth century. (Foucault, who did at least try, was alas hopelessly slipshod and misleading on this score, which is another reason for the general over-emphasis on certain supposedly key developments of the nineteenth century.)

KH: For the most part, your book focuses on literate, urban culture, particularly as it developed in London. So was this a revolution of the social elites, or did everyone benefit?

FD: It was certainly a revolution that affected everyone, though in very different ways. The shift from a society in which all sex outside marriage was publicly punishable to one in which most consensual sex was treated as private was a fundamental watershed. Legal and governmental mechanisms are, of course, never the only form of sexual control, but they are certainly very important. The statistics on sexual activity outside marriage amongst the mass of the population are equally striking. In the 1650s, fewer than 1% of all births in England were illegitimate. By 1800, that figure had shot up to almost 25% of first-born children, and almost 40% of all women getting married in England were already pregnant.

Part of the book’s argument is about changing ways of living ­­– how new forms of commerce, communication, and social organization transformed the perception, and the experience, of sex. Mass urbanisation was key to the first sexual revolution: in all sorts of ways, modern sexual attitudes and behaviours are essentially urban phenomena. London, and England, were in the vanguard of this. This was the period in which London exploded into the largest metropolis in the world. By 1800, more than a million people lived there. By 1850, most of the British population lived in towns. And most of these people were literate. All these developments were completely unprecedented, and they transformed sexual culture.

As for the social dimension, one of the central themes I explore in The Origins of Sex is how the first sexual revolution had very different and unequal effects for men and women, for heterosexual and homosexual behaviour, and for different classes and races. Though in the long term the ideals of sexual freedom were to become much more broadly accepted, in the short term their advance primarily benefited the minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men. The increasing toleration of supposedly ‘natural’ sexual behaviour led to a sharper definition and abhorrence of apparently ‘unnatural’ conduct. This was the origin, for example, of the heightened persecution of sex between men, the great panic over masturbation, and the increasing desexualisation of women, all of which were to be elaborated further in the nineteenth century. An equally important consequence of new ways of thinking was a sharpened obsession with sex and class, and the continued policing of working-class sexuality, for example through the bastardy laws. The book often concentrates on the views of the dominant social groups, because that is where power was disproportionately concentrated; but it is equally concerned to show the varied effects of that power across society.

Finally, although the book focuses on the English-speaking world, I do think that, in general terms, very similar things were happening across much of the rest of the western world at roughly the same time. Around 1650, every Christian society upheld a culture of public sexual discipline; yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, wherever Europeans lived in large towns and cities, this had given way to a much more laissez-faire attitude towards sexual immorality for propertied men, a huge expansion of tolerated (and often state-sanctioned) prostitution, to cater to their supposedly natural promiscuity, new ways of thinking about male and female sexuality, and so on. Obviously there were also lots of important local differences in the pace and character of intellectual, social, and sexual change, but I think that general outline holds true. England was precocious in various ways, but it was far from unique.

A medieval image of lust personified as a woman (BL Yates Thompson 3)

KH: One of the key themes of The Origins of Sex is the nature of men and women, with traditional ideas about lustful women and vulnerable men being replaced by a new model of male control and female passivity. Do you think that the sexual revolution also provoked a gender revolution?

FD: Absolutely. As you say, that’s one of the key themes of the book ­– though really the two developments were inter-related, rather than one following the other. It’s remarkable that the huge shift in presumptions about lust, which is so obvious, and so broadly and lastingly influential, has not been properly explained before. People often presume that it was simply the result of changing scientific theories about male and female bodies. But, in fact, these new ideas about the relative lustfulness of men and women were articulated earlier and with greater influence through other, more general ways of considering nature, culture, and society: in plays and novels, journalism, poetry, works of theology, philosophy, and moral commentary. What shows up in the medical discourse are the later consequences, rather than the origins, of this broader change.

One of the central chapters in the book tries to explain its causes more fully. A very important, and thus far largely overlooked, factor was the breakthrough of female voices into public life around 1700. This was a completely unprecedented development. In all earlier times, men had monopolized every public medium of communication and instruction, from fiction to journalism to education and theology. That was why femininity had tended to be so undervalued. But from the later seventeenth century onwards, women emerged for the first time as a permanent and influential part of the world of letters, as playwrights, poets, novelists, philosophers, influential readers, and cultural critics. This introduced into the cultural mainstream powerful new female perspectives on courtship and lust, which stressed the essential rapacity and promiscuity of men.

I’ve also tried to show how and why ideologies of gender were from the eighteenth century on increasingly closely intertwined with those of class. Presumptions about sexuality always combined the two. So there’s never just one sexual stereotype: it’s important to notice the differences, as well as the similarities, between upper, middling, and lower-class codes and behaviours, for both sexes. Thanks to the work of Davidoff and Hall, and of Anna Clark, we know that ideologies of gender were central to the formation of class identity around 1800. The Origins of Sex shows that the reverse was also true: the growing importance of ideas about class strongly influenced presumptions about male and female sexuality.

KH: In the introduction to The Origins of Sex, you talk about the tendency to treat the history of sex as ‘a part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience’, and suggest that it should be connected to ‘major political, intellectual and social trends.’ Why has the history of sex been categorised in this way, and how should we go about changing this? 

FD: I think that probably there’s both a general and a historiographical explanation for this tendency. The general reason is simply that it’s a basic presumption in our society that sex is an essentially private matter. My book is partly about the emergence of that very idea in the Enlightenment. But it’s also true that, ever since the eighteenth century, feminists and gay rights activists and other politically engaged thinkers and activists have continually asserted that, on the contrary, sex (and the concept of ‘privacy’) are always political, as of course they are. Most early historians of sex, from the early twentieth century right through to the 1970s, tended to proceed from that premise, and take a wider view of the subject. And obviously many still do.

So I think that the second part of the explanation has to do with a great historiographical shift since the 1980s, sometimes described as the move from social to cultural history. Amongst historians of sex and gender, the idea that the aim of history is to establish objective truths about the past and its inhabitants has increasingly come to be regarded as naïve, or impossible, or politically suspect because it privileges some viewpoints over others. In its place has grown up a fixation on the recovery of subjective experience, and on the diversity and equal value of all personal experience and evidence, which in practice often tends to narrow the focus of inquiry.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic or disparaging on this front, though. There’s nothing wrong with studying bodily desires and experiences for their own sake. It’s just a question of what level of explanation and analysis one is trying to achieve. Personally, my main interest, in looking at any period, is in how changing sexual ideas and behaviours epitomise broader intellectual and social changes – and, conversely, how studying sex can help illuminate the character of those larger developments, whether that be the Reformation, or the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. I think that is not just intrinsically interesting, but also politically and methodologically important: it brings sex to the centre of historiographical attention. But, as I said, there are lots of other ways of writing the history of sex.

KH: What challenges did you face in writing a book about the history of sex- both in terms of research and audience response?

FD: The most interesting thing about the audience response has been how interested people beyond the West are in what my book has to say. In most parts of the world today, people can’t take sexual privacy for granted to the extent that we do, certainly not as unmarried couples, or as women, or in same-sex relationships. For them, the evolution of sexual freedom is not a topic of remote academic interest, but a live political issue. So it’s been fascinating, and gratifying, to engage with readers in South America, and Asia, and the Islamic world, as well as across Europe and the English-speaking world. A few months ago, the book even came out in Mandarin, and I spent a fortnight travelling around China talking about it to local audiences. (Some of the pictures were also censored in the Chinese edition, which was itself an interesting insight into different moral and political standards).

What non-western audiences always pick up on are the parallels between what happened in the West several hundred years ago, and what is going on right now in their own societies, especially where they are experiencing rapid industrialization and urbanization. I’m flattered that so many readers across Asia and the Middle East have found my work helpful in elucidating what happens when patriarchal, fundamentalist sexual norms clash with modern urban ways of living, greater female empowerment, and new forms of mass communication that can’t be easily controlled by governments or religious leaders. Though in these other places the exact circumstances are different, and doubtless the outcomes will be too, those are precisely the kinds of changes that created the first sexual revolution in the west.

KH: One of the biggest challenges facing any historian of pre-modern sexuality is the shift in the language used to discuss sex and sexuality- not least because of the absence of the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality in the pre-modern world. How did you deal with this issue, particularly given that your book is aimed at a wide audience?

FD: That is indeed a difficult question that all historians of sex have to face. My own rather pragmatic solution was twofold. Firstly, for the pre-modern world, I refer only to same-sex (or ‘homosexual’) and heterosexual actions, rather than to ‘homosexuals’ or ‘heterosexuality’ or other potentially anachronistic concepts of identity. Secondly, part of the argument of the book is precisely about the eighteenth-century pre-history, if you like, of thinking in terms of sexual identity. So I hope that even general readers will come away from the book with a deeper appreciation of the general problem of labelling, and of the historically contingent character of our own presumptions about identity and sexual categorization.

KH: The scope of the book is very wide, ranging from the medieval period to the nineteenth century (and beyond), and aiming to discuss countries across Europe. Should historians think more about how issues manifest across time and space? Are there any cautions you would give to historians thinking about tackling a project on this scale?

FD: Well, as I implied before, I do think we suffer as a profession from too much over-specialization. So I’m all in favour of people trying to stand back and think more about continuity and change across time and place on a larger scale. It’s just very hard to do, given the amount of primary and secondary material out there. But I think we’re all driven primarily by our own intellectual curiosity – the books we write come out of the questions we want to answer, and the problems we’re trying to solve. So my main caution (or, actually, encouragement) would be, simply to pursue any project at the scale that interests you intellectually, whether that be local or regional or national or super-national, or whatever – and over whatever timescale particularly fascinates you. If that cuts across existing historiographies, don’t worry – the end result should be be all the more stimulating for it, both for you as a researcher and (as long as you can explain why your approach is worthwhile) for your readers.

Nell Gwynne by Abraham de Blois (Creative Commons: National Portrait Gallery)

KH: We all know about the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but what was the legacy of the first sexual revolution? Are we still living with its consequences?

FD: Yes, in all sorts of ways its consequences are still unfolding, as I try to show in the last part of the book. That doesn’t mean there is any kind of simple, linear progression in attitudes from from 1800 to 2015, far from it. And the second sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s was extremely important, both practically and ideologically. But the Enlightenment and its associated social changes did mark a more profound watershed. It created a fundamentally new social and intellectual framework. It marked the point at which the sexual culture of the West diverged onto a completely new and unprecedented trajectory.

One obviously far-reaching legacy was the modern presumption that men are much more naturally lustful than women. Another has been the perennial tension between the public and the private. On the one hand, in terms of the law and government, we treat sex as ever more private. Over the past two centuries, and especially within the past fifty years, more and more forms of sex have been included within the scope of sexual freedom and privacy – not just the conduct of upper-class men, but also that of women, the lower classes, different races, same-sex sexual behaviour, and so on.

Yet sex is not just more private than ever before: it is also more public. The gradual expansion of the sphere of sexual privacy has taken place alongside a continued and growing interest in the public discussion of sex. The internet and social media have taken this to a new level in recent years. But it began with the birth of the mass media in the eighteenth century. As The Origins of Sex shows, that media revolution, which was also a revolution in attitudes towards the private and the public, brought about a completely new universe of print and publication. Across the West, beginning in the English-speaking world, it saw the end of serious government censorship, the breakthrough of women’s voices into public life, the explosion of newspapers and other cheap print, the involvement of a new mass readership, and a huge new fascination with the celebrating of sex and the publicizing of private life.

That did not stop in 1800, of course. The scope and speed of public communication, and its fascination with sexual affairs, continued to develop. Over the past two hundred years there have been many further shifts in attitude towards sexual privacy and openness, and not just in one direction. The Victorians upheld a very different balance between the public and the private than we do nowadays, for example. But that essential tension between our simultaneous desire for sexual privacy and sexual openness goes back to the first sexual revolution. It’s one of the great paradoxes of modern western attitudes to sex.


Faramerz Dabhoiwala is Fellow, Tutor and University Lecturer in Modern History at Exeter College, Oxford. He is the author of The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (Penguin, 2012) and is now working on a global history of English and its uses since the middle ages.

KHarveyPhotoKatherine Harvey is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, where her research focuses on the pre-Reformation English episcopate. Her first book, Episcopal Appointments in England, c. 1214- c. 1344, was published by Ashgate in January 2014, and she has also written several articles on the medieval episcopal body. Her current research project is ‘Medicine and the Bishop in England, c. 1100 – c. 1500.’ She tweets from @keharvey2013

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  1. Thanks for posting this blog as I have great interest in anything to do with sex or sexuality.

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