The Origins of Sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala @ LSE, 7th February 2012

You only have to skim through a few choice passages of Beowulf, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to discover that the Medieval woman was a salacious beast. Lustful, insatiable and morally incontinent, she frequently needed to be locked up for her own good, and for the good of the bewildered, pure -hearted men she made her victims.

At least, that’s how the theory went. And for a long time, went unchallenged, because women’s ineptitude for all things ethical and intellectual meant that they were rarely consulted on this near panliterary condemnation of their carnal desires. Then came the Enlightenment and, for the first time, female writers began not only to find their way to an audience but to make the incendiary suggestion that, actually, they were frequently on the receiving end of uninvited molestation – and that men as a whole were rather more sex-obsessed than anyone could previously have imagined.

From here, it took an astonishingly small leap for the Victorians to conclude that male sexual appetite was normal and natural, whilst women’s inherent passivity made a penchant for anything other than chastity an abomination. Now, ‘decent’ women still had to be locked up, not because they were dangerous, but because they were soft and fragile and needed to be protected from corruption by all those predatory, but nonetheless healthy and virile men. Men that were now justified in turning in their droves to a burgeoning prostitute underclass in order to satisfy that same outpouring of healthy virility. Patriarchy had never been so fun.

So argued Faramerz Dabhoiwala last night at LSE, introducing his ambitiously sweeping history of sexual attitudes in the British Isles: The Origins of Sex. According to Dabhoiwala, a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, he began thinking about writing the book in the late ‘80s, and the result – a surprisingly slender, but closely packed volume – is the culmination of more than 20 years of research and investigation. Whether this research has been of a purely academic nature, one can only speculate. Dabhoiwala, after all, grew up in Amsterdam.

There is something about witnessing an esteemed fellow of the Royal Historical Society talking for two hours about sex that transforms a roomful of seemingly sensible adults into a mass of sniggering schoolchildren. Perhaps anticipating this, Dabhoiwala’s lecture steered clear of rigorous analysis, instead giving an anecdotal account of 16th century sentences for ‘illicit’ sex (whipping, banishment and occasionally death) and then, with evident relish, tales of the Enlightenment: celebrity scandals, sexed-up memoirs, pornographic snuff boxes and media-savvy courtesans whose breathtakingly tactical self-interest make Kim Kardashian’s exploits look like old hat[1].

Whilst the result made for an interesting evening, it also felt lacking in real depth or insight, belying the serious scholarship behind Dabhoiwala’s work. Presumably, this was because the author would rather we bought his book (which was on sale at the event), but was nonetheless frustrating in the context of a self-contained lecture. There was little analysis of how the ‘first sexual revolution’ related to wider social or cultural changes; aspects such as the influence of travel, trade and empire, medical and psychiatric study and the role of classical texts in the debate on sex were briefly touched on in the final questions but not explored[2].

Nonetheless, Dabhiowala is a charming and witty speaker, and I suspect his book (which I now intend to read) will make for a fascinating overview of the past half millennium of sexual politics. Appreciating the origins and history of our sexual beliefs is, of course, essential to understanding contemporary cultural views on sex, gender and identity – and, crucially, the fluidity and manipulation of these beliefs. Moreover, the book has already sparked comparisons between Britain’s dark history of sexual repression and similar practices that continue elsewhere. With any luck, this will contribute to ongoing debate over the necessary conditions for increased liberation and equality around the world.

[1] Incidentally, ‘old hat’ is listed in a 1785 dictionary as meaning ‘a woman’s privities: because frequently felt’.

[2] This, however, was largely the fault of the audience, who had by this stage lowered expectations with an overwhelmingly banal line of questioning, centred almost exclusively around revealing their  pornographic preferences and vomiting up the name of Michel Foucault over and over again for the sole purpose of telling everyone what bona fide intellectuals they were for knowing how to pronounce ‘Foucault’.

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