The Origins of Sex is a voluptuary. Four-hundred-and-eighty-four illustrated pages giving us the back-story to sex as we – to the extent that we are inheritors of British Enlightenment culture, law and feeling – know and practice it. Author Faramerz Dabhoiwala, who is a Senior Fellow in Modern History at Oxford University, leads his reader through the maze of morality, liberty, chastity and celebrity that confounds the question of sex from the 17th– through the 19th-centuries in Great Britain.
Our map is the vast wealth of material that Dabhoiwala gathers, and his well-aimed warning that seeking social change “in terms of linear progress . . . predisposes us to historical short-sightedness” (362). As we meander through the twists and turns of how sex changed across the decades of the Enlightenment, we meet poetic rakes, free-love Malthusians, the 18th-century college Warden who molested his barber, 19th-century lesbian heiresses, media-savvy courtesans and the painters who portraited them.
The sheer magnitude of examples in this book serves to show us that what was considered normal or fun or appropriate differs wildly from our contemporary understandings, and differed across the period itself. We meet, for example, a club of gentlemen whose membership spread from Scotland to Russia. They called themselves ‘The Beggar’s Benison,’ and their notion of male bonding and celebration of sex would not, today, be understood to bolster strong, national, heterosexual masculinity. “Its members met regularly to drink, talk about sex, exchange bawdy jokes and songs, and read pornography. They paid young women to strip and display themselves naked. Their central purpose was to compare penises and masturbate in front of one another, separately and together, in elaborate rites of phallic celebration.” This delightful tidbit is only one of many; Dabhoiwala thoughtfully provides us with a color photograph of the club’s pewter platter, decorated with a picture of male and female genitalia, “upon which members collectively ejaculated” (344). These, and many other details, keep us reading, often keep us laughing, and keep us questioning our own assumptions about what pleases or disturbs us today.
The strength of this history is the clarity and force of its central thesis: Dabhoiwala pushes firmly against the all-too resilient notion that sex is – and has always been – private, natural, and personal. In the 21st century Western world, we have made a hobby of being horrified by cultures that punish sexual transgressions with brutal physical, public punishments. Our repugnance, Dabhoiwala, suggests, is disingenuous. “We associate them with the Taliban, with Sharia law, with people far away and alien in outlook. Yet until quite recently, until the Enlightenment, our own culture was like this too” (2). Sex used to be a very public matter, much legislated. The story of how modern attitudes to sexuality grew out of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is that story Dabhoiwala seeks to tell. It is a story of shift in politics, religion, intellectual traditions, demography and literary and cultural formations. As such it is a worthwhile read. The title, however, is misleading. How much it is – or could be – a story of sex itself remains, perhaps, the question.
A big problem is that Dabhoiwala – like many traditional historians – often deduces sex (that having of it, the enjoyment of it) from proof of pregnancy. And deducing sex from pregnancy has severe limitations. Ever since Bill Clinton wagged his finger at a television-viewing population, we’ve had at least an inkling that what we mean when we say “have sex” is not at all clear. That sometimes a presidential cigar is not just a cigar. That while one kind of sexual activity might be off the menu, others might be merrily taking place. That, as the Marquis de Sade theorized, pregnancy–inducing activities are not even all that erotic. When we extend that ambiguity to our ancestors, things get even more complicated. We may mean heterosexual intercourse when we use the word “sex.” What did they mean when they spoke of what they did, what turned them on, what they despised but secretly desired? What did they do, or not do about it?
In other words, an important part of describing the history of sex is not only describing the effects of sex, the attitudes towards it, the penalties and the pleasures, but also chronicling what exactly people choose to do in (and out of) bed and to understand it all as sex, even if it does not or cannot result in pregnancy, or be prefigured by marriage. Understanding the what, where, and with whom of sex is just as important as the navigating the laws, the identities and the social shapes that grow up around sex. Radical social movements that have focused on sex and gender (feminism, gay rights) have had to teach people the mechanics of different ways of having and talking about sex, in order to begin to change how people think about sex. How to find the clitoris; how to sport a dildo; the etiquettes of dealing with santorum. The sex drive might be “natural,” but the form and nature of sexual activity is not a given. Which means we should talk and write about the enormous diversity of activities that give people sexual pleasure (and pain). And one of the reasons we should turn to historians to learn about this diversity is because people have had different kinds of sex at different periods in time. Just as we have fashions in clothing or architecture, we have fashions in sexual tastes and styles.
Despite being a veritable compendium, The Origins of Sex suffers because it cannot fully and ebulliently accept that heterosexual intercourse is not capital “S” Sex. It is one of many practices, and it is not necessarily, not always, not even usually what floats one’s erotic boat. The Origins of Sex is by no means narrow or chauvinist; it is mindful of gender difference, it is inclusive of homosexuality, it gives a tip of the nib to racial and religious difference. But it is what sexperts would call “vanilla.” Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that it is aggressively “vanilla,” if that is not a tautological statement. When Dabhoiwala cites the secret marriage between Victorian civil servant Arthur Munby and his servant Hannah Cullwick (whose name is misspelled by Dabhoiwala), he notes that they do not seem to have had intercourse. He argues that this omission in their otherwise obsessive relationship is an example of Victorian restraint. Since Cullwick described herself as Munby’s “drudge and slave,” wore a locked chain around her neck to which Munby had the key, would visit him “in her dirt” and claimed to be able to tell where her husband had been by the taste of his boots, Dabhoiwala’s anxiety over one missing act seems strange. Whether or not Munby’s penis found its way into Cullwick’s vagina is certainly beside the point – as other historians who have explored their relationship make very clear. Nevertheless, “theirs was,” writes Dabhoiwala, “undoubtedly a highly unusual relationship” (360). Perhaps. But perhaps it was only unusual in that the couple documented their complex erotic landscape in photographs and diary entries and then that these documents were preserved. If we are going to speculate about missing intercourse, we must also speculate about the many accounts of sexual diversity that are lost to us – hidden or purposely destroyed, or simply not meant for our eyes.
There are scholars who have more firmly founded their work on a presumption that there is not an equals sign between heterosexual intercourse and Sex and that the many other kinky things that get people off also count as Sex. French historian Michel Foucault is, arguably, the most notable; indeed it is surprising that The Origins of Sex contains only one reference to Foucault’s pioneering, three-volume, lifework The History of Sexuality (and it’s a parenthetical reference at that). Dabhoiwala’s book is absolutely worth the read, but I would like to recommend two good, eminently readable pieces of scholarship that serve well to re-orient the wealth of material in Dabhoiwala’s digest. The first is Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal; this is a lively, slightly exasperated reminder that non-normative sexual activities are the norm. The second is a delicate, four-page essay with the innocuous title “Some Speculations on the History of Sexual Intercourse during the Long Eighteenth Century in England.” By literary historian Henry Abelove, this essay has the devastatingly quiet acuity of Miss Marple. Abelove proposes that “sexual intercourse so-called became importantly more popular in late eighteenth-century England” (127), and he does mean that there was – quite simply – more of this particular kind of sex. Why? Because the industrial revolution was reconfiguring the English populace to understand themselves as workers and producers, bound to schedules and tallies. Historians who look only at birth records misread what they see, Abelove argues. They aren’t seeing greater sexual liberty; if anything they are seeing a narrowing of the definition of what is considered “real” Sex. What Abelove means by “sexual intercourse so- called” is made usefully clear, in a definition he repeats over and over again across the essay. His very definition reminds us that the practice is as strange as any other: “cross-sex genital intercourse (penis in vagina, vagina around penis, with seminal emission uninterrupted)” (126). Sex, in all its diverse, mercurial, perilous and ephemeral glory, is indeed hard to define, hard to make manifest. But it is for this very reason we should not reduce it to being seen only through pregnancy, or marriage, or law.
Dabhoiwala ably demonstrates that sex is much more than a secret, repressed subtext, although he doesn’t take into account the likelihood that secreting and repressing sex is itself a sexual practice. Observing or administering punishment to sexual criminals could be and surely was, for many people who were moved to punish, in and of itself sexual satiating or titillating. It could be argued, indeed, that there is something like a subtext to Dabhoiwala’s own book. The Taliban appears on page two and we close with a citation of Ayatollah Khomeini. Dabhoiwala knows what he’s doing here: he argues, pertinently, that the West cannot in all good conscience imagine itself as completely separate from – nor more perfectly civilized than – cultures with stringent systems of sexual punishment. But the evocation of Islam forms mere bookends to this account. The West’s imperial and colonial violence against sexual cultures in India or in the Middle East – violence that was often sexual in nature – has nary a mention, although they were enacted alongside the very sexual revolution that Dabhoiwala wants us to recognize. Now that’s a story worth telling.