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Book Review


Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. Toronto, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 484. $32.67 (paper).


     My favorite British comedy is Keeping Up Appearances. Two sides of a family are showcased: the uptight and prim Hyacinth Bucket and her sisters Daisy and Rose, youthful and sexual. In one scene from the series, Hyacinth and Daisy discuss their men. When Daisy asks about Hyacinth's intimate life, she replies that marriage is designed to stifle passion. In Hyacinth's bourgeois view, marriage survives due to stability, it eradicates desire over time. However, Daisy seeks passion from her husband Onslow. This short scene from the show, one of many when personalities and attitudes toward sex intersect, illuminates outlooks and contradictions in the realm of contemporary and timeless, yet always occurring, debates on appropriate expression and regulation of desire in western society. Faramerz Dabhoiwala teases out the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional contours that sustain sex and keep it in the public eye, despite ongoing attempts to suppress and confine it to the private sphere, in marriage, a space that was, and may still be, "essentially unnatural and unnecessary" despite the goal to "multiply it" (227). So why is "sexual discipline," appropriately exercised through marriage "so fundamental to the social order?" (27).

     It is a cliché to dub the twentieth century the sexual century since sexual expression within marriage is still the ideal. It is clear that there is a more tangled struggle between sexual freedom and restraint. To understand the conflict requires Dabhoiwala to implicitly debunk the myth of sexual liberation in the 1900s, to trace its origins to Britain in the period 1660 to 1800. This 140–year period is when the first sexual revolution happened.

     To trace evolving attitudes toward sex requires a wide array of sources, particularly, mass media in an increasingly literate British society. Here, what is most amazing to me is the implicit theme of globalization. Contemporaries speak of the world growing increasingly interconnected. However, Dabhoiwala demonstrates that this interconnection began in newspapers, novels, art, and popular literature, such as handbooks and pamphlets, published much earlier than the twenty-first century; people have been connected through media since at least the seventeenth century. It is only the form for communication that has changed over time. Mass media enabled transmission of "new ways of thinking" (4) as much as opportunities in business led to travel opportunities for Brits.

     Dabhoiwala does more than just synthesize these sources. To him, the explosion of media outlets indicates a "democratization of printed media, literacy, and correspondence" (167). He finds over twenty forms of media published in London by 1752. There are "papers, pamphlets, and magazines" (318–319) available to the masses. Citizens were aware of the potential of democracy when they contributed letters, opinion pieces, short stories, and plays to newspapers and magazines. For women, media outlets enabled them to challenge male hegemony in society in a safer context.

     Canadian and American historians suggest that print media enabled women to form communities to discuss feminism, reproductive health, and work, topics that would germinate in the press in the 1950s and 1960s to explode in public in the late 1960s and early 1970s.1 This style of engagement began in early modern Britain and at that time, the press became a space to react to societal trends. And Dabhoiwala looks not only at the media but also at "people's reactions to new publications through private correspondence and the occasional marginal annotation in a book" (293). Dabhoiwala concedes that it is tough to trace attribution to identify the demographics that read and reacted to media because "most submissions to newspapers and magazines were unsigned or pseudonymous" (319). Nevertheless, the methodological care and attention to the sources is truly innovative.

In media, people could weigh in on what Dabhoiwala calls "some of the thorniest social and ethical questions of the modern sexual world" (181). Mass media also enabled citizens to form a consensus, as media became the "central conduit of moral and social education" (165), sometimes at odds with the secular and sacred, two entities invested in counseling, coercing, and measuring people against norms of decency. The author states, "The growing popularity of periodicals … created a new and widely read type of authority on questions of conduct" (320). At the very least, the press could encourage chaste behavior when it was used "to name and shame offenders" (57). Therefore, women and men engaged some of the dominant intellectual questions of the early modern era through mass media, a great way to understand the effect of debates among intellectuals on society.

     As people read the newspaper, intellectuals, many of whom were guided by Christian hands, staked their claims on the space of sexual morality. Dabhoiwala maps pre-Enlightenment views of sex and sexuality, from Graeco-Roman philosophy to the seventeenth century. He observes a growth in Christian sanction over attitudes toward sexuality and sexual behavior. Sex came to be seen as separate from expression, separate from the body, a usually sinful act unless directed to procreation. To love was acceptable, but passion in sex was to remain invincible from public talk, to be "implied" but not "directly described" (16). To abstain was "the ultimate mark of civilization" (26) in the Enlightenment. It continued to be in the 1990s, as illustrated in the Keeping Up Appearances example I mentioned, even though the show was a comedy. In "the middle ages, the gap between Christian precepts and popular attitudes … narrowed" (11) due in part to the growth of the church in regulation and recognition of marriage.

     London was the center of all of these ideas about sex, the place to exchange knowledge on what Dabhoiwala sees as fluid norms of sexual behavior and sexuality. London was the city where clergy and the police jockeyed for power over appropriate expressions of gender and sexuality among its citizens. Many of the origins of contemporary debates on sex began in press coverage and writings of early modern intellectuals aware of the sexual scene in London. Case files from church courts and the police are used alongside diaries and correspondence to track resistance, agency, and discipline for sexual behavior.

     Church and state were invested in "moral policing" (24) understood as "safeguarding the spiritual welfare of the people" and seen as "a paramount aim of government" (34). By the mid-eighteenth century, London was changing, from a city where clerical, civic, and volunteers representing an emerging quasi-third sector of regulation, the charities, watched for sexual deviation in citizens. There were limited spaces where intimate and consensual encounters would be at least tolerated—usually, people's homes. Here, readers see the beginnings of the current contest: between common sense decisions of consenting adults on private matters—concerning sex, sexuality, intimacy, and spirituality, among many things, "freedom of conscience"—and the concern for maintenance of the public good, in "divine law or social order" (82). The question that Londoners and soon everyone in the western world had to engage was, "What exactly was the relationship between private morals and the public good?" (84). This question would not go away, even as sacred and secular control waned. Dabhoiwala adopts a class perspective to demonstrate that the lower and working classes of London came under investigation by authorities connected with the voluntary and charitable third sector. Families in the working and lower classes had less access to debates in the press. Freedom to exercise consciousness in expression was shaped increasingly by one's class, with the middle classes able to break out of the yolk of regulation much easier than the lower and working classes and the poor.

     From 1660 to 1800, a battle among clergy, police, and citizens took shape in London. Neither clergy nor police ever took over entirely the regulation of desire among citizens. Both parties may have informed the consensus and certainly created doubt and fear in minds and hearts. By the nineteenth century, though, the beginnings of a modern era—still informed by sacred attitudes of self-discipline—enabled citizens to use their discretion in matters of sex. People lived with the tension between sacred and secular, morality and the public good, recognizing "a greater plurality of moral views, with irresolvable tensions between them" (139). They recognized also the influence of context in defining people's behavior. And they differed on how to correct undesirable acts. "From the perspective of many later eighteenth-century commentators it seemed obvious that, on the whole, working women were less educated, and so less civilized, less feminine, and less virtuous. This was not their personal failing but a systematic social problem" (200). Behavior in marriage became the measure to determine the health or moral turpitude of society. Dabhoiwala astutely points out that place also defined the debates of particular periods.

     Regardless of citizens' perspectives on sexual expression and spirituality and their consciousness, certain sexual expressions remained, for the most part, subject to scrutiny, regulation, subjugation, and punishment. Sodomy, adultery, and prostitution were always at the top of the list, and clergy, lawmakers, and citizens continued to debate how to punish such transgressors. Dabhoiwala finds that "the growing influence of … scientific theories of sex in the twentieth century … served most immediately to validate the sex-drive of heterosexual men" (122). The consensus of acceptable male and heterosexual behavior was used to identify unnatural sexual and social behavior among women and men.

     On this point, I would have appreciated a focus on medicine as a means to diagnose, classify, sort, confine, reward, and punish sex and sexuality in London. Dabhoiwala refers to cleanliness and purity in his book, and it would be important to recognize that not only did civil authorities invest resources in purging deviants. Civil authorities like the police relied also on clergy responsible for personal health and wellness to regulate sex. Doctors and nurses responsible for public health and the emergent consensus on normal childhood, youth, and adolescence started to, but did not completely replace, clergy, families, and communities as the purveyors of acceptable sexual norms and behaviors that accompanied them. Dabhoiwala documents the beginnings of health in a third sector, "charitable organizations" that have and continue to "play a major role in social policy" (247). Philanthropy was often achieved in practice in charitable hospitals. To profile the hospitals for penitent prostitutes, the sites that represented the intersection of philanthropy, charity, and public health, Dabhoiwala looks at ledgers, admissions books, and case files to understand the objectives for the clients treated in these facilities. I really like the profiles of these hospitals. The records tell historians about the attitudes toward prostitutes. But the records cannot tell historians "how far, and with what success, sexual charities [such as the above hospitals] tried to reaffirm traditional Christian principles of personal responsibility for sin and redemption" (19). While Dabhoiwala connects religious and legal attitudes in early modern London, he could also have also adopted medicine as a frame to analyze religious and legal attitudes as they affected comprehension of a healthy body.

     I would have also appreciated more attention to the impalpable phenomena citizens felt in conversations on sex. How did fear, love, and hate influence discussions of sex in media, in Parliament, at church, and on the street? How did clergy, lawmakers, women and men, and those who would now be known as doctors, nurses, and pharmacists engage these sentiments in practice? How are sentiments like the above implicated in judgments, legislation, and treatment plans? All of these questions could be addressed if Dabhoiwala considered emotion in a society talking about sex.

The author has an excellent narrative voice boosted by artwork that illuminated societal fears of venereal diseases caused by illicit sex. There are provocative images of sex and sexual expression. Dabhoiwala declines to identify such images, and the conversations in media that accompanied them, as pornographic or sexually explicit. This reluctance is admirable, on one hand, as he does not juxtapose contemporary terms with historic artifacts. However, at the same time, I wonder if there was a language to describe such imagery and texts now understood as sexually explicit, obscene, etc.

     In modern times, mainstream media and even charitable organizations cater to people's fascination with illicit behaviors in society. Dabhoiwala demonstrates that this phenomenon did not emerge in the twentieth century. People have always been curious about illicit sex, in particular, which explains the fascination with prostitutes in rehabilitation hospitals. Did charitable organizations satisfy people's voyeuristic tendencies to raise money for their causes? People were likely fascinated by the lives of prostitutes and reading about them was as close as they would want to be to such individuals. If people donated to charities dedicated to saving prostitutes, was it due to their desire to feed their personal interests and less about those fallen women as persons? I would have liked Dabhoiwala to engage this idea in the context of interconnectedness and globalization in early modern Britain. Such a discussion is fertile ground to address class and gender since the middle and upper class men and their wives had the literacy skills, time, money, and authority to judge if interventions to save the downtrodden were worthy of their support. He comes close to engaging the topic on page 337 when he suggests that the stories of women and their keepers were partly "to entertain." As mentioned above, though, it is difficult to tell who the readers are and their reactions. However, like medicine and emotion, the book could have benefitted from a more explicit focus on entertainment and voyeurism in rehabilitation of sexual deviants.

     The coverage of expansion of British ideas of sex is uneven. Occasionally, Dabhoiwala shares anecdotes from the Thirteen Colonies, British North America, and other colonial destinations where ideas about sex accompanied trade goods. Knowledge and arguments flowed outward throughout the empire from the seventeenth century onward. In London and abroad, while the media ensured that even if people were freer to exercise their consciences, the newspapers and novels could also make "people virtuous" (91).

     The book ends at the twentieth century. It works forward from the seventeenth century, instead of backward from the twentieth century. This way, the twentieth century's developments in sexuality are not seen as inevitable. There are indications of the origins of separation of public and private seen as early as the eighteenth century. For teachers, this book challenges grand narratives of sexual liberation that make this situation seem inevitable.2 "We easily forget how contingent our present state is, that the past is littered with alternative paths not taken, that even within the last few generations the boundaries of the right to sexual privacy have been continuously challenged and redrawn" (362). Dabhoiwala grounds popular culture shows like Keeping Up Appearances in his study of The Origins of Sex. Readers understand how all citizens informed the fragile consensus of sex in the western world.

Jonathan Anuik is assistant professor in the Educational Policy Studies department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He may be reached by email at



1 See Valerie J. Korinek, Roughing It in Suburbia: Reading Chatelaine Magazine in the Fifties and Sixties (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000); and Joanne J. Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (Critical Perspectives on the Past) (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

2 On grand narratives, see Timothy J. Stanley, "Whose Public? Whose Memory? Racisms, Grand Narratives, and Canadian History," To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, & Citizenship in Canada, ed. Ruth W. Sandwell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 34.




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