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Review: The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Faramerz Dabhoiwala

the origins of sexThe western world, particularly England where this book focuses, hasn’t always been as free in its sexual attitudes as it is now; indeed, for most of recorded history, all of the world has been more or less the same as the Taliban is now, with little concept of individual sexual freedoms or privacy. Adulterers, homosexuals, and prostitutes are among those who were deeply stigmatized as there was no real conception of individual privacy or the idea that your sexual history might be only your own business.

When did this change? Beginning in the late 17th and moving into the 18th century, a series of fundamental shifts happened in the understanding of privacy, sexuality, and even celebrity that resulted in concrete changes to the way people in Europe viewed their lives and those of the people around them. Dabhoiwala tracks this cultural shift, which has echoes running straight to the modern day, through its origins in a variety of different spheres to understand how and why it happened and how the attitudes creates are actually still being rewritten into the present day.

I found much of this book to be absolutely fascinating. The Enlightenment isn’t really my period of particular interest, so I knew very little about this subject. Coming into it from a medieval background, though, with a comprehensive knowledge of medieval attitudes towards sexuality and an idea of what happened in the Renaissance, I could recognize easily that this was actually a very significant shift. While medieval people weren’t necessarily as brutal or as hard on women as we necessarily think, that doesn’t mean that their society was particularly free. Sexuality outside marriage – sometimes even inside marriage – was routinely targeted as something to avoid wherever possible.

I also liked the approach that the author took here. Rather than strictly chronologically laying out exactly what was happening, he instead takes several themes and explores those and how each of them changed understanding in its own particular way. A chronological approach could have easily gotten confused; separating out particular themes and segments of history, like the rise of sexual celebrity with Charles II’s numerous mistresses, helped give the book focus and lend weight to the author’s arguments.

One section I particularly liked was the emphasis on the change in attitudes towards prostitution. Prostitutes were reviled in the period before this one, often viewed as tempting men into adultery and causing them to sin with their alluring ways. By the eighteenth century, the pendulum swung completely the other way, and prostitutes were viewed with extreme pity as fallen women who had fallen into impossible circumstances. The Victorians created workhouses where these women were rescued from their immoral lives, given religious training and isolated from all aspects of their former lives, and essentially forced to work for their upkeep. While this approach worked for some, with women emerging into the Victorian version of success with marriage and children, it failed monumentally for others, and the success rate really wasn’t high – nor did these workhouses make much money.

A truly fascinating look into a society that radically changed the way people thought, The Origins of Sex is a work of history that is well worth your time.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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