By the end of the eighteenth century, a new openness about sex had transformed the culture of the English-speaking world. A whole range of sexual ideas and practices, within and without marriage, was now discussed, celebrated, and indulged more publicly than ever before.

From our own perspective it is easy to see the limits of this new toler­ance. For an unmarried woman to conceive a child out of wedlock remained a social disaster that could ruin her life. For two men to have sex with each other was even more dangerous. It was primarily the heterosexual libido of white, propertied men that was celebrated – that was, after all, where power and cultural influence were concentrated in this society. Nonetheless, as we have seen, the accept­ance of sex as natural, pleasurable, and empowering, was to be found in other circles too.1

Much more striking than its limitations is the contrast between the new frankness of the eighteenth century and the culture of discipline that had dominated English society up until that point. Gone was almost the entire formal machinery of sexual policing by the church and state. Gone, too, was the intellectual and social environment that had sustained it. The public discussion of sex was now vastly greater in scale and complexity; it was no longer tightly controlled by a male clerical and social elite; and it no longer overwhelmingly communi­cated the message that sex outside marriage was dangerous and wrong. On the contrary, by 1800 this presumption was constantly being denied, implicitly and explicitly, in a huge variety of new media. The result was a wholly new universe of communication, in which ideas about sex were shaped in radically different ways. This was a seismic shift. It was also primarily an urban phenomenon, one that was led by developments in London. Even in the cities of the far-away North American colonies, it was the capital’s culture that was the dominant influence.2 The principles of sexual discipline retained great authority throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as we shall see in the Epilogue: but they never again held such dominant sway. Henceforth, it was rather the tension between restraint and hedonism that was to determine the sexual culture of the English­speaking world.

The effects were remarkable. By 1800, it had become common for members of the aristocracy and gentry to live much more openly than ever before in unmarried and adulterous relationships. At various points in the later eighteenth century this was true of the Prime Min­ister, the Lord Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Duke of York, the Prince of Wales, and countless other notable men and women. Several of the Founding Fathers of the United States, including Franklin, Burr, Jefferson, and Hamilton, shared the same outlook. 3 It was an ethos that would have been inconceivable to the Pilgrim Fathers and their English counterparts.

Sexual pleasure was now also increasingly celebrated communally, in special masculine clubs. One of its most vigorous proponents, the politician Sir Francis Dashwood, founded several libertine societies. At the centre of his estate he built a Temple to Venus, landscaped to resemble a gigantic vagina – his was the company for which John Wilkes in 1763 was to print his infamous erotic poem, the Essay on Woman. Even more remarkable was a much humbler club called ‘the Beggar’s Benison’, which from the 1730s onwards spread from the east coast of Scotland to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and as far afield as St Petersburg in Russia. 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, singly and together, in elaborate rites of phallic celebration. The club’s membership was a cross-section of respectable, middle – aged, propertied society: clergymen, noblemen, gentlemen, lawyers, army officers, customs men, merchants, craftsmen, and academics. Even though most of its records and artefacts have been lost, there still survives a remarkable collection of the club’s ritual objects, adorned with texts and images celebrating sexual freedom – medals, seals, sashes, diplomas, punch bowls, phallic wine glasses, a specially embellished Bible, and a round pewter platter with various obscene decorations, upon which members collectively ejaculated (see plate 22).4

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also became the great age of the English courtesan. These women, the heirs of Kitty Fisher and Fanny Murray, were not mere mistresses but independent sexual entrepreneurs, whose fame and fortune sometimes rivalled that of their male companions. Nancy Parsons, the daughter of a tailor, was successively the lover of the Duke of Grafton and the Duke of Dorset, then married the Viscount Maynard, and finally, in her early fifties and with Lord Maynard’s consent, became the companion of the teenaged Duke of Bedford. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, after being divorced by her husband for adultery with an Irish peer, became the longtime mistress of the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the sometime lover of various French noblemen, as well as of the Prince of Wales. Her illegitimate daughter married into the peerage. Countless others achieved greater or lesser renown.5

Especially in London and other towns, there grew up a huge mater­ial and cultural industry devoted to sexual pleasure. Prostitution became ever more visible and extensive. Bagnios and other places of assignation advertised openly, as did men and women seeking marital or sexual adventure. Sexual disease and sexual health were publicly debated. Newspapers incessantly discussed sexual scandals and per­sonalities: several even devoted themselves entirely to sexual gossip and titillation. Overtly erotic pictures and writings also became more

CELEBRATING SEX

51. One of the illustrations to the seven-volume Trials for Adultery (1:779-80), which avidly chronicled the sexual peccadilloes of divorcing aristocrats.

CELEBRATING SEX

CELEBRATING SEX

52-55. The celebration of gentlemanly sexual freedom: two engravings
from an illustrated edition of John Cleland’s pornographic novel, Memoirs
of a Woman of Pleasure (1766), and two of the many erotic prints
produced by Thomas Rowlandson around 1800.

CELEBRATING SEX

CELEBRATING SEX

widely available. Before the later seventeenth century, pornographic writing had been largely confined to Latin, Greek, Italian and French texts; much of it circulated only in manuscript; all of it was produced and consumed fairly clandestinely. In the later eighteenth century, however, there developed a flourishing trade in English erotica. Though the publishing of obscenity remained illegal, pornography was now much more common and easily available. By the turn of the century, it was possible even for schoolgirls and rural clergymen to obtain commercially produced erotic books and illustrations of ‘naked men and women in carnal connection with each other; in different situations, standing, lying, sitting, all of the most indecent kind’ (see illustrations 52 to 55) / All this reflected a new appreciation of sex as the modern, enlightened, natural, rational pleasure par excellence. It also was a consequence of the media revolution. The changes it had inaugurated, and the infinite opportunities it provided for the publici – zation and celebration of sex, were here to stay.