To survey the rise of sexual liberty up to 1800 is to contemplate a momentous ideological upheaval. The conventional justification for sexual discipline had been that immoral actions, even immoral beliefs, were dangerous. They corrupted individuals and undermined the well­being of societies; it was therefore legitimate, indeed imperative, to punish them. By the end of the eighteenth century every premise of this doctrine had come to be seriously challenged. A much greater division was asserted between supposedly private and public affairs. It was suc­cessfully argued that public authorities had no business meddling in people’s personal consciences, and that this extended to their moral choices. It was proposed that immoral acts, too, could be treated as private matters. It even came to be suggested that a degree of sexual licence was a good thing, a sign of social health and progress rather than of corruption and decay. In short, in place of sexual discipline were advanced the ideals of personal liberty in thought and action.

By the dawn of the nineteenth century sexual freedom was thus defended much more systematically and publicly than ever before. Behind this shift lay fundamental reinterpretations of human nature, Christian doctrine, moral philosophy, and the very purpose of mortal life. It is sometimes remarked that the Enlightenment’s greatest tri­umph was its elevation of the pursuit of happiness as the most important aim in life. As the writer and politician Soame Jenyns saw it in 1757, God, in his ‘infinite goodness’ and with his ‘infinite power’, had made it that ‘happiness is the only thing of real value in existence; neither riches, nor power, nor wisdom, nor learning, nor strength, nor beauty, nor virtue, nor religion, nor even life itself, being of any importance but as they contribute to its production’. Nothing better epitomizes the advance of this general idea than changing attitudes towards sexual pleasure. Instead of as a sin, the mark of the devil and the Fall, the joy to be derived from intercourse was now increasingly regarded as a sign of the action’s essential goodness, and of God’s benevolence. Sexual desire was not an unclean passion to be bridled, but a physical delight to be indulged. After all, asked the deist writer and schoolteacher Peter Annet,

If the action be evil, why was there not another way found out of producing the human species? If it be proper to thank God for our existence, is it proper to blame the means or instruments he makes use of to accomplish the end, for which we give thanks? If it be evil to give pain to, or take away life from any of the human kind, is not the contrary a good, viz. to give pleasure, produce life, and maintain the production?1

It is true that the older fear of sex as impure and debilitating lived on, and not just in religiously devout circles. The ascetic scholar Lord Monboddo, for one, warned that sex was so enjoyable that it risked derailing the life of the mind: as James Boswell recorded, he ‘would not allow a philosopher to indulge in women as a pleasure, but only as an evacuation; for he said that a man who used their embraces as a pleasure would soon have that enjoyment as a business, than which nothing could make one more despicable’. Yet even such deprecations of the power of sexual gratification testify to its raised status. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was not just libertines who cele­brated lust as the greatest passion of all, ‘the most exquisite, and most exstatick pleasure’ in life. As one influential thinker noted in 1785, the question of sexual freedom was of the profoundest philosophical weight: because its practical implications were considerable, but above all because ‘this topic concerns the greatest, and perhaps the only real pleasures of mankind, and in that respect is the subject of greatest interest to mortal men’. 2 (Or, as John Wilkes’s Essay on Woman had put it, more pithily, ‘life can little more supply / than just a few good fucks, and then we die’.)

Despite its increasing prominence, the doctrine was far from intel­lectually dominant. The idea of carnal licence was incessantly deplored and attacked, and most men and women continued to respect the ideals of sexual discipline. Though it was true that all men were naturally inclined to fornicate, it was absurd and unnecessary to tolerate fornica­tion, prostitution, or any ‘irregular intercourse whatever between the sexes’, thought Dr Johnson. ‘I would punish it much more than is done, and so restrain it,’ he told Boswell – ‘Depend upon it, Sir, severe laws, steadily enforced, would be sufficient against those evils.’3 In the second half of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, as we shall see in the Epilogue, there was a growing popular and evangelical reaction against overt sexual permissiveness. Indeed, Victorian and twentieth-century doctrines of sexual restraint were often derived from the same rational, progressive ideologies as their libertarian counterparts.4 Yet although the advance of sexual liberty remained contentious, its rise did help to create a more pluralist intellectual landscape, and a growing acceptance that, for better or worse, moral norms were bound to differ, within as well as between societies.5

The arguments for personal freedom were also more easily applic­able to some kinds of behaviour than to others. This was equally true of what we might call the libertine and the libertarian outlook: the one essentially defending promiscuity, the other concerned to liberate sexual conduct from unreasonable rules and traditions. In both cases, the justification of sex as a healthy natural activity was almost invari­ably restricted to heterosexual intercourse. Likewise, it was sometimes asserted that all liaisons between men and women should be free, but on the whole the principle was much more widely accepted in the case of unmarried than of married persons. It was easier to justify fornica­tion and prostitution as essentially private transactions, whose commission did not seriously harm other people than it was to place adultery in the same category – for evidently extra-marital infidelity did often deeply upset spouses and children.[16]

To modern eyes the most glaring limitations were those of class and gender.6 Although the idea of carnal liberty was articulated at all levels of society, and free unions of various kinds were to be found in many late eighteenth – and nineteenth-century working-class commun­ities, its reasoned justification was pre-eminently associated with gentlemen and noblemen. By contrast, sexual propriety was often held up as a distinguishing feature of middle-class respectability.7 It likewise remained axiomatic in educated circles that the morality of the labouring classes was a public matter, because the overall strength and prosperity of the nation depended directly on it and because illegitimate births among the poor were a burden on parochial rates and resources. ‘In every civilized society,’ commented Adam Smith in 1776, there were to be found two different moral codes: a ‘strict’ one for the common people, and a ‘loose’ one for people of fashion. Only the latter could afford, and hence excuse in each other, the pursuit of pleasure through ‘the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes’. Although by the later eighteenth century the bastardy laws probably constituted the most important remaining form of public discipline over unchastity, it is therefore not surprising that gentle­manly advocates of sexual freedom tended largely to ignore them.8

As Smith pointed out, sexual liberty was also strongly biased in favour of men. Sometimes the doctrine was expressed in general terms; now and again (most strikingly in Aphra Behn’s poetry of the 1680s) it was held to include both sexes. But mostly it was conceived explicitly as the entitlement of men freely to be able to ‘use’ or ‘enjoy’ women. There was very little public discussion specifically advocating women’s rights to sexual freedom. On the contrary, the shift away from religious standards of morality, towards greater emphasis on worldly considerations, tended to strengthen the sexual double stand­ard. Many discussions of sexual freedom acknowledged that female chastity was ultimately an artificial concept, the product of cultural and educational indoctrination: by 1740, Hume thought this ‘so obvi­ous’ that it did not need explaining. Yet they nonetheless felt obliged to countenance its enforcement, on much the same practical, patri­archal grounds as traditionally employed by defenders of sexual discipline. The most basic of these was the presumption that, as Bishop Burnet had put it, ‘men have a property in their wives and daughters, so that to defile the one, or corrupt the other, is an unjust and injurious thing.’ The other point commonly stressed was that an unchaste woman could impose illegitimate children upon her hus­band, thereby undermining inheritance and paternal fidelity, whereas the reverse was impossible. ‘From this trivial and anatomical observa­tion’, argued Hume, ‘is derived that vast difference betwixt the education and duties of the two sexes.’ As the confusion of lineage and property directly threatened the interests of civil society, female unchastity could not be regarded as a harmless or private affair.9 (Though ‘a shorter way of explaining the matter’, observed another author, would be ‘that men are generally the framers and explainers of the law’.)10

Thus, at the same time as it was increasingly argued that sexual freedom was natural for men, renewed stress was placed, often in the same breath, on the desirability of chastity in respectable women. Even Dr Johnson, despite his general aversion to licentiousness, thought there was a ‘boundless’ difference between a little discreet adultery on the part of a husband, which was ‘nothing’, no ‘very material injury’ to the wife, and female infidelity, which risked under­mining ‘all the property in the world’.11

It is certainly possible to find eighteenth-century women, especially in higher circles, who exhibited a striking degree of overt sexual free­dom.[17] There is also some evidence of how they justified their behaviour. In 1751, Frances, Lady Vane, took the extraordinary step of publishing a 50,000-word narrative of her adulterous love-life, the thinly veiled ‘Memoirs of a Lady of Quality’, which appeared as part of Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. Given that her second husband had proved a cruel and contemptible impo­tent, she asserted, she was free to transfer her fidelity to other men. Such engagements ‘I held as sacred as any nuptial tie, and much more binding than a forced or unnatural marriage’. The only responsibility she felt to her spouse was that she should not impose another’s child as heir to his estate.12

In the same way, one female friend of Boswell argued ‘that she may indulge herself in gallantries with equal freedom as her husband does, provided she takes care not to introduce a spurious issue into his fam­ily’. His young lover Jean Home, the daughter of Lord Kames, took a similar view of their own adultery:

She was a subtle philosopher. She said, ‘I love my husband as a husband, and you as a lover, each in his own sphere. I perform for him all the duties of a good wife. With you I give myself up to delicious pleasures. We keep our secret. Nature has so made me that I shall never bear children. No one suffers because of our loves. My conscience does not reproach me, and I am sure that God cannot be offended by them.’

When Boswell confessed his unease at their intrigue, ‘although she was affectionate and generous, she was set in her ideas. She reproached me for my weakness. What could I do? I continued my criminal amour. . .’. Jean Home was then just sixteen or seventeen years old. A decade later, her husband, Patrick Heron, divorced her for adultery with an army officer. When this affair was discovered, she declared ‘that she hoped that God Almighty would not punish her for the only crime she could charge herself with, which was the gratification of those passions which he himself had implanted in her nature’.13

Yet despite their obvious parallels, such arguments never attained the same prominence, let alone the respectability, that was accorded to male licence. Kames himself took the conventional view that adultery in a man ‘may happen occasionally, with little or no alienation of affec­tion’, but in a woman was unpardonable. After his daughter’s divorce, he and Lady Kames exiled her to France and never spoke to her again.14 In short, the notion of sexual liberty for propertied women was mainly treated with alarm or amusement, in fiction and in criticism of licen­tious individuals, rather than as a seriously defensible proposition. Its prevalence amongst the lower classes was likewise abhorred as a piti­able consequence of male seduction, or stigmatized as the sign of inferior moral character, a form of voluntary prostitution. 1 5 Mean­while, as we shall see in the next two chapters, the sharpened presumption that female modesty, even if innate, depended heavily on instruction, as well as constant vigilance against male lust, gave rise in general to ever more restrictive, asexual codes of female behaviour.

Before 1800, sexual liberty was therefore limited in several import­ant respects. Yet in subsequent years many of its central premises – about privacy, moral liberty, the limits of the criminal law, and the rational and cultural bases of sexual ethics – were to become commonplaces of orthodox judicial and social thought. Henceforth, it was increasingly their precise definition that was contested, rather than the presump­tions themselves. Compared with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is remarkable how comparatively little the fundamentals of sexual liberty seem to have been overtly debated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, even as the doctrine gradually advanced into a position of intellectual dominance. Even the most profound Victorian critique of progressive arguments for moral free­dom, James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873-4), thus typically took for granted both that ‘legislation and public opin­ion ought in all cases whatever scrupulously to respect privacy’, and that the moral standards of societies inevitably differed, and could only be based on expediency. ‘It is possible,’ he concluded, ‘that a time may come when it may appear natural and right to punish adultery, seduction, or possibly even fornication, but the prospect is, at present, indefinitely remote, and it may be doubted whether we are moving in that direction.’16

As the basic idea that sex between consenting adults should be treated as private was increasingly accepted, its scope also came to be gradually extended. The most obvious consequence was that, through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, acquiescence in male promiscuity became less and less controversial, despite recurrent criti­cism of it from the adherents of traditional mores. When in 1834 the bastardy laws were radically revised, the Poor Law Commissioners, invoking the laws of nature and providence, held lower-class women responsible for provoking or consenting to illicit sex, and absolved men of punishment for the consequences.17 As far as the male sex was concerned, Charles Dickens told a foreign visitor in 1848, ‘incontin­ence is so much the rule in England that if his own son were particularly chaste, he should be alarmed on his account, as if he could not be in good health’. The use of prostitutes by men, declared a Royal Com­mission in 1871, was to be regarded as no more than ‘an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse’. As an internal civil service memo on the same subject concluded in 1886, it was ‘an indisputable propos­ition that men will be immoral’.18 The growing influence of Freudian and other avowedly scientific theories of sex in the twentieth century likewise served most immediately to validate the sex-drive of hetero­sexual men. Yet over time the ideal of sexual liberty also came to be appropriated by other groups.

Its overt extension to women was closely related to the rise of feminism and other ideologies of social equality. This was not a straightforward connection. Most early feminists and their support­ers, deploring the rise of male liberty, presumed that women were the chaster sex, and aspired to improve male self-control, rather than to grant women the same licence as men. This was the message conveyed by almost all eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century advocates of the rights of women. In 1854, for example, John Stuart Mill was ‘anxious to leave on record’ for posterity ‘my deliberate opinion that any great improvement in human lfe is not to be looked for so long as the animal instinct of sex occupies the absurdly dispro­portionate place it does therein’. Josephine Butler, the brilliant and charismatic leader of the successful nationwide campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts (passed in 1864-9, repealed in 1886) thought that, because of their promiscuity, venereal disease was ‘almost universal’ amongst males. In 1913, the suffragette Christabel Pankhurst put the proportion at between 75 and 80 per cent of all men; ‘Votes for Women and Chastity for Men’ accordingly became the slogan of her Women’s Social and Political Union. In short, the building of a better society depended on greater rights for women and stricter purity for both sexes.19 It was also often argued, with some justification, that increased sexual freedom for women would not end men’s exploitation of female sexuality. Yet alongside this dominant stress on sexual restraint, and not always entirely in opposition to it, there also developed, from the end of the eighteenth century onwards, a notable feminist and communitarian interest in free love as a means to the emancipation of women and the creation of a more just society.

The idea took many different forms, reflecting the diverse origins and concerns of radical and dissenting thought. The main impetus came from a common dissatisfaction with the existing system of mar­riage. The notion that divorce should be freely allowed if a relationship had broken down had been occasionally mooted ever since the Refor­mation.20 Now its appeal was greatly broadened by a growing consciousness amongst progressive thinkers of how oppressive of women’s freedom current marital laws and conventions were. Some­times these were attacked, in language inherited from earlier deists and free-thinkers, as the corrupt impositions of Christian priests. The parallel between marriage and slavery was another favourite theme, as was the idea that the obsession with female chastity only served to sustain prostitution, the great bete noire of nineteenth-century femin­ists and social reformers. Many early socialists, moreover, considered the conventional arrangement of sexual and domestic relations to be connected to, and as pernicious as, the entire organization of the cap­italist economy. In consequence some radical commentators argued that couples should be able to separate and remarry as they wished, whilst others took the idea even further, proposing the wholesale abo­lition of marriage.

In the years before 1800, such ideas were held most notoriously by the leading radical philosophers William Godwin and Mary Woll – stonecraft: first independently, then as lovers, and finally during the few months of their married life together, before her death in 1797. When they first met, he had already begun work on the first edition of his Political Justice (1793), which forthrightly declared that ‘the insti­tution of marriage is a system of fraud’, that ‘the abolition of marriage will be attended with no evils’, and that both women and men should be free to engage in sexual intercourse (‘a very trivial object’) with whomever they liked for as long as they liked. When, the year after her death, the grief-stricken Godwin published a memoir of Woll – stonecraft, it equally shocked the respectable world with its honest recounting of her affairs, her unmarried motherhood, and her open avowal of them during her life. For example (as he put it in his pon­derous way),

It was about four months after her arrival at Paris in December 1792, that she entered into that species of connection for which her heart secretly panted. . . [a few months later] her attachment to Mr Imlay gained a new link, by finding reason to suppose herself with child.

When she and Godwin began sleeping together, likewise,

we did not marry. . . nothing can be so ridiculous upon the face of it, or so contrary to the genuine march of sentiment, as to require the overflowing of the soul to wait upon a ceremony. . . Mary felt an entire conviction of the propriety of her conduct.21

By the 1820s, the Devon tinsmith turned editor of The Republican, Richard Carlile, who was later to act out his principles with the femin­ist Eliza Sharpies, was able to put forth a series of best-selling publications in which he advocated sex for pleasure, birth control, regular intercourse for all young people, and free and equal relations between the sexes, irrespective of marriage. ‘There is nothing in sexual intercourse’, he explained,

that has any relation to morals, more than in eating or in drinking together. . . A true moralist sees no crime in what is natural, and will never denounce an intercourse between the sexes where no violence nor any kind of injury is inflicted. . . it is the very source of human happiness, and essential alike to health, beauty and sweetness of temper. . . A woman, that consents to live with a man for a month, for a year, or for life, without paying a fee for a priestly bond [i. e. marriage], is as virtuous as if she had been regularly mar­ried. . . if she were thus to proceed with a hundred different men, her virtue would be equally sound. It is religion, and priestly profit, and ignorance, that raises the contrary clamour.

Many of Carlile’s followers and correspondents enthusiastically concurred with these sentiments. As one, an obscure vintner from Canterbury, told him,

I have long been convinced that any other law than mutual sympathy is insufficient and pernicious in the regulation of sexual intercourse. I entered seven years ago into the marriage state with these sentiments, and my con­tinued experience has constantly tended and added to the same opinion. So far also I am an Epicurean that I think pleasure and virtue synonymous; as also, vice and pain. To excite pleasurable sensation in the world without a corresponding evil is, indeed, the height of moral rectitude in my opinion.

Amongst others who helped publicize such views were the great rad­ical activist Francis Place and the youthful John Stuart Mill. That women and men should freely associate and disassociate themselves, on terms of equality, was also the ideal propagated, and sometimes practised, by other late eighteenth – and early nineteenth-century social, political, and religious reformers, including William Thompson and Anna Wheeler, Mill and Harriet Taylor, William Linton, Robert Owen and many Owenites, and, most famously, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the author of Frankenstein and only child of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin.22

As Carlile’s example shows, even female promiscuity was now occasionally championed. ‘The love of variety’, observed a popular author, was ‘quite as natural to woman as to man’: the pattern of all classical and modern societies showed that ‘a certain degree of natural liberty’ for both sexes was inevitable and desirable. The sexual act was ‘moral, humanizing, polishing, beneficent’, urged Robert Dale Owen in a best-selling tract: ‘the social education of no man or woman is fully completed without it. . . the pleasure derived from this instinct. . . is good, proper, worth securing and enjoying’. It was unavoidable that young women would form transient and ‘unlegal­ized connexions’ – they should be offered contraception, not abuse. (The early nineteenth century was also the point at which, for the first time ever, the mass adoption of birth control was publicly advocated – as a means of limiting the population and ameliorating working-class life – by social reformers like Owen, Carlile, and Place.)23

In a similar vein, in the years around 1800 the poet James Lawrence, inspired by Wollstonecraft and by contemporary German debates on the nature of women, as well as by anthropological accounts of the sexual customs of other cultures, published a remarkable series of works in which he argued for the social benefits of abolishing mar­riage, granting complete sexual freedom to women, and introducing matrilineal descent. Both sexes, he urged, were naturally promiscuous: ‘There is no greater reason in enacting that a man should love a woman tomorrow, because he may love her today, than there would be in compelling a man to dance with a woman at the next ball, because he happened to be her partner at the last.’ In short, ‘the happiness and liberty of mankind’ depended on the sexual liberation of women: ‘Let every female live perfectly uncontrolled by any man, and enjoying every freedom which the males at present enjoy; let her be visited by as many lovers as she may please, and of whatever rank they may be.’24

It was on such grounds that Shelley, in one of the most widely read poems of the early nineteenth century, declared enthusiastically for an end to all sexual rules: ‘Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty. . . That which will result from the abolition of marriage, will be natural and right, because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.’ His sister-in-law Claire Clairmont likewise asserted that only illegitimate children (‘the offspring of freedom and love’) provoked real maternal affection, and fantasized that if only other ‘free women’ as brilliant as herself would assert themselves socially, wives across Europe would soon enough ‘be scudding away from their husbands as quickly as they could’.[18] In the United States several early communitarian settlements experimented with new sexual mod­els. In the late 1820s, the indomitable social reformer Frances Wright defended the practice of free love and miscegenation at her mixed – race abolitionist community in Tennessee; whilst from 1848 onwards the members of the large utopian commune at Oneida, in upstate New York, lived in ‘complex marriage’, whereby men and women were obliged to change sexual partners regularly.25

Although the following decades saw the continued advance of more restrictive ideals of female behaviour in mainstream thought, by the early twentieth century there had also developed, on both sides of the Atlantic, several outspoken organizations, journals, and coalitions of individuals advocating unmarried cohabitation, sexual liberty for women, the scientific investigation of variant sexual practices, and the use of birth control as an aid to female independence. In England they included the Legitimation League (founded in 1893), whose purpose was to influence public opinion ‘in the direction of freedom in sexual relationships’, and the Malthusian League (1877), several of whose members practised or preached free love. Its tireless founder, Charles Robert Drysdale, lived in unmarried happiness with his fellow-doctor and feminist Alice Vickery, and their two children. His elder brother and inspiration, George Drysdale, sold 90,000 copies of Physical, Sexual, and Natural Religion (1855), which uncompromisingly advo­cated contraception, women’s rights, and the embrace of sexual pleasure. Its great aim was ‘to make unmarried intercourse honour­able and legitimate’, for ‘unmarried and unfettered love’ was the only true mode of sexual union; it is the one which Nature points out to us, and we may be certain, that any institution which defies the natural laws of love, as marriage does, will be found to be the cause of immense evils; ever accumulating as the world rolls on, and mankind become more free, and more enlightened in the physical and moral laws of their being.26