By the end of the eighteenth century, attitudes towards male and female sexuality had been transformed. As we have seen, this reconfiguration drew on many older ideas about the nature of men and women: but it was only made possible by the emergence of new ways of thinking about human character and society. It was also triggered by two unprecedented social developments: a great expansion of sexual freedom for men, and the irreversible breakthrough of female voices into public life. Their impact on mainstream culture was profound. The growing prominence of feminine views on sex supported the perception that men, not women, were the more seductive. Yet it also fuelled public concern about the ill effects of male licentiousness, and a growing backlash against its proponents.
The practical effects of this combination can be seen everywhere in eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century society. It produced a huge outpouring of philanthropic energy towards the rescue and reform of fallen women, which is examined in the next chapter. It helps explain the remarkable shift in pornographic treatments of sex, which up to the later seventeenth century presumed the superior sexual capacity of women, but thereafter increasingly celebrated male agency and female passivity.1 Its general themes came to dominate art and literature, courtship, marriage, education, and every sphere of public and private life.
The creation of this new world was one of the most ambiguous legacies of the Enlightenment. In the longer term it benefited the emancipation of women. Right up until the late twentieth century, the belief that women were morally superior to men was to be a huge spur to feminist consciousness, solidarity, activism, and claims to equality. Its main basis was the presumption that women were the chaster sex. The idea was hence one of the chief foundations of modern feminism. Yet more immediately the revolution in attitudes towards lust had a less positive impact on the lives of generations of women. Though it bolstered female unity, it did so at the cost of sharpening many social and sexual biases. As we have explored, it led directly to the tightening of constraints on female behaviour, an increasing obsession with the desexualization of women, a widening gap between male and female sexual standards, and a pervasive concern with class differences in morality. Meanwhile the main aim of the reaction against male licence was less to restrain it completely than simply to ameliorate its effects.
This is not to say that women had ever been treated equally in earlier times; nor that female sexuality had no place in Victorian culture; nor that male freedom became universal or untrammelled. Nonetheless, already by 1800 there had taken place a fundamental and irreversible change in how the sexuality of men and women was thought of, and controlled. It sowed the seeds for an increasingly powerful feminist critique of how propertied men dominated their inferiors. However, it also placed patriarchal power on a new footing, and strengthened it in ways that, as in previous ages, were internalized and perpetuated by women as well as men. These were the hypocrisies and inconsistencies, the tensions between freedom and repression, that were created by the eighteenth-century revolution, energetically elaborated by the Victorians, and inherited by our twentieth-century predecessors. They never affected everybody equally. In recent decades their intellectual and social force has gradually diminished. Yet they are with us even now.