Prologue: The Culture of Discipline
We could start anywhere in the British Isles, on any date almost from the dawn of recorded history to the later seventeenth century. But let’s pick Westminster, on the bank of the Thames. It is Tuesday, 10 March 1612. If we hurry into the town’s courthouse, we shall find its magistrates in session, dealing with a routine criminal case. An unmarried man and woman have been arrested and brought before them. They are accused of having had sex together. The woman confesses. The man denies it. It does not take long to decide their fate. They are put on trial before a jury of men, interrogated, and found guilty. Their punishment reflects the heinousness of their crime: not only did they have sex, they have brought into the world a bastard child. For this, Susan Perry and Robert Watson are to be cut off from their homes, their friends, their families, their livelihoods – to be forever expelled from the society in which they live. The judges order them to be taken directly
to the prison of the Gatehouse; and both of them to be stripped naked from the waist upwards; and so tied to the cart’s tail and to be whipped from the Gatehouse in Westminster unto Temple Bar; and then and there to be presently banished from the city.
What happened to their baby is not recorded.1
Sexual intercourse is a universal human practice. Yet sex also has a history. How we think about it, what meanings we invest in it, how we treat it as a society – all these things differ greatly across time and place. For most of western history the public punishment of men and women like Robert Watson and Susan Perry was a normal event. Sometimes they were treated more harshly, sometimes less, but all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state, and ordinary people devoted huge efforts to suppressing and punishing it. It seemed obvious that illicit relations angered God, prevented salvation, damaged personal relations, and undermined social order. Nobody seriously disagreed with this, even if men and women regularly gave way to temptation and had to be flogged, imprisoned, fined, and shamed, in order to remind them. Though the details varied from place to place, every European society promoted the ideal of sexual discipline and punished people for consensual non-marital sex. So did their colonial off-shoots, in North America and elsewhere. This was a central feature of Christian civilization, one that had steadily grown in importance since the early middle ages. In Britain alone by the early seventeenth century, thousands of men and women suffered the consequences every year. Sometimes, as we shall see, they were even put to death.
Nowadays we regard such practices with repugnance. We associate them with the Taliban, with Sharia law, with people far away and alien in outlook. Yet until quite recently, until the Enlightenment, our own culture was like this too. This was one of the main differences between the pre-modern and the modern world. The emergence of modern attitudes to sex in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries therefore constituted a great revolution. The aim of this book is to explain how it came about.
The subject is immense, yet it is never studied – worse still, its existence is barely acknowledged. More than thirty years ago, Sir Keith Thomas and the late Lawrence Stone, its first major English historians, recognized that the period between 1660 and 1800 marked a momentous watershed, ‘a great secular change in sexual attitudes and sexual behaviour’, the birth of the modern mind-set. But its origins remained unexplained. Since then, the history of sex, though increasingly popular, has also become ever more narrowly specialized. Academic historians now know more and more about past ideals of femininity and masculinity, about attitudes to the body, and about other esoteric subjects. Some are fascinated by the minute exploration of particular texts and ideas. Others concentrate on one or two individuals and their sexual experiences. This intense focus on the trees, rather than the wood, has produced a wealth of brilliant in-depth
studies and theoretical insights. I have learned immensely from this work, and drawn upon it gratefully. However, it also seems to me to have overlooked the world-changing cultural shift that was so obvious to earlier, bolder scholars.2
This book seeks to describe that central transformation, and to connect it to the major political, intellectual, and social trends of the period. The history of sex is usually treated as part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience. Yet that is itself a consequence of the Enlightenment’s conception of it as an essentially personal matter. My concern, by contrast, is not primarily to enter into the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past. It is to recover the history of sex as a central public preoccupation, and to demonstrate that how people in the past thought about and dealt with it was shaped by the most profound intellectual and social currents of their time. The Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649, the revolution of 1688, the growth of religious division, the expansion of urban society, the rise of the novel – all these developments, and many others, were intertwined with the dramatic changes in sexual culture that took place over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, my general aim has been to show that the sexual revolution was a central part of the European and North American Enlightenment: it helped create a wholly new model of western civilization, whose principles of individual privacy, equality, and freedom remain distinctive to this day.
Compared with the Enlightenment in France, Germany, or Italy, that of the English-speaking world proceeded with so little fuss that, amazingly, historians still debate whether it can be said to have existed at all. This book takes a broad view of what the Enlightenment was – not merely a set of self-conscious philosophical debates amongst intellectuals, but a series of social and intellectual changes, across society, which altered almost everyone’s conceptions of religion, truth, nature, and morality. The sexual revolution demonstrates how far and how quickly enlightened ways of thinking spread, and what important effects they had on popular attitudes and behaviour.
That does not mean they affected everyone equally, or favourably. As we shall see, though in the long term the ideals of sexual freedom were to become much more broadly accepted, in the short term their advance, like that of other kinds of liberty, primarily benefited a minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men. I have tried to indicate some of the sexual revolution’s most obvious contradictions and disparities, especially for women. I hope that my analysis will provoke other scholars to explore further its varied implications for women and men, for same-sex relations, for different social classes and groups, and in other western societies.
The book’s argument is not just about new ways of thinking but also about changing ways of living. It attempts to show how people’s beliefs were affected by social circumstances, and how new forms of commerce, communication, and social organization transformed the perception, and the experience, of sex. Traditionally, most of the population had always lived in small, slow, rural communities in which social and moral conformity was easy to enforce. Life in big cities was different, in its scale and anonymity, the increasingly fastpaced circulation of news and ideas, and the sheer availability of sexual adventure. It placed the enforcement of sexual discipline under growing pressure. The first place to experience these changes was London, so that is where our attention will be focused.
This was the period in which London grew to be the largest metropolis in the world. For English-speaking people across the globe it was the epicentre of political power, of literature and culture, and of new ideas. Modern urban lifestyles and attitudes, new social, intellectual, and sexual trends: all were first created there, yet their effects were to be felt everywhere. What happened in London was eventually to shape the treatment of sexual issues nationally and internationally, across the British Empire – from Edinburgh to Brighton, from Dublin to New York, from Delhi to Melbourne. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the majority of the British population lived in towns, and by the end of this book we shall be in the recognizably familiar environment of Victorian and twentieth-century urban life. But the story begins in a very different world.