The question of how this transformation came about is almost never asked.1 Instead, historians, literary critics, philosophers, legal theorists, and other scholars routinely take it for granted, and focus instead on its consequences, often supposing that the change was the result of new scientific ideas. Particularly influential in cementing this presumption has been the work of Thomas Laqueur, whose justly celebrated Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990) dominates current historical writing on sex and gender. The book is a beautiful case-study of how medical ideas have been socially constructed throughout western history. The terms in which scientists described the body, Laqueur shows, were never neutral, but derived from evolving cultural presumptions about the nature of men and women. From classical times until the Enlightenment it was generally held that both sexes shared the same basic anatomical make-up; whilst subsequently much greater stress came to be placed, though never exclusively, on the supposedly innate physical differences between them.2
Professor Laqueur is acutely aware that changing presumptions about anatomy reflected more general cultural shifts, rather than scientific advances – that is part of his point. As to what these crucial ‘new social and political developments’ actually were, and how they related to intellectual changes, ‘more detailed studies are needed’. Nevertheless, he also suggests that ‘the remaking of the body’ was the deepest change of all: it shaped ‘the broad discursive fields that underlie competing ideologies, that define the terms of conflict, and that give meaning to various debates.’ It was not ‘caused’ by, but was ‘itself intrinsic to’,
the rise of evangelical religion, Enlightenment political theory, the development of new sorts of public spaces in the eighteenth century, Lockean ideas of marriage as a contract, the cataclysmic possibilities for social change wrought by the French revolution, postrevolutionary conservatism, postrevolutionary feminism, the factory system with its restructuring of the sexual division of labor, the rise of a free market economy in services or commodities, the birth of classes.
Little wonder that, in the absence of an alternative account, many historians nowadays simply invoke the changing medical ideas of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as themselves having brought about new attitudes towards male and female sexuality.3
In fact the shift can only properly be explained by taking a wider view. Even by 1800, biological ideas about sexual behaviour remained far less independently influential than they were to become in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is true that people did start to regard male and female bodies differently in the course of the eighteenth century, but this did not cause so much as replicate the broader cultural transformation. As we shall see, the shifting balance of ideas about the relative lustfulness of men and women was articulated earlier and with greater influence through other, more general ways of considering nature, culture, and society: in plays and novels, journalism, poetry, works of theology, philosophy, and moral commentary. This chapter will begin by describing the most obvious features of the change, and end by explaining the striking coincidence between two of the most enduring cultural innovations of the eighteenth century – the rise of the novel, and the cult of seduction.