Monday, June 11, 2012

Sexual modernity started 300 years ago

Laura Miller reviews The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, in Salon. Two paragraphs:
“The Origin of Sex” begins with an anecdote from 1612. An unmarried couple accused of fornication and bastardy (producing an illegitimate child) were dragged before the magistrates. They were convicted, then sentenced to be stripped naked to the waist, “whipped from the Gatehouse in Westminster unto Temple Bar” before the jeering public and then banished from the city — severed from their families, former friends, and previous occupations. Publicly shamed and condemned, their lives as they knew them were over.

As extreme as such penalties sound, Dabhoiwala argues, they were generally approved by the populace. Even “members of the gentry and aristocracy” would be punished for “adultery and other sexual crimes,” and that was fine by their neighbors, who saw the stern policing of sexual behavior as a communal as well as a church responsibility. By contrast, a little over a hundred years later, Londoners would be founding hospitals to rescue and reform “fallen women” and gobbling up printed accounts of the exploits of famous courtesans. It was a huge change: from a culture of what Dabhoiwala calls “sexual discipline” to one where many viewed sexual pleasure as natural, something you couldn’t really expect people to forgo — at least, as long as those people were heterosexual men of the higher classes.
The change is about coming to regard “sexuality as something uniquely personal, a key element of one’s identity and a matter of private, rather than public conscience”.

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AND SO: Assuming the difference in attitudes and behaviors really is more or less as Miller's review implies it is, is that difference major or minor? From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology as it seems to be practiced, that change is a relatively minor matter, for it doesn't seem to involve any change in human sexual nature, which remains as it was in the Stone Ages. Evolutionary psychology would thus seem to be powerless to say anything about how or why this came about.

From the standpoint of cultural history has it has been practiced for the last few decades the change is major, simply because it IS a change and is one that affected many people. Would we expect such differences to show up in literary texts? If so, how? (Miller's review touches on this and I assume the book says quite a bit.)

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