January 20, 2012
Portrait of a Courtesan, thought to be Nell Gwyn (c.1651-8) by Sir Peter Lely
We believe in sexual freedom. We take it for granted that consenting men and women have the right to do what they like with their bodies. Sex is everywhere in our culture. We love to think and talk about it; we devour news about celebrities' affairs; we produce and consume pornography on an unprecedented scale. We think it wrong that in other cultures its discussion is censured, people suffer for their sexual orientation, women are treated as second-class citizens, or adulterers are put to death.
Yet a few centuries ago, our own society was like this too. In the 1600s people were still being executed for adultery in England, Scotland and north America, and across Europe. Everywhere in the west, sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state and ordinary people devoted huge efforts to hunting it down and punishing it. This was a central feature of Christian society, one that had grown steadily in importance since late antiquity. So how and when did our culture change so strikingly? Where does our current outlook come from? The answers lie in one of the great untold stories about the creation of our modern condition.
When I stumbled on the subject, more than a decade ago, I could not believe that such a huge transformation had not been properly understood. But the more I pursued it, the more amazing material I uncovered: the first sexual revolution can be traced in some of the greatest works of literature, art and philosophy ever produced – the novels of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen, the pictures of Reynolds and Hogarth, the writings of Adam Smith, David Hume and John Stuart Mill. And it was played out in the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary men and women, otherwise unnoticed by history , whose trials and punishments for illicit sex are preserved in unpublished judicial records. Most startling of all were my discoveries of private writings, such as the diary of the randy Dutch embassy clerk Lodewijk van der Saan, posted to London in the 1690s; the emotional letters sent to newspapers by countless hopeful and disappointed lovers; and the piles of manuscripts about sexual freedom composed by the great philosopher Jeremy Bentham but left unpublished, to this day, by his literary executors. Once noticed, the effects of this revolution in attitudes and behaviour can be seen everywhere when looking at the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It was one of the key shifts from the pre-modern to the modern world.
Since the dawn of history, every civilisation had punished sexual immorality. The law codes of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England treated women as chattels, but they also forbade married men to fornicate with their slaves, and ordered that adulteresses be publicly disgraced, lose their goods and have their ears and noses cut off. Such severity reflected the Christian church's view of sex as a dangerously polluting force, as well as the patriarchal commonplace that women were more lustful than men and liable to lead them astray. By the later middle ages, it was common in places such as London, Bristol and Gloucester for convicted prostitutes, bawds, fornicators and adulterers to be subjected to elaborate ritual punishments: to have their hair shaved off or to be dressed in especially degrading outfits, severely whipped, displayed in a pillory or public cage, paraded around for public humiliation and expelled for ever from the community.
The reformation brought a further hardening of attitudes. The most fervent Protestants campaigned vigorously to reinstate the biblical death penalty for adultery and other sexual crimes. Wherever Puritan fundamentalists gained power, they pursued this goal – in Geneva and Bohemia, in Scotland, in the colonies of New England and in England itself. After the Puritans had led the parliamentary side to victory in the English civil war, executed the King and abolished the monarchy, they passed the Adultery Act of 1650 . Henceforth, adulterers and incorrigible fornicators and brothel-keepers were simply to be executed, as sodomites and bigamists already were.
Of course, sexual discipline was never perfect. Men and women constantly gave way to temptation – and then had to be flogged, imprisoned, fined and shamed to reform them. Many others, especially the wealthy and powerful, escaped punishment. As was the case with other crimes, the full rigour of the law was never uniformly or consistently applied. All the same, sexual discipline was a central facet of pre-modern western society, and its unceasing promotion had a profound effect on ordinary men and women. Most people internalised its principles deeply and participated in the disciplining of others. There was no coherent philosophy of sexual liberty, no way of conceiving of a society without moral policing. It seemed obvious that illicit sex had to be combated because it angered God, prevented salvation, damaged personal relations and undermined social order. Sex was emphatically not a private affair.
So pervasive was this ideology that even those who paid with their lives for defying it could not escape its hold over their minds and actions. When the Massachusetts settler James Britton fell ill in the winter of 1644, he became gripped by a "fearful horror of conscience" that this was God's punishment on him for his past sins. So he publicly confessed that once, after a night of heavy drinking, he had tried (but failed) to have sex with a young bride, Mary Latham. Though she now lived far away, in Plymouth colony, the magistrates there were alerted. She was found, arrested and brought back, across the icy landscape, to stand trial in Boston. When, despite her denial that they had actually had sex, she was convicted of adultery, she broke down, confessed it was true, "proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin … and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice". On 21 March, a fortnight after her sentence, she was taken to the public scaffold. Britton was executed alongside her; he, too, "died very penitently". In the shadow of the gallows, Latham addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting other young women to be warned by her example, and again proclaiming her abhorrence and penitence for her terrible crime against God and society. Then she was hanged. She was 18 years old.
That is the world we have left behind. Over the following century and a half it was transformed by a great revolution that laid the ground for the sexual culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, and of our own day.
The most obvious change was a surge in pre- and extramarital sex. We can measure this, crudely but unmistakably, in the numbers of children conceived out of wedlock. During the 17th century this figure had been extremely low: in 1650 only about 1% of all births in England were illegitimate. But by 1800, almost 40% of brides came to the altar pregnant, and about a quarter of all first-born children were illegitimate. It was to be a permanent change in behaviour.
Just as striking was the collapse of public punishment, which made this new sexual freedom possible. By 1800, most forms of consensual sex between men and women had come to be treated as private, beyond the reach of the law. This extraordinary reversal of centuries of severity was partly the result of increasing social pressures. The traditional methods of moral policing had evolved in small, slow, rural communities in which conformity was easy to enforce. Things were different in towns, especially in London. At the end of the middle ages only about 40,000 people lived there, but by 1660 there were already 400,000; by 1800 there would be more than a million, and by 1850 most of the British population lived in towns. This extraordinary explosion created new kinds of social pressures and new ways of living, and placed the conventional machinery of sexual discipline under growing strain.
Urban living provided many more opportunities for sexual adventure. It also gave rise to new, professional systems of policing, which prioritised public order. Crime became distinguished from sin. And the fast circulation of news and ideas created a different, freer and more pluralist intellectual environment.
This was crucial to the development of the ideal of sexual freedom. By the later 18th century, for the first time, many serious observers had come to take it for granted that sex was a private matter, that men and women should be free to indulge in it irrespective of marriage, and that sexual pleasure should be celebrated as one of the purposes of life. As well as reinterpreting the Bible, they found support in new ideas about the importance of personal conscience and in the laws of nature, which were regarded as more clearly indicative of God's will than the inherited dogma of the church and the text of the scriptures. In his 1730 work, Christianity as Old as the Creation , the Oxford don Matthew Tindal ridiculed traditional sexual norms as priestly inventions, no more appropriate to a modern state than the biblical prohibitions against drinking blood or lending money: "Enjoying a woman, or lusting after her, can't be said, without considering the circumstances, to be either good or evil. That warm desire, which is implanted in human nature, can't be criminal, when perused after such a manner as tends most to promote the happiness of the parties, and to propagate and preserve the species."
In a similar vein, the Rev Robert Wallace, one of the leaders of the Church of Scotland in the mid-18th century, wrote a treatise seriously commending "a much more free commerce of the sexes". By that he meant complete liberty for people to cohabit successively with as many partners as they liked – "A woman's being enjoyed by a dozen … can never render her less fit or agreeable to a 13th". As John Wilkes 's 1754 Essay on Woman put it: "Life can little more supply / Than just a few good Fucks, and then we die."
It's no accident that all these early celebrations of the new sexual world were voiced by white, upper-class men. In practice, sexual liberty was limited in important ways. The bastardy laws continued to apply to the labouring classes: their morals remained a public matter. The new permissiveness towards "natural" freedoms also led to a sharper definition and abhorrence of supposedly "unnatural" behaviour. Homosexual acts in particular came to be persecuted with increasing violence: throughout the 18th century there were regular executions for sodomy. Even after 1830, when hanging for the offence was ended, thousands of men were publicly humiliated in the pillory, or sentenced to jail, for their unnatural perversions – Oscar Wilde 's imprisonment with hard labour for two years in 1895 is only the best-known example.
Yet the general advance of sexual freedom and the expansion of urban life also fostered the development of an increasingly assertive homosexual sub-culture. Some of the most remarkable utterances of the 18th century were the first principled defences of same-sex behaviour as natural, universal and harmless. One night in 1726, William Brown, a married man, was arrested at a notorious pick-up spot with another man's hand in his breeches. When surrounded by hostile watchmen and challenged as to "why he took such indecent liberties … he was not ashamed to answer, 'I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body'". That sodomy had been accepted by all the greatest civilisations of the world was one of the themes of the young clergyman Thomas Cannon's Ancient and Modern Pederasty (1749). "Every dabbler knows by his classics," he pointed out, "that boy-love ever was the top refinement of most enlightened ages." Arguments of the same kind were developed systematically by the Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister (1791-1840), who set down in her diaries the first full justification of lesbian love in English, and by Bentham , the most influential reformer of the age, who defended the rights of homosexuals in countless private discussions and over many hundreds of pages of notes and treatises.
Attitudes towards women's sexuality underwent similarly dramatic shifts. The idea that sexual freedom was as natural and desirable for women as for men was born in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, many feminists, socialists and other progressive thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic decried marriage and advocated free love as a means to the emancipation of women and the creation of a more just society. Among those who held such views were Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin , John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor , Robert Owen and many Owenites, and Percy Bysshe Shelley . In the long term, this egalitarian way of thinking was to provide the intellectual foundation for women's sexual liberation more generally.
Yet more immediately the rise of sexual freedom had a much more ambiguous legacy. Women who were rich or powerful enough to escape social ostracism could take advantage of it: many female aristocrats had notoriously open marriages. But on the whole female lust now came to be ever more strongly stigmatised as "unnatural", for it threatened the basic principle that (as one of William III's bishops had put it) "Men have a property in their wives and daughters" and therefore owned their bodies too. Thus, at the same time as it was increasingly argued that sexual liberty was natural for men, renewed stress was placed, often in the same breath, on the necessity of chastity in respectable women.
The effects of this sharpened double standard can be seen everywhere in 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century culture. James Boswell's diary records the tragic story of Jean, the brilliant only daughter of Henry Home, Lord Kames, one of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. In the early 1760s, when she was only 16 or 17 and already married, she embarked on a passionate affair with Boswell, arguing to him that they were doing nothing wrong:
"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.'"
A decade later, when her husband divorced her over another affair, 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." But her father, the scholar and moral authority, 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 saw her again.