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The first sexual revolution

It wasn’t the one in the 1960s. Historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala argues that the real Sexual Revolution occurred in the 18th century, [1] and we’re still working out the consequences of that one. Excerpt:

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.

Thanks to Liam, the reader who sent that link. Fascinating story.

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31 Comments To "The first sexual revolution"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 25, 2012 @ 12:11 am

Interesting, but seriously inaccurate in a lot of ways. Legitimacy was defined differently then and the acknowledgement of parenthood did not require marriage. And it fails to take into account the social class structure which had a far greater influence than any legal control. No one was going to punish the mistress of the village squire. The simple fact is that the higher up the ladder you were, the less such things mattered.

#2 Comment By Leo Ladenson On January 25, 2012 @ 12:12 am

It’s actually a pretty squirrelly article. As you can see from this excerpt, she freely mixes up out-of-wedlock conceptions and births, ignoring the huge difference between the two.

Also she quotes a number of obscure, hardly representative figures as major proponents of some kind of free-love movement.

And I think she greatly overstates the privatization of sexual crimes by the 19/c. The specific sanctions might have changed but the public opprobrium may in fact have increased.

History is not a straight progressive line.

#3 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 25, 2012 @ 12:20 am

addendum. It is important to consider not merely isolated cases and laws on the books, but actual behavior patterns. The article puts too much faith in the occasional event as being the standard. But it was the general horror and revulsion following such events that led to the downfall of the Puritans. It would be more accurate if the author had done a comparison of the laws of New England with say the laws of Virginia at the same time as well as general practice.

#4 Comment By Surly On January 25, 2012 @ 12:20 am

Thanks Liam–that was a really interesting read. Every time I think there’s something new, I’m disabused of that notion.

For all of you who are despairing the political environment, I recommend Steven Budiansky’s account of the War of 1812: “Perilous Fight.” The government was broke, politics were toxic and dysfunctional and the US was over its head fighting an unnecessary war. Check it out, yo. The best part about reading history is that you realize the world has always been going to hell in a handcart.

#5 Comment By Mont D. Law On January 25, 2012 @ 12:45 am

Individual freedom increases when society can no longer force compliance. As individual freedom expands, privilege is challenged, threatened and then destroyed. No group gives up it’s privilege without a fight but without the ability to force people into line they can’t win. To look back fondly is to wish that someone be forced to comply. More importantly it is to believe that it would be better if you could be forced to comply. It surprises me sometimes that people who exercise their individual freedoms so vigorously can’t see this.

#6 Comment By Robert On January 25, 2012 @ 3:51 am

Okay, but how much contraception did 18th-century man and woman have available? Certainly in France condoms were known (they were described in print by at least one of Louis XV’s doctors, not to mention that great moral exemplar the Marquis de Sade); and as for non-artificial practices, there’s apparently a passage in Saint Alphonsus Liguori where coitus interruptus is said to be licit in certain circumstances (according to Leon Podles’s The Church Impotent, anyhow).

But is there a single instance of contraception being openly defended by a church body – as opposed to militant atheists of the Charles Bradlaugh type – before Anglicanism broke ranks with the rest of Christianity at the 1930 Lambeth Conference? While there might be such an instance, I don’t know of it.

#7 Comment By Peter Kirsop On January 25, 2012 @ 5:35 am

Whether that is true or not (where are the references? and the author omits any reference to the Restoration and to Charles II 7 mistresses; as John Wilmot wrote of Charles
Restless he rolls from whore to whore
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor)
the article misses the most important point, the poor state of the Church of England at the start of the 18th Century, the early evangelicals (the Wesleys, Whitfield) having died, the latter ones and the Anglo Catholics not having come into their own. The church was at a very low ebb. As Sir Arnold Lunn & Garth Lean pointed out in the “Cult of Softness” its not an appeal to morality that creates morailty, its the challenge of the Gospel.
Footnote William Duke of Cornwell will (Assuming he becomes King) will be the first monach descended directly from Charles II, his mother being descended from 2 of Charles’s mistresses

#8 Comment By JonF On January 25, 2012 @ 5:41 am

Well, that’s an interesting springboard for discussion. One question right off the bat is how reliable statistics are for the distant past? How easy was it to get away with lying about whether one’s children were conceived in wedlock? In the late 19th century an impossibly large number of American women with children claimed to be widows on the census. And what constituted “wedlock”? Remember, English Common Law used to include “common law marriages” for people who lived together without benefit of marriage. And what about prostitution? It was legal and per most sources society was rife with “working girls”. We also know that promsicuity was fairly common at the top levels of society (e.g., Charles II the “Merry Monarch” with a palace full of mistresses); did this have no filter-down effect on the lower classes?

#9 Comment By Turmarion On January 25, 2012 @ 5:53 am

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll baroque….

#10 Comment By Thomas On January 25, 2012 @ 5:54 am

You’ll notice that Giacomo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798.

#11 Comment By John E On January 25, 2012 @ 9:08 am

It surprises me sometimes that people who exercise their individual freedoms so vigorously can’t see this.

Doesn’t surprise me a bit.

The idea of ‘freedoms for me, but not for thee’ is part and parcel of human nature.

#12 Comment By Alypius On January 25, 2012 @ 9:52 am

Like some of the other commentators here, I’m a bit skeptical of some of the claims made by the author. As one commenter pointed out, she does not make a distinction between out of wedlock births and women pregnant at the altar. The article does not give a sense of what her sources are (I presume court records are prominent in this), but my primary concern is that she does not say how much better the records are from the 17th century onward, when statistics and record keeping became much more precise. It is very possible, likely even, that there was plenty of extra and pre-marital sex going on in the middle ages, but not as much reliable record of it still extant. She mentions the smallness of “pre-modern” communities made policing sexual behavior much easier, but it is just as likely that, absent modern policing techniques, it was easier to hide sexual activity in earlier times. This is why, for all types of crimes, it made sense in an earlier period to punish someone really harshly when you caught them, to make an example of them, since you weren’t likely to catch many criminals (nor does she mention, by the way, how frequent were executions and the like for adultery, which I doubt were terribly frequent). None of this is to suggest there was not a shift away from such punishments and a shift in belief (among elites) ocurring the 18th century, but to say that it was presaged by some massive shift in human sexual behavior is a bit tendentious (that is no doubt part of what she wants to prove—this big shift ocurred and no other historian has caught it but me). Not getting to look at her evidence means I have to reserve judgement to a certain extent, but I am always skeptical about historians making grand claims for “modernity” or the “modern period,” as if it represents a total break with the past. What the author really seems interested in saying, if I can judge from her comments at the end of the article, is that once moral policing went away, a shift in human behavior ocurred that revealed true human nature. Then, true” ideals of sexual freedom emerged which better reflected this reality, and “premodern” ideals of sexual behavior are destined or at least likely to wither away in the face of this shift. Again, that may be a bit unfair, but it does seem like the general tenor of the article. And it is not as if historians have not covered this territory before, it is just that most probably don’t want to make such large arguments, mainly because they so difficult to prove. Color me unconvinced, anyway.


#13 Comment By Jaybird On January 25, 2012 @ 10:20 am

Turmarion, on January 25th, 2012 at 5:53 am Said:
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll baroque….

Let The Upper Crust do the talking:

#14 Comment By JustMe On January 25, 2012 @ 10:22 am

I wonder how much the declining virulence of syphilis contributed. It seems that when syphilis was imported from the New World in the 1500s, it spread faster and caused greater harm than it did later on. By the time of penicillin, it was still more or less a death sentence, but a slowly-moving one that wasn’t necessarily contagious in its later stages.

Personal behavior when sex will kill or maim you and your family rather quickly will be different when the consequences are much more remote, akin to the consequences of a 3-pack-a-day smoking habit.

#15 Comment By Jaybird On January 25, 2012 @ 10:31 am

More to the point however, I think this article tends to dovetail with and reinforce Steven Pinker’s thesis that Western Civilization has become markedly less violent over the centuries, especially passages like this one:

…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.

Good riddance.

#16 Comment By Steven On January 25, 2012 @ 10:57 am

According to Christopher Lasch in an essay entitled “The Suppression of Clandestine Marriage in England: The Marriage Act of 1753” in his last book of essay published posthumously by his daughter entitled “Women and the Common Life”, before 1753 marriage was defined by the act of sex, and recognized by the Church afterward. It was said at the time of this law’s passing (and likely overstated) that too many dubious men were raping women with an impressive inheritance in order to come into their own claim as husbands. The church lost a lot of power when this law was passed as it had been their role to acknowledge that two people had consecrated their union. After this law, the parents of the marrying couple were able to control who their wealth was inherited by through the dictation of who their children would “marry” through the process of a state sponsored ceremony rather than through their own choice. So, it appears, in England at least the concept of out of wedlock birth didn’t exist for the majority of the merchant and lower classes before 1753. The aristocracy, being the controllers of the State and Church since their Protestant turn, was always able to worm their own caveats to the common practice. Out of wedlock births therefore, by definition, couldn’t have risen until after this law. It was impossible to speak of them before it because the birth was the evidence of the marriage.

#17 Comment By Hector On January 25, 2012 @ 11:08 am

Re: But is there a single instance of contraception being openly defended by a church body – as opposed to militant atheists of the Charles Bradlaugh type – before Anglicanism broke ranks with the rest of Christianity at the 1930 Lambeth Conference? While there might be such an instance, I don’t know of it.

He does address changing attitudes among clergymen, too. From the article:

“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”.’

Of course, Christianity has never really all that been united on sexual morality- there was a ton of disagreement in the early church, even some of the later New Testament Epistles make clear. There were a whole slew of breakaway Christian heresies in the Middle Ages which had different ideas about sexual morality, which is why the Catholic Church included condemnations of a couple of them (including their ideas about sex) in some of the medieval councils. The Christian churches that we see around today are only a subset of all the Christian groups that existed throughout history. Someone on Rod’s old blog brought up that trial marriages were apparently pretty widely accepted in medieval Gaelic cultures, even after the introduction of Christianity.

#18 Comment By Geoff G. On January 25, 2012 @ 11:08 am

Note also that The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774. I think that one could make the argument that this is the point where the culture as a whole begins to reinterpret relationships (and marriage!) more in terms of romantic love than anything else.

#19 Comment By Charles Cosimano On January 25, 2012 @ 11:41 am

The important thing to remember as well is that the Massachussets Colony was popularly regarded by everyone outside of it as a rather large lunatic asylum. It was too much even for Oliver Cromwell, who forced it to accept the break-off of Rhode Island, thus being the man responsible for the ultimate coming of the True Prophet H. P. Lovecraft.

It is important to remember that Puritan England was a blip on the radar which passed very quickly and the coming of the Restoration swept all of its laws into the dustbin. What occured was not a revolution at all, but a return to normalcy after a period of madness.

#20 Comment By James Kabala On January 25, 2012 @ 11:49 am

A big omission is that the Victorian era in many ways remoralized after eighteenth-century and Regency dissipation.

#21 Comment By Joanna On January 25, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

I would have said ’30s, but obviously would have been wrong.

#22 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On January 25, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

The quaint behavior of “bundling” should be mentioned, which phenomenon was current at America’s inception, if not indeed from mankind’s very conception. It’s existence surely allowed for as many “opportunities for sexual adventure” as urban living, which Faramerz Dabhoiwala prefers to see as inevitably tilting the eighteenth century towards coupling carnality.

A fascinating (and acceptably documented) analysis of “bundling” is provided by the quilting community ( [2]).

Now don’t wrinkle the nose prematurely, fellas.

Ms. Cummings’ thesis is, in part, that bundling was common to Welshmen, Puritans, the lower classes, the Amish, Afghanis, and social peoples subject to separation over wide distances … not urban sprawl. And who can resist a nod to Havelock Ellis’ discussion of the proclivities of medieval Swedes?

#23 Comment By Naturalmom On January 25, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

I don’t know about the historical trends over time, but this puts me in mind of how surprised I was to find that out-of-wedlock conception was quite common in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s in a small town in Maine (then part of the Massachusetts.) This according to the diary of the town midwife who took note of such things.

#24 Comment By Leo Ladenson On January 25, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

“More to the point however, I think this article tends to dovetail with and reinforce Steven Pinker’s thesis that Western Civilization has become markedly less violent over the centuries”

Pinker’s thesis is progressive rubbish:


#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 25, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

One difference is the large number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies that led to marriage.

Puritan New England had a lot of these, and treated them much more leniently, especially if the man and woman involved were “pre-contract,” i.e., publicly and legally committed to marry, but not yet married.

Victorian society did reimpose a lot of sexual mores, in reaction to the licentiousness of the 18th century, but not with entire success. The upper class had affairs as a matter of course, the lower classes were beyond social opprobrium, leaving the middle class actually trying to adhere to strict standards.

#26 Comment By JustMe On January 25, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

,Pinker’s thesis is progressive rubbish:

Leo, you linked to an essay-long whine about how it upsets the author that Pinker argued that medieval Europe was less violent than modern Europe. It spent several paragraphs on dressing up just one kernel of quantitative interest, that increased population is among the very young and very old, who are less likely to commit violence… a quantitative kernel that he doesn’t go on to analyze to see how valid it is, because my guess is that the author didn’t do any work or analysis to see how valid the claim is as a reply to Pinker’s work.

Instead the argument the author makes is a cultural one: that he’s offended that someone made a “progressive” argument that the present is better than the past and that the future might be better than the present. Well, I acknowledge the author’s discomfort, but we aren’t a self-esteem society to make conservatives feel better about themselves just because a cognitive scientist wrote something that makes him feel bad.

#27 Comment By JonF On January 25, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

Siarlys: For purposes of inheritance a marriage would even legitimize children long since born. And in the Middle Ages there was a way to legitimize bastard (can I use that word?) children even without marriage, albeit available only to the really rich and well-connected. But the Tudors owed their tenuous claim to the fact that John of Gaunt (a son of Edward III) had legitimzed his children by his commoner mistress. Henry VIII even toyed with raising his bastard son Henry Fitzroy to the throne after him by this ploy (the boy died fairly young though, quashing the plan)

Something else: promiscuity and prudery seem to go in cycles. The Renaissance was notably licentious, followed by the Puritan era reaction (and yes, there was a reaction in Catholic Europe too). The days of Gin Lane and the Regency decadence were followed by the Victorian Age. Also, there may have been draconian laws on the books but how much were they enforced? In many cases I think they were symbolic only, or used only when the rulers really, really wanted to throw the books at someone, like the Knights Templar, accused of everything from sodomy to sorcery to ritual cannibalism.

#28 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 26, 2012 @ 12:37 am

JonF, you are certainly correct about the many ways of legitimizing bastards, provided daddy had sufficient influence and immunity. However, the Tudor claim was via legitimation of the offspring of Henry V’s widow’s children via her non-marital liaison with Owen Tudor — needless to say, after Henry’s death. Henry IV claimed legitimate descent from John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, but had to press his claims by rebelling against Richard II, his first cousin once removed, who was directly descended from Edward III’s oldest son, who died before inheriting the throne. The Yorkists claimed descent from an older younger brother — younger than Richard’s father, The Black Prince, and older than John of Gaunt. Henry VI legitimated his Tudor half-siblings, and Henry VII came to the throne because there was nobody else in line ready to challenge Richard III, son of the Duke of York…

With all that dynastic stuff going on, we can be sure there was plenty of fooling around as well.

#29 Comment By Thomas On January 26, 2012 @ 8:47 am

The good news is that this has NOT been a permanent change in behaviour. In the pre-Thatcher 20th century, British illegitimacy was consistently under 10%.

…just something for the Chronicles-types, who appear to think that morality is in permanent decline, to consider.

#30 Comment By Stef On January 26, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

Robert: how much contraception did 18th-century man and woman have available?

People in the 18th century had a fair number of means available to them. The most common was withdrawal. The French birth rate dropped like a brick in the mid- to late 18th century, largely because of withdrawal. Rome demanded that French clerics quiz people in confession, to see if they were using coitus interruptus; many French clergy refused. John Noonan talks about this in his book Contraception.

While withdrawal wasn’t sure-fire, it’s important to distinguish 18th c. standards of “efficacy” with ours. We consider even one mis-timed pregnancy to be a disaster; the 18th c. French were content to have four or five children instead of ten or twelve.

Another common method was the sponge soaked in lemon juice or vinegar, which probably worked as well as (or better) than withdrawal.

Another method was douching with an acidic or caustic solution. (This was used up till the 1920s, 1930s.) Something like a weak lye or other caustic douche probably worked not so much by killing sperm as by damaging the cervix.

#31 Comment By JonF On January 26, 2012 @ 6:25 pm


Catherine of Valois’ eyebrow-raising marriage to Owen Tudor (a serving man of the late Henry V) gave the Tudors a connection to the French royal house. Their descent from the English monarchy came from Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt via the legitimized illegitmate offspring mentioned above.