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A Reader of Fictions: Let's Talk About Sex - Salt 'n' Pepa

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Friday, May 4, 2012

Let's Talk About Sex - Salt 'n' Pepa

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution

Author: Faramerz Dabhoiwala
Pages: 364 (main text)
ARC Acquired from: Oxford University Press via NetGalley

Description from Goodreads:
A man admits that, when drunk, he tried to have sex with an eighteen-year-old girl; she is arrested and denies they had intercourse, but finally begs God's forgiveness. Then she is publicly hanged alongside her attacker. These events took place in 1644, in Boston, where today they would be viewed with horror. How--and when--did such a complete transformation of our culture's attitudes toward sex occur? 

In The Origins of Sex, Faramerz Dabhoiwala provides a landmark history, one that will revolutionize our understanding of the origins of sexuality in modern Western culture. For millennia, sex had been strictly regulated by the Church, the state, and society, who vigorously and brutally attempted to punish any sex outside of marriage. But by 1800, everything had changed. Drawing on vast research--from canon law to court cases, from novels to pornography, not to mention the diaries and letters of people great and ordinary--Dabhoiwala shows how this dramatic change came about, tracing the interplay of intellectual trends, religious and cultural shifts, and politics and demographics. The Enlightenment led to the presumption that sex was a private matter; that morality could not be imposed; that men, not women, were the more lustful gender. Moreover, the rise of cities eroded community-based moral policing, and religious divisions undermined both church authority and fear of divine punishment. Sex became a central topic in poetry, drama, and fiction; diarists such as Samuel Pepys obsessed over it. In the 1700s, it became possible for a Church of Scotland leader to commend complete sexual liberty for both men and women. Arguing that the sexual revolution that really counted occurred long before the cultural movement of the 1960s, Dabhoiwala offers readers an engaging and wholly original look at the Western world's relationship to sex. 

Deeply researched and powerfully argued, The Origins of Sex is a major work of history.

First Sentence: "We could start anywhere in the British Isles, on any date almost from the dawn of recorded history to the later seventeenth century."

No matter how fascinating the topic, I always approach nonfiction skeptically. While some is well-written and engaging, it sometimes seems the authors are intentionally trying to put their readers, mostly luckless students, directly to sleep. Much as I love sleep, I can generally manage it just fine on my own, so I have no interest in such tomes. Thankfully, the writing of The Origins of Sex, while highly scholarly, is also pretty readable so far as serious scholarship goes.

What strikes me perhaps most of all, having read this book, is how little progress we have actually made as a culture with regards to sex. Sure, we went through a sexual revolution and all of that, and we definitely see ourselves as being way more open to sex than our antecedents, but this just isn't the case. I mean, the idea, which is most definitely still pervasive, that women don't have as much of a sexual drive as men do, for example, stems from the mid eighteenth century. Prior to that point, women were believed to be lusty tempters, like Eve. Really the only real difference lies in the treatment/place of women in society, but that's not too different in all countries, and it doesn't apply much to the sexual realm for many.

It should be noted that Dabhoiwala is speaking specifically to the development of opinions of sex in Europe. The discussion is, in fact, limited almost exclusively to Britain. However, the thought there obviously impacts the United Stated quite a bit. I'm not sure how helpful this would be to completely different cultures, except perhaps to get people thinking about their own cultures treatment of sex throughout the ages.

Scholarship may not be your thing (honestly, it's usually not mine either), but there are some seriously shocking facts in here, as well as some facts I'm just going to store away. The focus is definitely on the treatment of women with regards to sex, so I definitely recommend this to feminists. Now, just so you can see how entertaining history can be, I'm going to share a couple of fun facts with you about special 'masculine sex clubs':
"One of its most vigorous proponents, the politician Sir Francis Dashwood, founded several libertine societies. At the centre of his estate he built a temple to Venus, landscaped to resemble a gigantic vagina."
"Even more remarkable was a much humbler club called 'the Beggar's Benison,' which from the 1730s onwards spread from the east coast of Scotland to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and as far afield as St. Petersburg in Russia. Its members met regularly to drink, talk about sex, exchange bawdy jokes and songs, and read pornography. They paid young women to strip and display themselves naked. Their central purpose was to compare penises and masturbate in front of one another, singly and together, in elaborate rights of phallic celebration."
"In the United Kingdom it is now legal for a man to brand his wife on the buttocks with a red hot iron during sex."
Men are WEIRD. What blows my mind most is that there were so many societies doing this. And they had accoutrements. It's like they thought they were a special phallus religion. Gross. As for the last, what I want to know is can the woman brand him? If not, that is RUDE. These are just a couple of historical goodies you can learn in The Origins of Sex.

I found this to be an entirely enlightening read, and recommend it highly to anyone interested in scholarship on the history of opinions on sex. It will definitely make you question some of our modern thoughts, as you realize that they're not really modern at all.

Rating: 4/5

"Let's talk about sex, baby"

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Blogger Lilian said...

Now this is a book I admittedly won't read in physical form in public.

"Prior to that point, women were believed to be lusty tempters, like Eve. Really the only real difference lies in the treatment/place of women in society"
Now that made me want to re-analyze several classics, such as the Scarlet Letter and re-evalutate my thoughts on Hester Prynne being a seducer.

And I wonder if woman have the same sexual drive and it's just that we are just less inclined to demonstrate it for it's what's expected of us.

But it does sound like one intriguing read, though I would love if it encompassed other cultures as well.

Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

May 4, 2012 at 9:34 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

I would totally have read this in physical form in public, but I didn't because I had an e-galley. Still, I'd be all look how smart and non-prudish I am!

Personally, I think sexual drive varies a lot from individual to individual. I definitely think that as a whole, the genders probably have fairly similar sexual drives, but women aren't ruled by it so much and aren't as obvious in their arousal, so it's an easy assumption to make that men are more lusty.

It would have been cool if the book had covered other cultures, but it would have been MASSIVE. There are some references to doings in other parts of the world, but more as a comparison than anything else.

May 4, 2012 at 9:53 AM  

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