5/22/12 - the origins of sex

In today's excerpt - in Britain and America, in the not-too-distant past, sex and childbirth outside of marriage led to imprisonment, punishment, banishment, or in some cases death:

"We could start anywhere in the British Isles, on any date almost from the dawn of recorded history to the later seventeenth century. But let's pick Westminster, on the bank of the Thames. It is Tuesday, 10 March 1612. If we hurry into the town's courthouse, we shall find its magis­trates in session, dealing with a routine criminal case. An unmarried man and woman have been arrested and brought before them. They are accused of having had sex together. The woman confesses. The man denies it. It does not take long to decide their fate. They are put on trial before a jury of men, interrogated, and found guilty. Their punishment reflects the heinousness of their crime: not only did they have sex, they have brought into the world a bastard child. For this, Susan Perry and Robert Watson are to be cut off from their homes, their friends, their families, their livelihoods—to be forever expelled from the society in which they live. The judges order them to be taken directly

to the prison of the Gatehouse; and both of them to be stripped naked from the waist upwards; and so tied to the cart's tail and to be whipped from the Gatehouse in Westminster unto Temple Bar; and then and there to be pres­ently banished from the city.

"What happened to their baby is not recorded.

"Sexual intercourse is a universal human practice. Yet sex also has a history. How we think about it, what meanings we invest in it, how we treat it as a society—all these things differ greatly across time and place. For most of western history the public punishment of men and women like Robert Watson and Susan Perry was a normal event. Sometimes they were treated more harshly, sometimes less, but all sex outside marriage was illegal, and the church, the state, and ordinary people devoted huge efforts to suppressing and punishing it. It seemed obvious that illicit relations angered God, prevented salvation, dam­aged personal relations, and undermined social order.

"Nobody seriously disagreed with this, even if men and women regularly gave way to temptation and had to be flogged, imprisoned, fined, and shamed, in order to remind them. Though the details varied from place to place, every European society promoted the ideal of sexual discipline and punished people for consensual non-marital sex. So did their colonial off-shoots, in North America and elsewhere. This was a central feature of Christian civilization, one that had steadily grown in importance since the early middle ages. In Britain alone by the early seventeenth century, thousands of men and women suffered the con­sequences every year. Sometimes, as we shall see, they were even put to death.

"Nowadays we regard such practices with repugnance. We associate them with the Taliban, with Sharia law, with people far away and alien in outlook. Yet until quite recently, until the Enlightenment, our own culture was like this too. This was one of the main differences between the pre-modern and the modern world. The emergence of modern attitudes to sex in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centu­ries therefore constituted a great revolution. The aim of this book is to explain how it came about."


Faramerz Dabhoiwala


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


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2012 by Faramerz Dabhoiwala


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