Sexual intercourse began in 1763

This is the provocative title of an essay by Faramerz Dabhoiwala published in the Saturday Guardian’s review section on 21 January 2012.

He writes that in the later 18th century many had come to accept 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 (it started a long time ago!), they found support for their changing ideas in 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 scriptures.

The Oxford Don Mathew Tindal in Christianity as Old as the Creation published in 1730 ridiculed traditional sexual norms as priestly inventions, no more appropriate to a modern state than the biblical prohibitions against drinking blood or lending money. Similarly, 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”.

Changing Attitude doesn’t endorse such morality, but we offer it as a salutary lesson from history to Anglican Mainstream who are obsessed with what it thinks is a recent development, driven by LGB&T campaigners, who want new freedom for people to be licentious in unimaginable sexual activities and relationships. On the contrary, LGB&T Christian campaigners argue for the opposite – commitment, monogamy, life long fidelity. Changing Attitude knows our stance doesn’t fit with Mainstream’s prejudices.

In the 18th century the new sexual freedoms were voiced by white, upper-class men. In practice, sexual liberty was limited in important ways. 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.

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.

That sodomy has 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 published in 1749. “Every dabbler knows by his classics,” he pointed out, “that boy-love ever was the top refinement of most enlightened ages.” Jeremy Bentham, the most influential reformer of his age, defended the rights of homosexuals in countless private discussion and over many hundreds of pages of notes and treatises.

The 18th century marked the point at which the sexual culture of the west as a whole moved onto a new trajectory. By contrast, in many parts of the world, sexual ideals and practices reminiscent of pre-modern Europe continue to be upheld. Men and women remain at risk of public prosecution for having sex outside of marriage. In some countries, imprisonment, flogging and execution by hanging, or even by stoning, continues to be imposed on men and women convicted of extra-marital or homosexual relationships. Even more widespread and deep-rooted is the extra-legal persecution of men and women for such matters.

These are the same practices that sustained western culture for most of its history. They rest on very similar foundations – the theocratic authority of holy texts and holy men, intolerance of religious and social pluralism, fear of sexual freedom, and the belief that men alone should govern. How they help to maintain patriarchal social order is obvious; so too is their cost to human happiness.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex is published by Allen Lane

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