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

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  344 ratings  ·  55 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 483 pages
Published May 1st 2012 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published February 2nd 2012)
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There's a pernicious assumption visible in a lot of modern treatments of sex and gender relations, which boils down to the following idea: that men want sex, and will pursue it aggressively, while women want love and have to fend off men's sexual advances until they get it – at which point sex may be offered as a sort of reward. This nonsense underlies everything from chick flicks to Apatowesque bromantic comedies, from advertising to political debates, from song lyrics to prizewinning novels, a ...more
Jun 13, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pub-2012
This book is an excellent ice-breaker on the public transport. Trust me on this one. No one will talk to you about the book you’re reading on the bus unless it says ‘sex’ on the cover. It just really does bring the teenage boy out of everyone.

The book itself is not as dirty as an average schoolboy’s mind but there are a few really juicy anecdotes to spice up its academic tone. Dabhoiwala presents us with a thesis that the first sexual revolution happened a couple of hundred years before the 1960
Let's see if we can divide that blurb into more palatable chunks.

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?

The Origins of Sex is full of
The conversational tone and the thematic structure of this book made me read it in one day. The book is basically about attitudes towards sex before Western modern times and how those attitudes changed with what Faramerz Dabhoiwala calls 'The First Sexual Revolution' which lead to the Victorian model of sexual morality. ...more
Dec 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
I thought this book was very interesting -- although I didn't necessarily agree with all of Dabhoiwala's claims -- trying to stake out A moment when defining changes in the perception, regulation and portrayal of sex took place seems problematic to me, given the ups and downs and infinite variety of those things throughout history. Nevertheless, the portrayal of so many fascinating phenomena of the 17th and 18th centuries in England -- libertinism, nascent feminism, the cult of celebrity prostit ...more
Jul 23, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sexuality
This was an absolutely fascinating read by a historian who definitely knows his period. The sheer volume of sources, primary and secondary alike, is almost overwhelming - there are pages upon pages of notes, many referring to manuscripts and other archive material. But the book isn't just well-researched, it's also extremely well-written. I read it relatively quickly, entertained and amused as well as enlightened.

Some of the elements of this first 'sexual revolution' were familiar to me: the mov
Mar 09, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
‘The Origins of Sex’ is an absolutely fascinating account of how British views on sex evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries, transforming sexual discussion, behaviour, and law to an incredible extent. The book synthesises a huge amount of material and picks out particular factors, relating to religion, the economy, politics, and technology, that contributed to the changes. The author sees the sexual revolution as a critical part of the Enlightenment. Prior to this, women were assumed to exp ...more
Feb 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
The title of this one, provided by netgalley, is a bit misleading, but the subtitle is not. This is an absolutely fascinating study in sexual etiquette, power, society and, well, so much else, that it's almost too much to take in.

If you picked this one up hoping for a lascivious bit of smut-tastic "history" with lots of juicy anecdotes, then you'll probably be disappointed. This really is a serious, but accessible, study in all things sexual, and how we evolved from medieval attitudes towards mo
Roman Clodia
Mar 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a sweeping historical analysis that argues for a distinctive moment in which the modern so-called `permissive society' was born - post-1688 and before c.1800. As other reviewers have pointed out, this book concentrates almost solely on Britain and ties this `revolution' to distinctively British events such as the Reformation, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It does rather, then, beg the question of why other European countries, both Protestant and Catholic, offer similar general mov ...more
Apr 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012, sex
This book caught my eye when Nick Stibbs read and commented on it. I bought it and about 30 pages into it, asked myself, “Hey why are you reading yet another book on human sexuality? Is it really going to offer up a new idea? Come on now!’ I spent most of my time in graduate school researching and reading on this topic and recently books of this nature have helped me get to sleep at night! However, Mr. Dabhoiwala surprised me! About midway through the book he began to present new analyses regard ...more
Nick Stibbs
Apr 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book, which has an academic flavour, takes a journey through the 17th, 18th and 19th century, exploring how Enlightenment thinkers tussled with Puritan reformers, to etch out the sexual mores of post-Reformation England. Whilst we might think the battle was won by those on the more libertarian end of the spectrum, we can observe echoes of anti-prostitution campaigns in such contemporary movements such as Stop the Traffik, which share much of the fervour initiated by liberal Christian reform ...more
Karan Nagarajan
Jan 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
"The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off."

"‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was t
Oliver Brackenbury
Nov 03, 2014 rated it liked it
A thorough text, this is both a strength and a weakness. About a third in I felt compelled to put it down for several weeks as there was a frustrating habit to repeat/reinforce information past the point of necessity, making reading a bit of a slog at times.

And yet, when I came back to the book I appreciated the level of detail as it helped me draw the intended lines between The Enlightenment and today, as well as adding color. So who knows, this could have just been an issue of mood on my part.
Nov 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Very interesting history of how Western/English speaking parts of the world's attitudes have changed towards sex during the Enlightenment. It was a very packed history book that took a while for me to finish, because there was so much to uncover. ...more
Lynne King
Mar 04, 2015 rated it really liked it
An excellent book. I cannot possibly write such an excellent review as Warwick did.

See link:

and go and buy the book!
Mrs. Elaine
Mar 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I found it to be accurate and thought provoking. I could see how some found it more scholarly than easy reading. I had to use Google more than once! The author has a habit of making a statement about something during the 18th century then backtracking for as much as a page or 2 to explain how those thoughts took root in the 17th century then picking back up with the 18th century. I found that somewhat confusing at first. At times the author seemed deliberately pro ...more
Feb 26, 2017 rated it liked it
'The Origin of Sex' is a misleading title. Clearly, to claim that sex originated in the 1700s is equally as absurd a claim as that it originated in 1968. Yet the this misleading title must have generated a great part of its huge publicity.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala's book is best read as a study of 17th and 18th century attitudes towards sex. Adultery was originally perceived as a matter of public concern (with culprits being whipped or punished in other ways) and only later it began to be seen more a
Christina (A Reader of Fictions)
Mar 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley
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 perha
Henk-Jan van der Klis
In The Origins of Sex, dr. Faramerz Dabhoiwala (fellow & tutor in history, Exeter College Oxford) provides a thorough study on the origins of sexuality in our modern Western culture. For millennia, sex had been strictly regulated by the Church, the state, and society. Until the 17th century harsh punishments were given to men and women that had sex outside of marriage. But by the 19th century everything had changed. And for us, 21st century westerners sexuality is so woven into our culture, lite ...more
Feb 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Brian by: the economist
(4.0) The 'sexual revolution' from 17th century up to Victorian England

Reviews and description seemed to suggest a more broad treatment of sexuality in society, but turns out it's almost exclusively about England. That's fine, but should've been able to see that earlier. The book tackles a few perspectives on sexuality and trace them through the transition from the 17th century through mid-19th century (at times touching on 20th).

We see how marriage begins as completely controlled by the church,
Joseph Sverker
I must say that this is historical writing at its best. Dabhoiwala takes a concept, such as the sexual revolution, that we think is very recent and shows that it has a long history, even back to the 17th century. He argues very convincingly that sexual liberty was in a strange way linked with the call out for religious liberty. Sometimes they were directly connected, but only rarely. It was more a way of thinking that came with the Enlightenment - the growing trust in reason as guide and the ind ...more
Jonathan Jeckell
This book was richly scattered with historical quotes and footnotes that demonstrated the author did a lot of work researching this book. Unfortunately, at times it read like reading the notes pages. These quotes and the context he added illuminated the varying attitudes by people (in England) throughout history, albeit heavily skewed towards elites.

A couple of insights I got from this book: At some point during the 1700's the blame of promiscuity flipped from women to men, with the popular bel
Steve Scott
This was a well researched book that digs into the history of the first sexual revolution.

Dabhoiwala makes a good argument that the Enlightenment and the decline of religious power, along with the spread of print media in its various forms, brought huge changes in how society looked at sex. He outlines the 16th and 17th century traditions of state and church imposed sexual discipline. These mandated punishments for fornication, adultery, prostitution, and sodomy. Within a hundred years the stan
Lynette Twaddle
This always seems a bit of an odd book to have read: to be honest title doesn't help, especially when you borrow it from the library. However, once you have mastered your blushes and borrowed/brought your copy be prepared for an interesting read.

While the book p reports from its title to look at sex through time, it begins with recorded time, with the middle ages and other earlier periods opening the main argument of the book, lumped into the same period. Here we see the small mindedness of reli
Jan 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
By turns intriguing and disturbing. How did society's (read English society) attitude towards sex change so much in 200 years? When did public and private switch? How did women change from being perceived as sexual predators to sexual prey?
I found the section dealing with seduction the most difficult to read. Extracts from Samuel Pepy's diary detailing his pursuit of a business partner's wife is difficult to read through a 21st century woman's eyes. This is not seduction. She is not a willing pa
I just started this book a few days ago. The author, Faramerz Dabhoiwala, focuses on 17th century societal changes in attitude and law calling it the 'first sexual revolution.' The writing is clear, concise and has a compelling narrative style.

The book is published by the Oxford University Press, which offers a webpage on the book with three short YouTube interviews with the author here:

I bought the e-book from Barnes & Noble.
Seán Ó Séaghdha
Jun 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
A fascinating look at the radical change in attitudes to sex in England from the late 17th century onwards.

A good mix of anecdote and thesis, though at times it did feel there could have been more of the thesis in there. It's good to be reminded what a radical change widespread printing produced and the parallels with the rise of the Internet are so obvious that they don't need to be (and aren't) stated. The obsession with celebrity is also startlingly modern. I'll bet many people in early 18th
Jenny Boyce
Aug 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book was very lengthy and in-depth. The author definitely knows a lot about the topic- and is obviously very knowledgeable of European history in general.

At times, mostly at the beginning, this book was a little dry and intimidating but it definitely gets easier to read as the book progresses.

I enjoyed this book- it took me a little bit to read but was definitely worth it. I feel like I learned a lot!
Nov 24, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: sex
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Kind of disappointing in that it was totally confined to 17th and 18th century England. The epilogue at the end was very good but the time of the English Revolution and Charles II is just really not that interesting as far as a Sexual Revolution is concerned. I think there was a whole bunch of stuff going on in France, Europe, and the US at the time.
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Faramerz Dabhoiwala is a professor of history at Oxford University and writes about the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the English-speaking world since 1500. He is the author of The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (Penguin).

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