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, literature, television programmes, ads en ethics, that most of us even think about alternatives.
Dabhoiwala has done a lot of research from laws, court cases, novels, pornography, history, paintings and diaries and letters, that illustrate the changing opinions on sexuality.
The most basic modern novelty was a perennial indeterminacy about the limits of sexual freedom. In place of a relatively coherent, authoritative world view that had endured for centuries, the Enlightenment left a much greater confusion and plurality of moral perspectives, with irresolvable tensions between them. At a basic level, attitudes after 1800 evolved in two contrasting ways. On the one hand we can trace continued, or even tightened, social control over various forms of sexual behaviour. Though the machinery of public punishment had been largely abandoned, its ideals were not. Against this backdrop of apparent national decline and social upheaval, the importance of religious faith and of social conservatism came to be widely reaffirmed: only by going back to basics would the nation find its way again. For women of all classes, sexual ignorance and passivity came increasingly to be valued as essential components of respectable femininity and heterosexual love. This was not just a male ideal: most women themselves deeply internalized it, and policed it in others. Just as important, especially in the English context, was the further development of social double standards. Regulating, controlling, and forcibly improving the sexual mores of the working classes became in the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, an immense fixation for many middle- and upper-class politicians, commentators, and social reformers.
The ultimate legacy of the Enlightenment has thus been far from straightforward, and its consequences are still unfolding. Yet in retrospect it is easy to see that it marked the point at which the sexual culture of the west diverged onto a completely new trajectory. If anything, the characteristics of that culture - its individualism, its explicitness, its permissiveness, the equal status claimed by women and by homosexuals - have become more distinctive in recent decades, even as the world has grown smaller. They have also been widely influential: just as western feminism has had an impact across the globe, so too have western concepts of sexual freedom.