New history and philosophy books show how love and sex have become awkward bedfellowsby Hephzibah Anderson / March 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Love couple in studio (Two Nudes), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938): “we have misplaced the human element of love”
One Tuesday 400 years ago, an unwed man and woman stood before magistrates in Westminster. They’d had sex together, it was alleged. He denied it; she, having given birth to a bastard child, confessed. A jury found both Robert Watson and Susan Perry guilty. Judges sentenced them to be stripped from the waist up and tied to a cart, then whipped all the way to Temple Bar some two miles away. From there, they would be banished from London, severing them from their homes, families and livelihoods. It is not known what became of their baby.
True and far from unique, this 17th-century story opens historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s first book, The Origins of Sex (Allen Lane). We’ve come a long way since then. Consenting adults are largely free to have sex with whomever they please, however they please, whenever they please. A child born out of wedlock is no longer stigmatised. Yet are we really so liberated? The permissiveness of our era can feel like its own form of restrictiveness—we can take any attitude to sex except not wanting it. It has become hard to tune out pop culture’s sexualised clamour, where everything from tweens’ T-shirts to The Archers is sexed up.
The more casual we become about sex, the tighter we cling to an idealised view of love. Love embodies the mystery that sex held before we threw open the bedroom door. We await that transformative “spark,” deferring those three enchanted words “I love you” with the same heated anticipation and trepidation once reserved for sex. But even love has come under attack. In banishing religion from our intimate affairs over the past century, we’ve let science in, neutering and depersonalising our passions by explaining them away as biological urges over which we have no real control. We have misplaced the human element of love.
The story of how we got here and where this leaves us now is the subject of a new crop of books. In the first, Dabhoiwala, a senior fellow in history at Exeter College, Oxford, describes how the English-speaking world journeyed from an essentially medieval attitude to “a new openness about sex” between 1600 and 1800. This, he declares, was the first sexual revolution.