Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #276 Hitchcock 2012 The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England

Full citation: 

Hitchcock, Tim. 2012. "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England" in Signs vol. 37, no. 4 823-832.

* * *

Hitchcock starts from a demographic observation and works to build a picture of the social and historic context that may have motivated that demographic fact.

Over the course of the 18th century, the age at first marriage dropped significantly, bastardy rates increased threefold, the proportion of marriages celebrated after the bride became pregnant increased to a third of the total, and the percentage of the population who never married dropped significantly. (Also, as a consequence of the combination of these, there was a rise in population.) Hitchcock posits that collectively these facts suggest an overall change in sexual behavior. To explore the nature of that change, he examines changes in social attitudes towards marriage and the family, the history of pornography and libertinism, and women’s and gender history.

This change in sexual behavior can be summed up as: an increase in penetrative, heterosexual sex, i.e., the sexual activity resulting in pregnancy. That simple observation is hard to refute, but an explanation is more difficult to identify.

One change over the long 18th century was the concept of “companionate marriage”, that is, the idea that marriage should be a partnership between two people who came together out of affection as well as economic necessity or family imperatives. Another developing concept during the same period was the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the idea that the purpose of both society and the family was production, whether of goods or of children.

These two shifts can be seen reflected in literature, both in novels and in pornography. The libertine novels of the period reflect a more individualized, interiorized experience of sexual desire, and the ability to separate desire from its social context. More sexual desire leads to more sex leads to more babies. (To oversimplify.)

This theory would appear to be in conflict with the findings of women’s and gender history, which views the same period as a time of shifting from a domestic economy to a factory-based one, resulting in a loss of female social power, with a consequent increasing repression of women. [Note: it seems naive to me to view an increased focus on (male) sexual pleasure and desire, combined with repression and loss of power by women, as having some sort of inherent conflict.]

As detailed in Laqueur’s work, another shift in process at the time was of the understandings of male and female bodies and their role in sex and reproduction, including a loss of the belief that female sexual pleasure was necessary for procreation. This resulted in a more sharp delineation between concepts of the sexes (the “two gender system”) and the belief that female sexual pleasure was unnecessary.

This, Hitchcock suggests, creates a clear dichotomy between “a liberationist narrative” (more sexually explicit literature, emphasis on sentiment) and a “repressive narrative” (increased gender policing and differentiation of the roles of the sexes). This apparent conflict, he suggests, can be resolved by tracing the physical culture of sexual practice.

Sex is not a single, simple behavior but a set of complex behaviors with multiple purposes, including masturbation, penetrative (heterosexual) sex, oral sex, and sodomy. Typical sexual behavior at the beginning of the 18th century (and here Hitchcock is talking about heterosexual behavior) included significant amounts of mutual masturbation, kissing and fondling, extended non-penetrative erotic play, and relatively little p-in-v sex, especially before marriage, but also within marriage. The boundaries around what “counted as sex” were fuzzy. Coitus interruptus was also practiced commonly as a birth control measure, as well as abortion if that failed.

Overall, this resulted in the observed relatively lower birth rate and low bastardy rate. The sexual economy actively worked to control and manage reproduction but did not strictly police non-reproductive activity. This system required women to have significant power to negotiate sexual activity. It also involved many types of sexual behavior that later generations came to associate with homosexuality (both male and female).

The latter half of the 18th century came to emphasize a phallocentric view of sex in which all non-penetrative activities were at best “foreplay”. Popular culture reflects an obsession with the penis and with a single purpose for it. This shift in focus--including a de-emphasis on non-procreative sexual activity--would have the effect of increasing pregnancy rates, and with pregnancy as a driver of marriage, it would lead to more common and earlier marriages among sexually active couples.

The shift in belief to the irrelevance of female orgasm in procreation plays a complementary role, and could play a part in women’s decreased negotiating power within sexual relationships. With men now being viewed as the sex with the stronger sex drive (where women had previously been viewed as the more “sexually uncontrolled” gender), women could only be “protected” from male sexual advances by constraining their public exposure.

None of this represents any sort of scientific proof of the causes of the demographic shift, but it shows how multiple apparently unrelated cultural changes can be shown to align. Not all people would be exposed to the same cultural changes, e.g., literary or medical texts. Can a broad-based change in sexual knowledge be traced during the 18th century?

Around 1700, sexual knowledge was transmitted primarily by individual word of mouth, with each generation controlling what the next learned. When control of reproduction was prioritized, so was the knowledge of non-procreative sexual practices. But with the rise of popular printed literature, including sexual literature, attitudes could be influenced widely by the dissemination of sexual ideas.

One genre that took root during the 18th century was anti-masturbation literature, establishing in the popular mind the myth that masturbation (especially by men) resulted in medical and psychiatric ills--a myth that persisted into the 20th century. A parallel role was played by popularly-oriented sex manuals aimed at married couples, such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece: or, the Secrets of Generation Displayed in All the Parts Thereof (1684). These works focused strongly on procreation as the goal of sex and promoted sexual behaviors that would lead to pregnancy.

Hitchcock finishes with what I consider to be an entirely too cursory assertion that these changes in sexual culture are also reflected in the 18th century histories of homosexuality. If there was, indeed, a sea change in heterosexual sex culture in the 18th century, it should also be reflected in homosexual sex culture.

In the case of lesbians, he asserts, this appears as a change from a culture dominated by cross-dressing to one focused on romantic friendship and a decline of a “butch-femme” dichotomy. Similarly, he asserts, male homosexual culture saw the rise of an emphasis on effeminate behavior and “molly culture”, along with the rise of popular homophobia. A phallocentric sex culture concerned with reproduction found sodomy and effeminacy uniquely threatening.

The problem I have with this last section of the article is that it oversimplifies the actual historic trends and ignores recurring cycles that undermine the desired conclusion. (I have a hard time taking seriously the assertion that English lesbian culture ca. 1700 was characterized by a cross-dressing butch-femme culture, even if one is using those labels to describe the “female husband” phenomenon. He even cites Donoghue 1993 as a source but hasn’t absorbed its complexity.) So overall, even though I think Hitchcock points out some interesting trends during the 18th century, I’m skeptical about the strength of his conclusions.

Time period: 
Misc tags: 

Add new comment