Sex was just as naughty and inventive in previous centuries as in our lifetimes, despite our perceptions of the past as often prudish, writes author Jemahl Evans. It’s just public attitudes that have changed, and changed again, over the years.
Our ancestors could be just as debauched, just as wild, just as depraved as anything our modern sensibilities can imagine. Attitudes have of course changed over the centuries, but sexual desire has most certainly not, and even historical periods or societies which superficially seem straitlaced are charged with eroticism under the surface.
The Victorian and Edwardian age is often viewed through a prism of puritan attitudes. Yet, it is a period of large scale prostitution, celebrity courtesans, widespread literary pornography, the invention of the vibrator, and a burgeoning photo and film porn industry. Just a casual glance at publications like The Pearl demonstrates just how obsessed Victorian society was with sex.
Nor was this interest confined to men. Marie Stopes’s Married Love was continuously sold out and on its sixth imprint within a fortnight of publication, proving that women were not uninterested observers in sexual relations.
This was a revelation that predictably discombobulated some men, who expected their wives to lie back and take it rather than, “behaving like a whore,” as one critic complained after his wife had read the book.
The lives of Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) or the Marquis De Sade (1740–1814) read like libertines’ handbooks. De Sade literally gave his name to the BDSM fetish scene that went mainstream with Fifty Shades of Grey. Their English contemporary John Cleland published the infamousMemoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better known as Fanny Hill) in 1748. The book became wildly popular, drawing the attention of the authorities and Cleland was charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects”. Fanny Hill was banned for two centuries, but still illegally sold and shared in tremendous numbers. Jane Austen’s polite society was a thin veneer covering a sweaty mass of sexual deviance.
It is chauvinism that defines much of our historical attitudes towards sex and sexuality. The perceived threat to masculinity that sexually liberated women presented would lead to misogynistic abuse to make even Twitter blush.
The term ‘whore’ would be thrown about at any woman who dared to challenge the patriarchy, but women still challenged those norms, expressed their sexuality, and still insulted each other for it.
Tudor and Stuart court records are full of defamation claims by women called “hedge whores” or “drunken bitch whores” by their neighbours. In 1627, Isabel Yaxley accused a neighbour of being a ‘whore’ who could be “fucked for a pennyworth of fish”, a line resurrected by Larry Grayson: “She’s anyone’s for a tin of salmon.” When I hear Year 9 girls calling each other “slags” or “skanks” in the school yard, I can console myself that they belong to a long tradition, as I march them off to detention.
The 17th century is filled with sex and bawdiness. It is after all the age when the merkin was popularised. A merkin is a pubic wig – a Tudor vajazzle – popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, when a full pubis of hair was considered healthy and desirable (oh how sexual fashions change), in an age when lice and syphilis meant pubic hair was often shaved. Recently, the actress Evan Rachel Wood took to a merkin when portraying a 1930s character in a full frontal nude scene – all this on the advice of Kate Winslett, who told her to “put a merkin on and you’ll be fine”. Pubic grooming fashions may have changed, but the merkin is still with us.
Shakespeare’s work is littered with sexual innuendo, and Restoration poets like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, could write a poem in praise of Signior Dildo. Rochester was writing for an aristocratic audience, and goes on to list notable women at court and their interest in Signior Dildo, but such attitudes were not confined to the higher echelons of society.
The trailblazing genius of Aphra Benn produced poems like The Disappointment, castigating premature ejaculation. Rochester himself would visit the theme in The Imperfect Enjoyment, but predictably laid the blame for impotence at womankind’s door.
Puritans, despite their prudish reputation, were incredibly sexually advanced for the age. They encouraged mutual sexual exploration and stressed the importance of the female orgasm, both in conception and for a happy marriage.
Attitudes to homosexuality were very different from today’s. Concepts of gender-exclusive sexuality would be completely alien to a Tudor or Stuart mind. That is not to say that both men and women in the period weren’t exclusively gay or lesbian, merely that they wouldn’t have recognised it as such.
A level of bisexuality seems almost accepted in some parts of society, as Rochester demonstrates in The Disabled Debauchee:
Nor shall our love-fits, Chloris, be forgot,
When each the well-looked link-boy strove t’enjoy,
And the best kiss was the deciding lot
Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy.
Such attitudes persisted right up until the 19th century. There is an argument that it was the Oscar Wilde trial that saw a real shift in the attitude against homosexuality as a sexual identity, rather than against the age-old sin of buggery.
Lesbianism, despite Queen Victoria apocryphally denying its existence, has been written about since Sappho (630–c570 BC). There was a proposal in 1627 in Massachusetts to make lesbianism a capital offence, and Cleland’s Fanny Hill demonstrated that people knew about female-exclusive relationships, but such relationships were less obvious than male same-sex partnerships – and less exposed to scrutiny.
All of this merely scratches the surface of sexual history. I haven’t mentioned Roman orgies, or ancient Greek attitudes to homosexuality, looked at medieval masochism and the crude lewd behaviour in Chaucer and Boccaccio.
And this article is restricted to western European culture. I could spend pages talking about the erotic temple carvings at Khajuraho. Then we have the Chinese and Japanese traditions of erotic literature and pornographic art through the past two millennia.
Quite simply, there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to humans and sex – except battery power!
Jemahl Evans is the author of the acclaimed Sir Blandford Candy series of novels. He lives in West Wales with his border collie. You can follow him @Temulkar on Twitter and on his website, jemahlevans.wixsite.com/jemahlevans
His books are currently on special offer at 99p each (Kindle edition)