31 Jan 2017

Sex in the (18th century) City

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 31 January 2017
L'Instant désiré by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1770)

L'Instant désiré by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1770) Photo: Public Domain

What was sex like in 18th-century England?

It was a time when you could be hanged for homosexuality yet gentlemen had penis-shaped shrubs in their gardens.

In the 18th century, what should and shouldn’t be done sexually was (sternly) dictated by religion, Peakman says, particulary the idea of what was ‘normal’.

“There was a whole litany of days you shouldn’t have sex and ways you shouldn’t have sex.”

Most people were committed to church-going as a prerequisite for respectability so would have been well aware of the rules even before the Bible was mass-produced.

For women, chastity was prized to the extent that if you gave yours away before marriage you gave away your respectability at the same time.

Saying ‘I do’ was entering a contract for life, Peakman says, unless you were wealthy.

“You could only get divorced by an act of parliament, which essentially meant that the working classes couldn’t get divorced.”

For those who couldn’t afford legal separation there were “wife sales” in which a man would attach a halter to a woman and “sell her off” at a market.

Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson

Selling a Wife (1812–14), by Thomas Rowlandson Photo: Public Domain

These were a pre-arranged public way for a couple to mutually and symbolically separate, Peakman says, and it often enabled women to leave abusive partners.

An 18th-century portrait of Peg Plunkett

An 18th-century portrait of Peg Plunkett Photo: Public Domain

A rare voice that railed against the confines of chastity was Irish courtesan and brothel keeper Peg Plunkett – the first prostitute to write a memoir.

Peakman says Peg led a very luxurious life thanks to the many titled men she’d been with.

An essential rite-of-passage for such men of society at the time was a ‘Grand Tour’ to Italy and Greece.

When erotic artefacts were discovered in the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum - including oversized phalluses – these travelling gentlemen were inspired to take this fashion back to England.

One such aristocrat was Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe Park, who later found the notorious Hellfire Club.

“He fashioned his lake in the shape of a woman’s body, he had shrubs depicted as phalluses and erotic verses or plaques around his estate. He took a ruined abbey and made it into a meeting house where they could orgies,” Peakman says.

Sir Francis Dashwood by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Sir Francis Dashwood by Nathaniel Dance-Holland Photo: Public Domain

Julie Peakman is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Honorary Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century, A History of Perverse Sex, Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore and Amatory Pleasures.

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