Readers of Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution shouldn’t expect a titillating yarn. In fact the author says researching his book was more amusing than arousing. 

“I found a manuscript by Jeremy Bentham, who was not only the greatest English-speaking philosopher of the 18th century, but also a funny commentator about sexual prohibitions,” Dabhoiwala said during a phone interview. “Bentham catalogued the various sexual aids that existed in his time. He wasn’t just a stuffy philosopher.”

Of course, Dabhoiwala’s book isn't a mere romp in yesteryear's bedsheets. His research uncovered details that were both hilarious and horrific, which he further explains below.

Aside from Benthams sex toy inventory, what other funny details did you come across while researching Origins?
My favorite line about the new attitude to sex in the 18th century was written by the poet John Wilks, in which he says: "Life can little more supply / than just a few good f*cks, and then we die." That’s actually quite profound. It’s not just about sex being a good thing. He’s talking about how difficult life can be, and how important pleasure is.

Those funnier passages offer some much needed comic relief from Origins grislier details. 
That is the hidden story that most people don’t know about, that until very recently the Western world was very restrictive about sex, making all sex outside of marriage illegal. The West’s current sexual freedom is a recent creation of the Enlightenment. So, all these stories from centuries and centuries of punishment, before the 18th century, make your hair stand on end.

Which of those incidents upset you the most? 
People were flogged, exiled, and sometimes executed. There was this one story about Susan Bounty, who is probably the last person to be executed in England for adultery, in 1654. She was pregnant when she was condemned, and begged for the judge’s mercy. So they let her live on in prison for a few more weeks. Then they took the baby from her, paraded her through the street, and killed her. 

What can modern readers learn from such cases? 
Sexual privacy, and the right to do what you want with you own body, is a very fragile, modern victory. And we shouldn’t take it for granted.

In Origins first chapter you write that such harsh punishments for fornication are now "associated with the Sharia law  with people far away and alien in outlook. Yet until quite recently  our own culture was like this too.” Can that reminder help prevent Westerners from becoming too judgmental?
Well, it’s … (Pauses). I would like to be respectful of other cultures. When The Guardian published a long excerpt of my book, I was shocked to see people Tweeting about it across North Africa and the Middle East, drawing parallels between it and what’s going on in their own societies. I don’t think Western sexual culture is superior in every regard. But I do think it’s better to have a society where people are free to do what they like with their bodies, rather than having old people decide it for young people, or men deciding it for women. 

What gave you that outlook? The bio on your website says you grew up in Amsterdam  did that have any impact on your writing of Origins?
Amsterdam's a wonderfully rich and tolerant place. What I remember most is being brought up there and taking for granted certain ways of living and behaving. Then I remember moving back to England during the heyday of Mrs. Thatcher, and her introduction of new laws against homosexuality. That was a striking contrast. So I’ve had an interest in sexual politics, and I’ve been sensitive to those politics, ever since. 

See Faramerz Dabhoiwala this Sunday (Mar 15) at the Bookworm International Literary Festival, which kicks off today.

Photos: Faramerz Dabhoiwala

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