An eye-opening, readable survey of changing attitudes toward sex and sexuality—and its regulation—from the mid-15th to the end of the 18th century.
Naphy (School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy/Univ. of Aberdeen, UK; Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality, not reviewed) divides forbidden sex acts into the illegal and the unnatural, putting into the first category acts with the potential for procreation (fornication by the unmarried, adultery, bigamy, rape, violent sexual assault, prostitution) and into the second nonprocreative acts (homosexuality, sadism, child abuse, bestiality, sex with demons). Historically, ensuring paternity—and inheritance and family honor—was essential, and therefore so was controlling female sexuality, and to that end came about the promotion of premarital chastity and sanctions against sex outside of marriage. Naphy has scoured court records, finding scores of cases illustrating the different ways courts in different times and places regarded specific behaviors, the means they used to obtain information, the weight they gave to individual circumstances, and the sentences they imposed. A double standard was common: conviction of adultery might well mean death by drowning for a woman but a jail sentence or time in the stocks for a man. Especially absorbing are Naphy’s discussion of prostitution and the conflicting notions about its role in society; his examination of sexual deviance; and the shifts in attitudes toward homosexual behavior, both male and female. It is also interesting to see that earlier courts faced many of the same difficulties—protecting the rights of both parties, say—as today’s courts do when taking evidence in cases involving children. Readers may find the bestiality section the most bizarre, with cases involving sex with cows and horses and accounts of satanic rituals. What’s clear from Naphy’s report is that attitudes may shift about what’s right and what’s wrong, but sex in its many forms is here to stay.
Scholarly, yet also bright and bawdy. (16 pages of some astonishing b&w illustrations)