The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England
This article surveys the current literature on the histories of eighteenth-century British demography, the family and affect, pornography, sexuality and gender, and argues that they are superficially contradictory. It suggests that demography and the histories of the family, affect and pornography present a liberationist narrative in which relations between men and women became more emotionally fulfilling, leading to more reproductive sex. This is juxtaposed to the literature on gender and women’s history, which depicts the period as characterized by an increasingly rigid and rigidly policed series of gender stereotypes and roles. The article goes on to suggest that these apparently incompatible narratives can be understood as a part of a changing physical culture of sex that increasingly restricted sexual contact to penetrative sex, and excluded previously common forms of non-reproductive sex including mutual masturbation. The article concludes that this changing culture of sex was driven by a shift in the origins of sexual knowledge from an oral tradition which emphasized pleasure, to a print culture that encouraged a pro-natal understanding of sexual behavior.