We enjoy being judgmental about the sexuality of other people, criticizing what consenting adults do with each other and knowing that we ourselves are performing sexually the right way with nothing to condemn. Often we spice sexual prejudices with the additional understanding that things are getting worse and the behavior of others is getting more extreme. This is often a form of nostalgia for some sort of “good old days” when people stayed virgins until they were married and then stuck to their marriage vows afterwards. Such days are not now, and they never were. New evidence of this is in Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century (Atlantic Books) by Julie Peakman, a saucy and entertaining romp through British sexuality in just another profligate age. Peakman is a fully qualified scholar who has done prodigious research, and while this is a fine historical reference book, it will also be a fine amusement for those who are interested in styles of sexual behavior or the unchanging peculiarities of their fellow humans. “Sex was pushed as the greatest diversion in town in eighteenth-century London,” Peakman writes, “seeing it, doing it, or talking about it.” Time and again in this volume one realizes that some things never change.
Of course, fashions change in sex, and some of the activities here seem quaint. There is not a great deal here about “ordinary” sexual behavior in ordinary marriages. Peakman is more impressed with the diversity of sexual activity: “People were trying all sorts of libidinous experiments.” Marriages were considerably different at the time. A woman’s body was literally the property of her husband. Divorce was only by Act of Parliament, and was granted to husbands with adulterous wives, but seldom vice versa. For the poorer classes, there was the crude equivalent of divorce called “wife sales”. A wife would be taken to open market, with a halter around her neck, and sold to the highest bidder, perhaps for 100 or perhaps for a glass of ale. Sometimes this was a way for a woman to get out of an unsuitable marriage, too, perhaps being purchased by her lover. Husbands were free to discipline their wives by beating, just as they could legally beat dogs they owned, and even the size of the stick used could be legally specified. This is to be distinguished from erotic beatings, which underwent a vogue at the time, inspired by French pornography, which in turn was sparked by feelings against Catholicism and its flagellants. Birching was a frequent punishment in schools, and some men seem to have retained a nostalgic enthusiasm for it. Lt-Gen. Sir Eyre Coote in 1815 “was charged with indecent conduct after having been caught in a boys’ school with his breeches down, asking the boys to birch him.” He could have avoided the calumny by hiring a prostitute to administer such discipline. One Susan Brockway related that a client “offered her ten shillings if she would get a pennyworth of rods to whip him “and make him a good boy.” Patents were even considered for “flogging machines” which were not devices for delivering mechanical blows, but rather contraptions upon which a naked man could be strapped for the duration of his treatment.
Three men of pleasure get a chapter here, libertines who wrote about their love lives. One is famous as a lover, Casanova, and he spent some time in England. He loved women, but had an aggressive side of emotional sadism. He was interested in “how to manipulate a woman’s intellect as well as her body,” and he did prefer dalliances with women who could appeal to his mind. He is famous as a lover, and James Boswell is famous as an author, but he was addicted to “adulterous diversions”. He was not interested in conversation or relationships, but “treated the young wretches he picked up on the streets with contempt.” He wanted to please only himself, and “was boorish, conceited, and displayed a lack of understanding of women throughout his life.” Both are contrasted with William Hickey who enjoyed one woman after another, often for money, but “saw them as equal partners in his amorous adventures.” He liked entertaining them and giving them a good time. Peakman shows, with some satisfaction, that Hickey enjoyed his life and Boswell and Casanova ended up bitter and alone.
Peakman enjoys enormously writing about the sex societies of the time; there seems to be nothing like them in our own times, or perhaps contemporary ones have better secrecy. Sir Francis Dashwood set up his Hell-fire Club in an abandoned abbey that he restored, and he and his club members (“The Order of the Knights of St. Francis”) enjoyed lampooning religion, especially Catholicism. They dressed as monks, and the women dressed as nuns, and they enjoyed eating, drinking and reveling together in licentious manner. They had plenty of pornographic books in their library, but other books as well; the men were rich and enjoyed intellectual as well as material lives. Peakman shows that they were often powerful leaders, and the hearty, jovial nights at Medmenham Abbey served a purpose of bonding men from the political world. Similarly, the far stranger Beggar’s Benison in Scotland had merchants bonding over issues of free trade (or simple smuggling). They did this by such rites as masturbating together upon a silver platter or enjoying the performances of paid strippers. Like many such societies, they created legends about their antiquity, including one about an ancient king of Scotland who rewarded a kindly young maid with a golden crown. She gave him in turn the beggar’s benison (blessing): “May your purse naer be toom, and your horn aye in bloom”, which the members shortened to, “May your prick and purse never fail you,” showing their emphasis on both sex and commerce.
There is wide-ranging activity between these covers. Peakman discusses male and female homosexuality, the dangerous hobby of asphyxiation for erotic purposes, sexually transmitted diseases and their treatments, cross dressers (including women pirates and soldiers), foot-fetishism, masturbation, erotic toys (for example, disguised as dolls), and much more. The famous and unknown revelers herein described had their fun, centuries ago, and the reader interested in such fun will find a great store of it in Peakman’s delightful history.
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.