Sex, Liberty, and Germaine Greer

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Kitty Fisher. A Very Naughty Lady.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that my account’s recently developed just the faintest whiff of smuttery.

My excuse is that I’ve been reading the fascinating and delightfully lewd Origins of Sex, the first monograph by my colleague (and old tutor) Faramerz Dabhoiwala. It’s a cracking read – a thoughtful and seductive account of what Dabhoiwala calls the ‘first sexual revolution’ in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The book is so full of naughtiness that – to borrow a phrase from Gerald Ford – were Mary Whitehouse alive today, it would have her spinning in her grave.

It’s a provocative and exciting book – there were some parts I was more convinced of than others, but that’s true even with the best works of scholarship.

But you’re not that interested in what I made of the book, are you? What you really want to know about is what Germaine Greer thinks.

Dr Greer reviewed the Origins of Sex for the Guardian, and – I think it’s fair to say – she liked it about as much as I like being kicked in the balls. This, for reference, is not very much.

Now, everyone loves a nasty book review. In fact, they are one of the very highest art-forms, right up there with the symphony and the overhead scissors-kick.

In fact, some scholars have truly perfected the beautifully pungent academic review. Think frescoes, you think Michaelangelo. Think counterpoint, that’ll be J.S. Bach. Think bludgeoning authors to death with a rolled up copy of the Times Literary Supplement, that’s review-meanie-in-chief Richard J. Evans.

But sometimes the (understandable) desire to scathe can get out of hand. Sometimes, bad reviews can be, quite literally, bad. And Dr Greer’s – sadly – is one of them.

The book argues that recognisably modern attitudes towards sex developed in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the overweaning power of the one true Christian church dissolved, and as a media revolution brought a new and exciting diversity of print to the Englishman’s coffee-table. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment heralded profound shifts in how humans understood their own bodies and their social behaviour. The desire to categorize people in a broadly scientific way, for example, meant that it was no longer possible to see ‘sodomy’ as a mere sin. Rather, homosexuality was seen as a way of being, with gay men being seen as fundamentally different to heterosexuals.

Dr Greer is not happy with all this. In focusing on the reading habits of the wealthy, Dabhoiwala, she points out, ignores the mass of the population. Indeed, he has invented a great cultural shift where in fact there is none. There will be no sexual revolution, she thinks, ‘until it makes no sense to snarl at anyone: “Get fucked”’. (Though to me this is a bit like arguing the feudal system is still with us because we call people ‘boorish’).

Sadly, as much as Dr Greer’s review is fun to read, it’s laced with basic errors of historical judgement. She lectures Dabhoiwala on John Dunton, pointing out that he’s merely a Grub Street hack not, as the book suggests, ‘a leading journalist and bookseller’. But he produced the Athenian Mercury, one of the widest-read publications of the 1690s. She notes that ‘dangerous and titillating’ works circulated in languages other than English long before Dabhoiwala’s ‘revolution’. But Dabhoiwala accepts this – and even adds to the point by noting the circulation of pornographic manuscripts well before the stuff was available in print in English.

Dr Greer, meanwhile, thinks that the established Church was simply a conspiracy of the rich to control the lives of the poor – yet the church courts, which did most of the regulation of sex, wouldn’t have functioned without the participation of the wider community. At one point she implies that half the population were on poor relief. In the 1690s, after a century of growing spending, the real figure was around 5 per cent. Rich men, she states, triumphantly, ‘have always got away with producing bastards as long as they picked up the tab’. But Dabhoiwala acknowledges that the laws against bastard-bearing fell heaviest on the poor.

Perhaps most amazingly, it would seem that Dr Greer can’t tell the difference between adultery, fornication, and pre-marital sex.

She thinks that because there is no record of Shakespeare’s brother getting in trouble for fathering a bastard child, that therefore there was no consistent punishment for non-marital sex. She’d be right, but not for the reasons she thinks. The basic fact, an astonishing one for a scholar of early-modern England to miss, is that the age’s legal system was inconsistent and heavily influenced by discretion on specific cases.

Dr Greer also thinks that because a third of brides were pregnant at the altar in 1560s Stratford, this meant that people were promiscuous. But it merely illustrates the well-known fact that ordinary people and the Church held different ideals of what constituted marriage. In particular, many believed you could start having sex once you were betrothed rather than after the church service – the latter being the official line. It’s especially surprising that Dr Greer misses this, not just because she started out as a scholar of the period, but mostly because it’s specifically mentioned in Dabhoiwala’s book.

And there are other points where Dr Greer engages in some serious austerity with the truth. She states that Dabhoiwala ignores the demographic history undertaken at Cambridge University – it’s not a central part of his argument, true, but he does mention it several times.

She suggests that ‘any account of the rearguard action of the Victorian authorities against the spread of sexual information would have neutralised his thesis there and then’. Even being charitable the best we can do with this is assume she simply forgot to read the last chapter. For here the author tackles exactly that question, cogently and – perhaps – convincingly.

We all love writing a nice, savage review. I for one will be sad were this kind of broadside to disappear under a fog of politeness and unwillingness to offend.

But I can’t help thinking after reading this one that they work so much better when the reviewer knows what they’re talking about.

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