Sex and dating: 18th and 21st century style

Is there a rule to when you have sex for the first time with a new partner?

A ‘study’ of 2000 couples pronounced the existence of a ‘five date rule’ (here), in which it found that women will have sex after about five dates. More specifically a woman requires:

  • Two gifts or tokens of affection
  • Five social media messages
  • 12 text conversations
  • Five phone calls
  • Three DVDs watched
  • Seven passionate kisses
  • Five heart-to-hearts or meaningful chats
  • Four meals together
  • One bunch of flowers

Okay, so this was a Daily Mail report, which doesn’t give one confidence in its claims. However, it is perhaps revealing about the way in which gender continues to shape discussions about sex. At first sight it gives agency to women in their decisions about their sexuality. It certainly places women as the gate-keepers to sex in a new relationship. Indeed, the article ends with the comment: ‘women are getting to realise they hold the upper hand in making the decision to sleep with someone or not.’

Yeah, well thanks for that.

Actually, of course, this article is reductive in tone and totally ignores the plurality of experience. This is hardly sexual liberty for women since all the requisite factors leading to sex are provided by men – the initiative remains in men’s hands. As a historian, I’m used to seeing various dates offered for the sexual revolution which freed women. The Enlightenment, for example, is seen as facilitating sexual liberty for elite men, and according to Faramerz Dabhoiwala, for some higher-ranking women.

Before_hogarthThe eighteenth century is often seen as the century of revolution, and sex is one of the huge shifts to add to those in economics, politics, and thinking. Faramerz’s book The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution argues that there was a ‘radical transformation’ in the eighteenth century that saw the growth of sexual liberty, the view that sex was a private matter, the loosening of sexual policing by state and church, and the foundations of a modern sexual culture.

I’m now working on a book with Professor William Gibson about the relationship between sex and the Church of England in the long eighteenth century, and it is clear that the sexual culture of England was changing in the eighteenth century. I discussed this last year when I took part in a panel on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme exploring how the eighteenth century changed ideas about sex in the eighteenth century, with Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Judith Hawley, Hallie Rubenhold, and David Turner.

The century was one in which sex was discussed more widely outside the bounds of scripture and without the language of sin. Judith’s work on fiction illustrates how sex was characterised as seduction and desire as much as bodily acts and David’s research reveals how ordinary people began to discuss their sexual behaviour in the new ‘problem pages’ of periodicals like the Athenian Mercury at the end of the seventeenth century. Even the sex trade was commoditised far more openly as a form of literature, as Halle Rubenhold’s investigation of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies (prostitutes) demonstrates. All this opened up discussion and showed the plurality of sexual behaviour, implicitly questioning universal rights and wrongs by revealing the diversity of motivation and feelings. Thus sex was on the road from being a sin to moral concern.

I am struck, however, by how much stayed the same for a lot of men and women in the long eighteenth century. Eighteenth-century women and men would not have been shocked by the idea of sex before marriage and they certainly considered that a number of things needed to be in place before embarking on a sexual relationship. But this was for very different reasons, because for most people, sex was part of the marital relationship. This is not to say that sex didn’t occur before marriage. It did. But it was usually when a couple had agreed to marry that they then had sex; in short they intended to wed thereafter, and a sizeable proportion of brides were pregnant at the ceremony. So perhaps fear underpinned sexual activity before matrimony because the failure of  a wedding to take care would likely result in an illegitimate child. Illegitimacy, after all, was a huge burden for the child and its parents who struggled to rear it outside a family unit.

And yet, as Tim Hitchcock’s and Emma Griffin’s (free access to Emma’s article) research shows, this link between sex, reproduction, and marriage was being loosened for the first time by the later eighteenth century. For a mixture of reasons, including different sexual practices and greater work opportunities in industrialising parishes for single women, some couples were having sex without the secure promise of a wedding. This is identifiable in the rates of illegitimacy and bridal pregnancy. At the start of the eighteenth century about 2 percent of babies born were illegitimate and 20 percent of brides were pregnant; one hundred years later 6 percent of babies were illegitimate and 40 percent of brides pregnant.

These are powerful figures. Nonetheless, it seems to me that even if these figures reveal a degree of sexual liberty it was for men rather than women. With the prospect of paid work to pay for a child, a single woman needed her mother or siblings to look after the baby while she earned their living. I’m still convinced that it was only effective contraception in the twentieth century that broke this link so that four dates, some texting and several kisses might enable women to have sex according to their own desires.

Ironically, though, while the Daily Mail’s report on the rules about when to have sex when dating might suggest that women have gained the sexual freedom that was lacking in the eighteenth century, it is disappointingly obvious that this ‘liberty’ is still culturally constructed by ideas about gender and sex. Basically, it assumes that sex is a one-sided exchange (favouring men) and that men are ready for sex at any time in the relationship but have to woo women. In fact this view of male sexuality seems to more readily evoke the understandings about male and female sexuality which emerged during the long eighteenth century.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries women were seen as the lustful sex whose ravenous wombs made them desire sex, but whose lack of reason make them less able to control their desires. As Faramerz points out, by 1800:

Now it was believed that men were much more naturally libidinous, and liable to seduce women. Women had come to be seen as comparatively delicate, defensive, and sexually passive, needing to be constantly on their guard against male rapacity (142).

You can see this in Hogarth’s Before, above where as the Tate’s description observes ‘the woman is cast as a reluctant prey and the man as a heartless predator’.

This view seems to underlie ideas about gender and sexual relationships to this day. Though the ‘everywoman’ in this Mail Online report is not sexually passive, and has more agency, perhaps, she is still keeping up her defences against ‘ever-ready’ man until he’s ticked the necessary boxes! And, finally, best not to google ‘sex on the first date’ because it is depressing and reveals that sexual liberty is still represented as a male privilege even in the twenty-first century.


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