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.

History, Intimacy and Power

This post is a new format for me, because I’m using it to think ‘aloud’ about some of my current research and writing. Previously I’ve written about things which I’ve been exploring for some time, like marriage, marital violence, the household and so on. Instead I’m blogging here about a work-in-progress. This helps me formulate and work out what I think, but I am also making it public so that anyone interested in academic writing can see the mechanics behind the process!

In a couple of weeks I need to give a paper at a symposium of some note.  Its themes are intimacy and power. So, in preparing my paper, I’m thinking about these terms in more detail. It seems to me that intimacy is generally used in a couple of ways by historians. First, quite straightforwardly it denotes ‘private’ as in the bits of lives that are not seen by many, so an intimate history is a history of private life, perhaps of actions but typically of feelings and sexuality; like Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity. Intimacy is also used as a way to think about the practice of being an historian. Carolyn Steedman’s ‘Intimacy in research: accounting for it’ is a great example of a historian reflecting on her relationship with her historical subject and how that influences her interpretation and writing. This intimacy is about feelings: closeness and connection. Steedman reflects at one point: ‘You have worked for these feelings, caught the trains to distant archives, read the books these people read, deciphered their handwriting’.

The sense of intimacy as conveyed through words and images leads me to a much more theoretical discussion of it which I’m not particularly familiar with. I’m currently being guided through it by Gabriele Linke’s article ‘The Public, the private, and the intimate’ in Biography, 2011. Here intimacy is assessed on a much larger, collective scale and explored in terms of the public sphere. The literary critic Lauren Berlant’s scholarship is clearly seminal, with her development of the concept of the ‘intimate public sphere.’ Her theoretical framework considers intimacy as a relatively recent mode of social being, produced through printed media, where participation in the public sphere is primarily about self-disclosure and association based on shared knowledge about each other.

Despite its personalised disclosures of personality, emotions, and acts deemed private by some, the intimate public sphere is very much a collective arena in which political allegiance and belonging are negotiated. As I understand it, this is the novelty of the theory because it acknowledges the co-existence of intimacies of self-disclosure alongside and part of the political world.

Obviously this has gender and power implications. The intimate public is a mode of expression that can enable those perceived ‘weak’ (because of race, sex, sexual orientation, age), to enter the public sphere and access a political voice. It also means that the dominant (typically white, wealthy men) are held to account for their personal and ‘private’ acts. I don’t need to mention the numerous MPs careers stalled by such disclosures to point to the impact this can have.

The current resonances of this are quite startling, of course, when the concept is applied to social media – a form of communication and community so often condemned for facilitating self-disclosure in so many varieties.  All power to it in my view, for where else would you get to see the British Prime Minister asleep on his sister-in-law’s four poster bed?


Thus, one of the appeals of this theory of intimate publics is that they seem to be anti-hegemonic in nature, or at least potentially subversive. However, I’m trying to think about this in terms of the past, manliness, and hegemony. This raises different questions. So, when did the intimate public sphere come into being? If it dates to a group sharing common texts and things, then it could be argued to have a very early date (and not the 19th century, which seems to be where literary critics see its real development). After all, elite men have long been a like-minded group who whose world view and emotional knowledge was derived from shared experience (Berlant’s definition of the consumers of this public sphere). I’m wondering – was there an ‘intimate public sphere’ of manliness? And does this only work if the members of this group were intimate by sharing acts of self-disclosure? I can think of groups of men who did just that, particularly if the hypothetical ‘intimate public’ does not have to be a very large group.

In the article which is helping me think through these issues Linke suggests that

mediated intimate knowledge is not necessarily shared across group boundaries but within them, confined to a group, enhancing existing publics rather than transcending them (p. 17).

This certainly could be applied to masculine communities which in their own ways had emotional rules that permitted certain forms of self-disclosure. For example, what about the small, yet powerful group of the Hell Fire Club; surely John Wilkes was a master of self-disclosure? Or the emotional self-disclosure permitted by men sharing experiences of crisis, like soldiers, to take the most obvious instance where emotions are concerned. There again, for an ‘intimate public’ to work does the intimate knowledge on which it is based have to enter the public (however narrowly defined) through media – as in print and visual culture? Can we also assume an oral culture binds together men, though its physical traces for the distant past are more difficult to find? And does an intimate public sphere only come into being if it bonds strangers?

These are things I shall be thinking about over the next few days as I try and putll the themes together into a paper. I tell you what – I wish that the equivalent of Twitter and Instagram existed for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! As it is, my next task is to look at the evidence I’ve gathered on manliness and see where it takes me.

Beds, marital sex, and adultery

In our last post Angela and I talked about the different functions of the early modern bed and how it literally shifted its uses from the marital bed to the child-bed, to the sick-bed, to the death-bed as family needs dictated. In my post on the different nature of the understandings and experience of privacy in the past, I pointed out that people often shared rooms at night. As the ubiquity of the truckle bed indicates, children and servants frequently shared the chambers in which spouses slept and it was not uncommon for visitors to be put up for the night too (read Sasha Handley’s great work on sleeping for insights into this).[1] So in this post we talk about the marital bed and its uses and meanings in relation to marital affection and marital sex.

Jan Steen bed with curtains

Jan Steen, The Morning Toilet, 1663 (Wikimedia Commons)

Married couples shared a bed, which was seen as the prime site for the sustenance and negotiation of marital relations. After all, conjugal affection and sex were seen as building a harmonious relationship. So how was this achieved in a small or busy household with shared rooms? We think that the bed hangings and curtains were crucial because they acted as a boundary or a ‘threshold.’ In other words, opening or closing the curtains on a tester bed, or indeed the doors on a bed that was built into the house, marked a transition between different types of spaces. It made the space of the bed part of the room or closed off from the room. You can see this above in the Jan Steen painting where one of the curtains is partially closed. The drawn curtain therefore indicated that the bed-space was closed to view – ‘locked’; whereas the open curtain (or absent curtain) allowed an open view – and therefore a different use. This was meaningful enough for early modern people to be used in the theatre for dramatic ends with the curtains of the stage bed signifying ‘secrecy, surprise, revelation, and dramatic irony’.[2]

This notion of the marital bed as the site for legitimate sexual relations was so strong that it shaped people’s language and actions. As the paramount site for beneficial ‘good’ sex, ‘bad’ sex – in other words adultery – was a betrayal of the marital bed. Indeed ‘forsaking the marital bed’ was used as a metaphor for a failed marriage in separation cases. The main bed of the household was so fundamentally associated with marital relations that any other kind of sex in it seems to have been taboo.

Interestingly, cases of adultery that came before the courts reveal that adultery was rarely described as occurring in the marital bed. I recorded where witnesses or defendants claimed that it occurred and the most common places were on chairs, on floors, against doors, and out of doors. The engraving below of a couple using a chair for their dalliance is an example from the Trials for Adultery published in the late eighteenth century. Thus the most common sites of infidelity were the boundaries of legitimate spaces – or ‘liminal’ spaces as scholars call them. Essentially, this means that adultery was rarely committed in the marital bed. You might point out that the marital bed was too overlooked for any suspicious activities. But adultery often occurred in the family home, when husbands were away, so this can’t be the only cause of the reluctance to use this site! Indeed, when beds were cited in adultery trials, they were multi-use, household-neutral beds e.g. lodgings, inns, and not those that were emotionally or physically bound to the household.

Mrs Draper 1771

The bed was also a primary space in which emotional as well as physical bonds between spouses were cultivated, strengthened and maintained. Diaries show that spouses used the bed as a space for sociability, because its enclosure allowed couples to talk away from view. Given that the marital bed facilitated spouses’ discussions, it is not surprising that popular culture saw the bed as the place for wives’ nagging. This was encapsulated in the notion of the ‘curtain lecture’. Pamphlets such as Curtain Lectures: Or, Matrimonial Misery displayed (2s 6d, or 3s in calf) were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, portraying wives nagging husbands. This common motif lasted well into the nineteenth century as the Victorian image below indicates. Husbands adopted the same conventions in court. In 1766 Charles Allison claimed that ‘after he had got into Bed … [his wife] still continuing to Provoke him with her opprobrious language he did cause and oblige her to get up and go down Stairs’ or to the maid’s bed. He also locked other rooms and pocketed the key to keep his wife out of them. These actions signified a reduction of his wife’s status – moving her out of the marital bed to a servant’s in lesser accommodation.


As these examples indicate, since beds were where married couples talked, it is no wonder bed were also where tensions led to quarrels and in some cases, sadly, violence, which will be discussed in the next bed-post.

[1] More more on sleeping and dreams see: and

[2] Sasha Roberts, ‘”Let me the curtains draw”: the dramatic and symbolic properties of the bed in Shakespearean tragedy’ in J G Harris and N Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, Cambridge, 2002.