History What Sex Was Like During the Enlightenment  

Danielle Ownbey
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History books describe the Enlightenment as an era of reason, innovation, and liberation. Scientists made discoveries that shaped the way we see the world to this day. Philosophers reconceptualized ancient problems to find new solutions. The printing press made books on a constantly diversifying array of subjects available to the masses. For the first time, reason liberated people from the rigidity of religion. 

Did liberation make its way from the classroom to the bedroom? Yes and no. The history of sex in the Enlightenment is complicated. As new freedoms presented themselves, new restrictions bound people to increasingly rigid social norms. New scientific discoveries had unintended social and sexual consequences. Gender, background, class, and sexual orientation had a major impact on sex and the age of Enlightenment. It wasn't all sunshine and orgies. But it wouldn't be the Enlightenment without at least a little bit of darkness. 

So what was sex like and how did it change during the Age of Reason? Let's let the enlightened ones shed some light on the subject; read on for a foray into the strange realm of Enlightenment sex facts. 

Scientists Created the Notion of "Opposite Sexes"

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Photo: Thomas Rowlandson/Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

For centuries prior to the Enlightenment, religion maintained a stranglehold on public and private issues. Despite being the most private act of all, sex was not exempt from this control. As Enlightenment scientists re-examined long-held religious truths, they learned new things about reproduction and the human body. From this arose the notion of male and female bodies as completely different forms (it was previously thought the female body was a less perfect form of the male body). During the Enlightenment, scientists first separated and named a number of female reproductive body parts, mapped the female skeleton, and invented the notion of opposite sexes

The fact that Enlightenment thinkers deemed the sexes "opposite" (as opposed to just different) had long-ranging, unintended social consequences. Placing men and women in binary opposition meant the solidification of rigid masculine norms vs rigid feminine norms. So, in a weird way, a scientific breakthrough helped create new social repression.

Gentlemen's Clubs Weren't All That Gentlemanly

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Photo: National Library of Ireland/Flickr/No Known Copyright Restrictions

During the Enlightenment, "gentlemen's club" wasn't a synonym for strip club, but that doesn't mean the club's members were gentlemen. Granted, some gentlemen's clubs were erudite salons for social discourse, but that's boring so we'll ignore those. 

The most famous gentlemen's clubs of the Enlightenment were dens of debauchery more scandalous than any modern strip club. At the Hellfire Club, the motto of which was "Do What Thou Wilt", members studied paganism and used the clubhouse to hook up with their mistresses. The hedonistic libertines who populated Beggar's Benison in Edinburgh entertained themselves with posture girls, nude teens who posed while the men inspected every inch of them. Their initiation ritual was communal masturbation and their motto was "May prick nor purse ne'er fail you". Their most prized possession? A wig said to be made from the pubic hairs of King Charles II's mistresses.

Sorry Ladies, Science Said Female Orgasms Weren't Important

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Photo: Artist Unknown/Wellcome Library no. 21591i/Creative Commons

When it came to women and orgasms during the Age of Reason, cliché rang true: ignorance was bliss. Prior to the Enlightenment, scientists believed conception resulted from the ejaculation of both parties and co-mingling of their resulting fluids. This meant people believed making a baby required both female and male climaxes. Enlightenment scientists spoiled it when they discovered male ejaculate was the only required ingredient to cook a baby. With the female requirement gone, female orgasms became a privilege, not a right. 

Marriage for Love? What a Novel Concept!

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Photo: William Hogarth/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Enlightenment saw more marriages and procreation than ever before. Perhaps it was because the idea of marriage evolved beyond the economic contract of yesteryear. Marriages based on affection became more and more common during the 18th century, as young lovers shunned the conventions of marrying for money or social standing. Historians attribute this in part to the increasing popularity of novels, which often portrayed a romantically idealized version of love and marriage (Enlightenment versions of the Disney princess movie). Also, marriage meant socially acceptable sex in an age when many had sex on the brain, which may have been the only key necessary to lock down the old ball and chain.