328:323 Writing About Sex in the English Long Eighteenth Century

01  TTH5   CAC   16876    MCKEON   SC-101

01-Writing About Sex in the English Long Eighteenth Century

This course is about the origins of modern sex in the period from 1660 to 1800.

What is modern sex?

  • During this period, English people began to think in terms of natural, biological "gender difference," making common the notion that men and women are respectively members of "the opposite sex."
  • But people quickly realized that what we sometimes see as naturally given may instead be socially constructed, and the distinction between natural sex (male and female) and cultural gender (masculine and feminine) came into use.
  • Women ceased to be regarded as naturally lustful and oversexed and began to be thought of as modest and chaste.
  • The category that a later age would call the male "homosexual"—a man who desires only other men and not also women--came into being.
  • "Normal" or default heterosexual behavior came to be seen as penile penetration rather than, as earlier, the variety of sexual activities that we tend to class as "foreplay."
  • Masturbation, which traditionally had been regarded as near-universal and harmless, suddenly was reconceived as physically and mentally debilitating.
  • The word "sex," from referring to "the male sex" or "the female sex," was expanded to mean also the abstraction "sex" itself, sex as such.
  • Obscene writing, in which sexual language and images are used as a means to the end of attacking unacceptable religious, political, or other sorts of behavior, had existed for a long time. Pornography, whose end is simply to arouse sexual desire and to generate sexual pleasure, was first written during this period.

Our reading in this course will sample the broad range of exploratory and innovative writing about sex in the long eighteenth century, some of it by canonical authors and some by obscure writers, including John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Bernard Mandeville, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, John Cleland, James Boswell, and Mary Wollstonecraft. We'll also read excerpts from several anonymous tracts. Apart from these readings, each student may be asked to deliver a brief oral report on critical and historical sources that illuminate the significance of our primary texts. Two short (5-6-page) papers, ongoing course blogging, and regular attendance also will be required.