21 November 2012

Book musings: The Origins of Sex

I've been working my way through The Origins of Sex, by Faramerz Dabhoiwala. The premise of the book is that the Reformation, followed by the Enlightenment, drastically changed the way people understood sexuality and that consequently, some of the principles we think of as crucial to human sexuality are in actuality, relatively new to our world. This book, of course, focuses on the development of Western views regarding sexuality, but it highlights points of commonality that the pre-Enlightenment understand of sexuality has in common with areas of the world that we Westerners find confusing today. Our base assumptions about personhood and sexuality are not the same as those of other people, and there are clear historical reasons for these changes.

It's been an interesting journey through the book, although it is awkward to read on the bus unless I'm hiding the title. Provocative book titles can be quite fun, though if I'm really into my reading, I hate getting interrupted by people wanting to know what on earth I'm reading (not that this happens often). Books are one of the devices which discourage social interaction. Knitting needles are not. (And I discovered that when a man wanted to tell me all about how his dog is like his child).

The earlier chapters discussed religious influence on sexuality and society. Something that doesn't get highlighted often is that pre-marital sex before the Reformation, when the Catholic Church's influence was at its height, wasn't that big a deal, particularly if the couple were engaged. The Reformers, reacting to the lax standards of the Church, disagreed. Then, changing moral attitudes from the Enlightenment slowly eroded those ideas. The double standard was always at work, too. Men were pretty much expected to have pre-marital sex, but not with "good" women, since that would contribute to the ruin of an innocent. It's rather narrow-minded of me, I'm sure, but I'm still of the opinion that if women have to remain chaste, men should, too.

Then there were the chapters on men vs. women and the assumptions made pre- and post-Enlightenment about how they responded to sex. The common view pre-Enlightenment was that women were insatiable, and even if a woman said no, she probably meant yes. Women were seductresses, and men were hapless in their hands. The view flipped after the Reformation and the Enlightenment, albeit slowly, creating the view that women were innocents and men were the ruthless seductors (given some of the citations in the book, I have to say this view had some definite merit, even though I'd rather not be a damsel-in-distress). There was a fascinating section on how this appeared in literature, particularly in the early novel.

The conclusion the book brought me to was that I'm rather profoundly grateful to live in the time I do, in the location that I do. Canada's far from perfect, and North American society has its own ways of damaging our perception of sex and the way we interact with each other, but at least I can challenge those assumptions without being too afraid of them. I'm a person, after all, not an object, and I'm happy to remind people of that.

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