When did sexual decadence lose its association with social decline?

Once, illicit sex was believed to be the ultimate transgression and a danger to society. Since the Enlightenment, attitudes have grown more tolerant.

Wiki Creative Commons
Wiki Creative Commons

The idea that sexual decadence leads to the corruption and downfall of civilisation can be found in many cultures. It has been especially influential in the history of the Christian West. The aim of this essay is to open up two large questions, and to suggest some provisional answers to them. The first is why, for most of Western history, people were so convinced that unrestrained sexuality was dangerous and would lead to the breakdown of society; the second is why, nowadays, that is no longer the dominant view. When and why did we stop associating sexual decadence so strongly with social decline?

Every civilisation since the dawn of history has distinguished between permissible and impermissible forms of sex. Sexual decadence was usually defined as excessive immorality. Too much illicit sex, it was presumed, would inevitably weaken and corrupt any individual or society.

There were two main justifications for designating certain sexual acts as impermissible. The first was the principle that men owned the bodies of women and of slaves, which meant that sexual laws usually protected the honour and the property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100–1700 bce), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks and, to some extent, the Romans.

The same outlook underpinned the justice of the Germanic tribes that settled across Western Europe and the British Isles in the final years of the Roman Empire: the Franks, the Goths, the Saxons, the Jutes, and others. Thus the earliest English law codes, which date from this time, evoke a society where women were bought and sold and lived constantly under the guardianship of men. Even in cases of consensual sex, the system of justice was mainly concerned with the compensation one man should pay to another for unlawful copulation with his female chattel. The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him’; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman – in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.

The other presumption, which some cultures developed more than others, was that sex itself was a dangerous and corrupting pleasure. In the Old Testament, even sexual relations between husband and wife are regarded as essentially unclean, and all sex outside marriage is completely taboo, to be severely punished. This was the fear of sexual pollution that Christianity inherited from the Jews, the Stoics, and other pagan beliefs, and which it developed further over the centuries. As the work of Peter Brown has shown, the attitudes of the earliest Christians were quite varied, but before long an essentially negative view of sex became dominant amongst the church’s leadership, as epitomized most powerfully in the teachings of St Paul and St Augustine.

Thereafter, the new religion sought to instil this ascetic outlook in its followers. In England, the earliest surviving handbooks for the Anglo-Saxon clergy (dating from the seventh to the eleventh century) describe in graphic detail the many different sexual sins – solitary, heterosexual, and homosexual – that laypeople and priests might commit, and the penalties for each of them – months or years of fasting, flogging, divorce, loss of clerical office. The law code of king Cnut (1020–23) likewise forbade married men from fornicating with their own slaves and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off. Slowly but surely, the church’s definition of monogamy gained ground. Sex was not a private matter, on the contrary – except within marriage, it was a public crime.

During the High Middle Ages, in line with the growing power of the church and of secular governors, a huge machinery of public justice grew up to police and punish sexual immorality. By the later thirteenth century, between sixty and ninety per cent of all cases in the English church courts were prosecutions for adultery, fornication, and prostitution. Secular jurisdictions were equally active. Every day, people were arrested, flogged, imprisoned, fined, and publicly humiliated for having sex without being married.

This system of public sexual discipline was never perfect. Like all other contemporary legal procedures, it was flawed and socially biased, and many people escaped or ridiculed it. All the same, it was a central feature of premodern society. Two points are especially important to note. First of all, though it was the law of the church and the state, sexual policing wasn’t simply imposed from above on an unwilling population. This was a society in which there were no professional police or magistrates: ordinary householders took their turn acting as watchmen, constables, and officers of the law. In other words, the imposition of discipline was part of a system of mutual self-regulation, of the community upholding collective moral standards.

Secondly, the general trend over the centuries, from the early Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, was that sexual discipline was getting more intense and more successful. By the 1650s, several western societies had instituted the death penalty for adultery. This growing severity had a very tangible effect on people’s behaviour and attitudes. The idea that sex outside marriage was wrong and dangerous was clearly being internalized more and more deeply, just as the punishments were becoming more and more severe.

So what were the foundations of this world-view? The most obvious was religious dogma. The Bible plainly showed that God abhorred adultery, fornication, sodomy, incest, and all other forms of sexual deviance. Equally clearly, history proved that he would punish any city or nation that tolerated such decadence by sending disease, famine, chaos, and destruction. This fear of an angry, wrathful God, who had wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah and countless nations since then, was a tremendous spur to action.

As a London chronicler noted in the 1380s, people were terrified ‘that the entire commonalty would be destroyed by such sins committed in secret when God punished them. For that reason, they wished to cleanse this stain from the city so that it might not fall to ruin or the sword, or be swallowed when the earth opened up.’ This was why families, parishes, cities, and whole nations were anxious to hunt down and cast out the unclean from their midst. The purer their community, they believed, the more favourably the Almighty would treat them.

There was also a powerful parallel between sexual and spiritual purity. In premodern society, religious diversity was an essentially alien, undesirable concept. Just as moral norms were meant to be absolute, so too there was only one right way of believing, and it was strictly enforced: heretics and unbelievers were punished.

In both the religious and the sexual sphere, the presumption was that personal conscience and individual reason were much too weak and fallible to allow people to decide for themselves what was right and what was wrong. Human nature was corrupt, and people were easily led astray by their lusts and by the devil. Without external discipline, one sin led to another, and another; one sinner would infect another and then another. Spiritual and sexual decadence would spread if people were allowed to interpret religion or morality for themselves; only the superior authority and guidance of the bible and the church could keep people on the straight and narrow path and lead them safely to salvation.

As well as this fundamentalist religious outlook, sexual discipline was also based on central presumptions about social order. Self-discipline was prized as the ultimate mark of civilisation and unchastity was seen as a preeminent sign of weakness.

It seemed obvious that, just as it corrupted individuals, illicit sex would destroy entire societies: it spread disease, it caused crime, it broke up families: it sapped the strength and virtue of the whole society. Its prohibition and punishment was therefore a matter of great public importance.

This way of thinking made perfect sense because, in general, people took for granted that the external regulation of many areas of personal life was essential to the public good. Society, they believed, was not made up of autonomous individuals but of households and families. Parents and employers were meant to oversee the morals of their children and servants, just as friends, neighbours, and relations felt responsible, as a matter of course, for watching over each other’s way of life. Seeking out and punishing unchastity was everyone’s duty: it kept the community virtuous and strong.

These were the main reasons why, for centuries, Christian writers, whether looking at their own culture or at other cultures of the past or present, inevitably associated sexual decadence with the weakness and downfall of civilisations. This was an extremely coherent and powerful world-view, sustained not only by strongly held beliefs about the dangers of immorality, but also by central political, philosophical, and psychological presumptions about the purpose of government, the nature of human beings, the ethics of belief, and the imperfection of innate understanding.

Even today, very similar ways of thinking underpin attitudes to sex, morality, and civilisation in many parts of the world. The big question is why our modern western ways of thinking are so different. What changed – why do we no longer so automatically associate sexual licence with civic decline? How, instead, did we come to value sexual freedom and sexual privacy?

Nowadays, we take for granted that people have the right to do what they like with their own bodies and that civilisation won’t collapse as a consequence. Sexual freedom and sexual privacy are absolutely central to our culture: that is one of the most distinctive things about the Western world today.

This way of thinking and behaving was born in the eighteenth century. It was part of a huge transformation in Western attitudes to sex, which I’ve called the First Sexual Revolution. This sexual revolution was itself part of the even larger social and intellectual changes of the European Enlightenment.

What the sexual revolution meant in practical terms was the collapse of public discipline and a huge surge in illicit sex. In England, we can measure that in the 1650s, at the height of public punishment, less than one per cent of babies were born outside wedlock. By 1800, almost twenty-five per cent of first-born children in England were illegitimate – and almost forty per cent of brides were coming to the altar already pregnant. It was an extraordinary watershed.

In intellectual terms, this was the moment at which the modern ideal of sexual freedom was first seriously articulated. One basic cause of this was the great Enlightenment shift away from an essentially fundamentalist, absolute view of morality, as something determined by external authorities like the church or scripture, and towards the view that individuals could decide for themselves what was right and wrong – by looking to their conscience and using their reason.

This tendency to elevate personal conscience was partly a reaction against the fragmentation of Christianity since the Reformation. So many different churches, all at odds with one another; so many different interpretations of the Bible and even doubts about its reliability – all this undermined the authority of priests and holy writings.

Instead, by 1700 many leading thinkers were looking beyond the Bible and religious traditions for evidence of God’s will. Encouraged by contemporary advances in natural science and metaphysics, which seemed to hold out the promise of new, scientific proofs of God’s workings, they took the view that spiritual and moral truths ought to be established primarily on a logical, verifiable foundation. Furthermore, as God’s rules were universal, they must surely be simple, accessible to everyone, and understandable through reason. They shouldn’t require special learning or the exegesis of complicated texts – God’s laws were all around us, in nature. From this point on, what was natural became the great touchstone for deciding what was good, right, and permissible. This profoundly affected attitudes towards sex.

There was also a great change in how people conceived of God himself. The fear of God’s anger had been central to the connection between sexual decadence and the downfall of civilisations, but increasingly God came to be seen as an essentially benign and distant figure rather than a wrathful, angry deity who was always intervening directly on earth to punish people and nations. The great eighteenth-century analogy was that he was like a clock-maker: he’d made the world, and then set it in motion. It was a beautiful mechanism that operated according to his natural, regular laws. He didn’t need to reach down and meddle with what was happening – he just sat back and watched happily from afar.

Finally, this new stress on God’s benevolence went hand-in-hand with a reevaluation of human nature and appetites as themselves essentially good. Sex was no longer seen as a dangerous, corrupt, passion, but celebrated as one of God’s great gifts to humankind. As the schoolteacher Peter Annet explained in 1749, surely ‘God has given these natural affections and lusts to be gratified with reason, to make life sweet and agreeable’. Or, as the poet and politician John Wilkes put it a few years later: ‘Life can little more supply/Than just a few good Fucks/and then we die’. Wilkes’s lines sum up the Enlightenment outlook wonderfully well – not just that sex was a great pleasure, in fact the greatest pleasure of all, but also that the pursuit of pleasure and happiness was itself the paramount aim of life, the most important thing in the whole of human existence.

The birth of this new doctrine of sexual liberty was the key development that undermined the very concept of sexual decadence. From the eighteenth century onwards, it became possible to argue, cogently and systematically, that consenting adults should be allowed to do what they liked with their own bodies. Sex was re-conceptualized as a private matter and, by definition, ‘private’ matters didn’t affect the public good, or corrupt society, or lead to national decline.

Yet from the outset, the argument for sexual freedom always depended on two important qualifications – it did not necessarily apply to all sexual acts. The first qualification was that the type of behaviour was supposedly ‘natural’; the second, that it was ‘private’ – in other words, harmless to the wider community. In practice this made sexual liberty very unequal. Mainly, it was the sexual behaviour of white, heterosexual men of property that was legitimated as natural, private, and harmless to society; that of other groups was stigmatized as ‘unnatural’ and publicly dangerous. Homosexual behaviour, or sexual liberty for women or amongst the lower classes – these clearly needed to be repressed for the public good.

In consequence, there were two ways in which the old connection between sexual decadence and national decline continued to be very powerful throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. The first was that many groups in society continued to uphold traditional absolute moral standards and saw any sex outside marriage as dangerous and offensive to God. The great Evangelical religious revivals in England and North America around 1800 were obsessed with sexual debauchery and national decline, and so too were many later politicians and philosophers. The old way of thinking was very persistent.

Secondly, even in the new ways of thinking about morality, ‘unnatural’ behaviour was still held to be dangerous to society. We can see this especially clearly in some of the great moral panics of the eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth centuries – about masturbation, for example; about white slavery and sexual trafficking; and above all about homosexuality, which even in the 1980s was often portrayed as a kind of infectious disease that sapped national strength. In short, after the first sexual revolution, sexual decadence was redefined in narrower terms than before, but it could still be a cause for public concern and was still understood as a symptom of social decay and decline. So why, finally, do we no longer tend to believe that sexual decadence leads to the decline of civilisation?

The most fundamental answer is simply that, since the eighteenth century, more and more types of sexual behaviour have come to be accepted as natural, private, and harmless. The category of actions regarded as ‘decadent’ – dangerous to individuals and to the public good – has become narrower and narrower. ‘Sexual decadence’ has become an empty and meaningless category, as far as the actions of consenting adults are concerned.

It’s debatable whether a generally accepted concept of sexual decadence might still be applicable to the modern explosion of pornography or the sexual exploitation of children. There are certainly features of our modern sexual culture that can provoke disquiet, or be seen as unhealthy. But usually the concern about their ill effects is now focused on individuals, rather than on society as a whole. We are left, at most, with a rather weak and vestigial concept of sexual decadence.

This expansion of sexual freedom since the eighteenth century has not been a straightforward, linear progression from 1700 to the present. Its origins lie in the eighteenth century: claims to sexual privacy and liberty for women, for the working classes, and for same-sex relations also were first seriously articulated then. But it was the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s that made the real difference in expanding such freedoms to many social groups, and an even more marked acceleration of this trend has occurred over the past twenty years or so.

The most important aspect of this more recent, second sexual revolution has been the gradual triumph of equality as a paramount moral and political principle. Until the late twentieth century, people generally agreed that different sexes, races, classes, and social groups were essentially different in their character, and that it was right to hold them to different moral standards. Part of this outlook, which historians of sex sometimes call the ‘Victorian compromise’, was the idea that certain behaviour could be silently tolerated if kept private, but would be fiercely condemned if it became public. Since the 1960s, this presumption has been increasingly supplanted by exactly the opposite principle: that all human beings deserve equal respect and equal treatment. So powerful has that idea become, that the sexual rights of individuals are now commonly presumed to be more tangible and more important than any notion of public morality. This is a tremendous change. Even fifty years ago it would have been hard to imagine, but it can be clearly traced in the tremendous change over this period in public discourse about same-sex behaviour. In the 1960s, ‘public morality’ was a centrally important concept in all discussions about homosexual behaviour. This remained the case into the 1990s. Yet since then it has all but vanished from mainstream discourse, just as the language of homosexual rights has become ever more prominent.

The end result of these social and intellectual changes is that the idea of sexual decadence leading to national decline has been largely discredited. It is alive and well in other parts of the world, of course: many people outside the Western world believe that our sexual freedoms are a sign of the decadence and weakness of Western culture. But within the West this has become an unfashionable, minority view, mainly confined to religious fundamentalists.

In 2001, the American evangelist Jerry Falwell famously blamed the attacks of 9/11 on his nation’s toleration of ‘abortionists … feminists … gays and lesbians [with their] alternative lifestyles’. In the spring of 2014, a local politician in Oxfordshire announced that storms and flooding across the UK were proof of God’s anger at the legalisation of same-sex marriage. In both cases the overwhelming reaction to these assertions was of scorn and outrage. As a culture, we have largely come to take for granted that what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms has nothing to do with the health or decline of our civilisation. Looking at it historically, that is a pretty unprecedented (and, I would argue, a very welcome) state of affairs.

This essay by Faramerz Dabhoiwala was originally published under the title Sexual Decadence in Decadence and Decay: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2019.


Faramerz Dabhoiwala