The Public Cultures of Sex

  • Tim Hitchcock
Part of the Social History in Perspective book series (SHP)


Running races in which young women necessarily exposed their legs to a mixed crowd of drunken onlookers form just one aspect of the public culture of sex which characterised eighteenth-century England. At the other end of the spectrum were the libertine clubs and explicit pornography of the elite. When the, admittedly Scottish, Beggar’s Benison held its semi-annual meetings, the all-male, elite participants dressed in monkish gowns, greeted each other by rubbing their erect penises together and collectively masturbated into a ceremonial cup.2 On most occasions a young woman from the local village would be paid to expose her genitals to the assembled crowd, before the reading of explicit stories or medical accounts of various sexual phenomena.3 Between these extremes of both taste and class was a panoply of public sexual activity and explicit writing. In joke books, trial reports, medical literature, and wildly extended and metaphorical treatments of sex, a public culture of sexual reference was played out which formed a fundamental part of the growing print culture which characterised the eighteenth century. To some extent its variety can be accounted for by the social class of the various audiences. French language pornography (the most common sort) obviously found its readership among the educated elite, while the relative paucity of English equivalents suggests that the market for this type of thing among the middling sort was less widespread.


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  1. 4.
    J.R. Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (Oxford, 1985), see in particular chapters 1 and 4.Google Scholar
  2. 11.
    M. Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1981).Google Scholar
  3. 23.
    P. Wagner, Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America (London, 1988) pp. 8–15.Google Scholar
  4. 26.
    P. Wagner, `Trial Reports as a Genre of Eighteenth-Century Erotica’, The British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, V, 1 (1982) 117–23.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Tim Hitchcock 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tim Hitchcock
    • 1
  1. 1.University of North LondonUK

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