Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ch Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes - Jesse Colin

It occurs to me after nearly a semester immersed in the literature of this time period—and just now as I browse my classmates reaction to it—that the various types of birth control available to modern people in the post-industrial world may be among the most impactful inventions in the  history of mankind. 

The anxiety these people suffer over sex is overwhelming.  Of course, sex is a serious thing but I don’t think we often appreciate that we are better prepared, in many ways, to deal with it than most people have been throughout history. 

Birth control has changed the psychological playing field so much that I wonder if you could track its impact in our genetic code somewhere? 

I wonder, when I read Tristram’s thoughts about Jenny, what is the source of his intense anxiety?  Besides the emotional and material consequences (potential pregnancy), we have to assume that Tristram has some spiritual concerns as well.  Then I started to think about religion as actually a man-made product—and perhaps one of its functions is to help deal with the sex problem—the fact that mankind, the only rational being, is afflicted with serious animal urges. 

I know I’m getting all big-picture here but a few hundred years can really change things.  What are your thoughts?  Have you had any similar thoughts in your reading of some of the other texts? 


  1. I think bringing up birth control is a really interesting point. Today, you can have sex with anyone you wanted and as long as there's a condom involved and/or birth control (safe sex everyone, please), neither party really has to deal with the "material consequences," in the majority of the scenarios.

    A few hundred years ago, sex was definitely a lot more "dangerous," in that pregnancy was an unavoidable consequence (Fantomina) as were STDS and the like. There was no such thing as protection or having safe sex because they are all modern conveniences. Religion was the protection of the time. It continues to be for some even today. If you grow up believing that you should only have sex when you are married, it diminishes substantially any possibility of casual sex, and subsequently, pregnancy, disease, etc.

    But, as we've seen in many of the novels, while people may "believe" these things, they may not necessarily follow the rules. I think it is fairly safe to assume that each of the protagonists we encountered knew at least the basic teachings of no-premarital sex. And we have seen through many of the novels we have read/are reading, that this really didn't matter. People want to have sex. Does religion help save people from their animalistic urges? Some what, but people will always do what they want to do.

  2. From my history of sexuality class, I have read many primary accounts of people actually engaging in premarital sex during the 18th century. Sexuality wasn't as repressed as we tend to think during this time period and birth control, while definitely not as readily available as it is today, was being used back then. I think the character's we have encountered especially that of Pamela and Evelina are intended to convince readers that they should not engage in sex outside of marriage. But, from my readings, sex was still happening. It's clear to me that these novels served a specific purpose, yet I wonder just how effective they were at stopping people from engaging in premarital sex. I guess this steps into the realm of how life changing can a novel be.

  3. I think it is hard to judge which societies of past centuries have had more sex than others; since there are so many aspects that go into the treatment of sex. For one thing, I agree that the lack of birth control may have prevented sex, but even people today who lack protection ignore the risks. I don't think that the "amount" of sex people have has changed over centuries, I think it is the way that sex is portrayed in society. Promiscuity and sexuality have become much more publicly accepted with modern times. It is difficult, however, for me to get an accurate idea of how open sex was in the eighteenth century, since it is treated very differently in the many texts we have read.

  4. I think the fact that authors in the 18C thought that moralizing novels like Pamela and Evelina were necessary may point to the ineffectiveness of religion as birth control. Stories like Fantomina portray the not-so-secret underbelly of society, those who wanted to have sex regardless of physical and societal consequences. The fact that there was such anxiety from the older generation regarding the promiscuity of the younger generation during this time is not all that shocking when we step back and realize that this has happened every decade of every century since. Like Dayna said, it's not that the "amount" of sex has changed, just the attitude toward it. The older generation in the 18C considered promiscuity taboo, and thus panicked about the younger generation, leading to the moralizing novels we've read. The same thing still happens; the older generation always worries about the behavior of their children, whether it's sex or drugs or use of technology. Sexuality just happened to be the focus of 18C society.

  5. I think that analyzing characters' anxieties about sex in light of birth control is compelling. I also think that the lack of readily available and reliable birth control definitely played more of a role in controlling sexual promiscuity than it does today, but I disagree with Jesse's initial idea of religion serving as a man-made method of justifying the avoidance or controlling the prevalence of sex; I don't think that the texts we've read this semester support that proposition.

    Religion definitely serves as a moralizing force within the novels, but that doesn't make it man made, and it's purpose is rarely limited to the constraint of sexual activity. Remaining virtuous was not just based on whether or not your retained your virginity until marriage, but also on how you behaved and carried yourself in society. Pamela and Unka and Crusoe all reference God and religion as reasons/motivations behind a variety of behaviors, not all of which relate to sex.

    Furthermore, I know that we're talking about religion within the realm of fiction, but we also have to remember that to the average 18th century reader, religion, faith, and God were much more widely accepted than they are today. It was more strange to question and doubt than it was to believe (which is not how it is today). That being said, reading religious references too harshly can, in my opinion, hinder the understanding of the period as a whole.

  6. To build off of what Cara said, these novels served as a reminder not to have sex. I feel like the different novels we read have different target audiences that we are taking for granted. While a parent who understands it might explain to their teenage child the dangers of sex, a firsthand (fictional) account of what can happen is something much more eye opening. Religion is/was one form of birth control, but does every child really immerse themselves in their religion at age 15? I think we all imagine these readers as fully grown and developed adults. I know for a while I did, but I had to remind myself that some of these characters (and consequently their readers) are as young as 15 years old. Consequently, the anticipation over sex like we see in TS is something that these people are GOING to go through naturally. For some of these audiences, the urges are from puberty - not necessarily animal urges.

  7. Well, I'm giving an oddly specific answer to a fairly broad question here but anyway - I think promiscuity is probably just as prevalent today as it was in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, and prior.

    For me all that's really changed is the way it's presented. Obviously, none of the authors we've read had to deal with the mediums of television and more importantly, the internet, and yet, promiscuity finds its way into a lot of these novels regardless. In many ways, the novel WAS the way in which such things were presented to society, as few other avenues were really available (outside of maybe plays?), and what would make for a steamy real-life discussion of sex so well as a literary scene illustrated within a novel?

    Even today, there are groups of women who get together and have book clubs dedicated to erotic novels and such, with few intentions beyond that of discussing promiscuity both in literature and real life.

    So yes, I'd have to assert that promiscuity was just as alive then as it is now.

  8. All in all I do not think that birth control has had that much of an impact on the human psyche as far as sex is concerned. Sex probably is the most thought of subject in the world and thinking that ideals of a novel is going to change that perception of people is rather unlikely. As it was mentioned in an above post it is our animal instinct to find a mate and then engage in intercourse with said mate. What I think is mostly overlooked so far is that the novels we have read so far are primarily concerned with the workings of the aristocracy whom are a group of people who are fanatics about bloodlines and preserving their own specific bloodlines. The stress of virtue for women wasn't because men didn't want women to have sex (because lets face it if women aren't having sex then neither are men), but because they wanted women who could say no to sex even if they were attracted to a man. Every man's biggest fear is a woman telling him that she is pregnant and then finding out that it could possibly belong to someone else. I think the technology that revolutionized sex in human beings psyche is the paternity test rather than birth control because it allows men to not worry about whether or not they were about to name someone's else child as their heir. I mean men have always had "techniques" that supposedly stop a woman from getting pregnant and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't which is about the same reliability as modern day birth-control.