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Sex – Three Hundred Years Ag

Prostitutes, perversions and public scandals – the stuff of the 21st century tabloids was familiar to readers three centuries earlier,// according to new research from the University of Leeds.

The reading of erotic literature was already a social activity 300 years ago.

Jenny Skipp’s three-year PhD study examined, catalogued and categorised every known erotic text published in eighteenth-century Britain: "I tried to get a grip on just how many were published, detail the various types of sexual behavior portrayed and find out who was doing what – and to whom." It proved a surprisingly rich field: "Most people have heard of Fanny Hill, but there was a huge amount of erotic literature published in the 18th century."

And despite earlier work suggesting that these texts were only for solitary consumption – at home, alone, and behind closed doors – Skipp’s work throws up a surprising image of how these works were used. "They would be read in public – everywhere from London's rough-and-ready alehouses to the city’s thriving coffee houses, which weren't quite the focus of polite society in the way we sometimes think," she explained. "Some texts even came as questions and answers and were clearly intended for groups of men to read together, with one asking the questions and the others answering them."

Much of the work is derogatory in its references to women. They are subordinates, courtesans, prostitutes, carriers of venereal disease and bearers of deformed children. "When men write this way, or read these texts, it gives them a context for asserting their authority over women," Skipp added. Yet some texts portray women altogether differently, discussing the nature of female sexuality or describing lascivious aristocratic females.

One group predominant in this literature is the Libertines – whose all-in hedonistic, smoking, drinking, swearing, pleasure-seeking lifestyle was typified by their subjugation of women.
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