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Sex – Three Hundred Years Ag

Literature aimed at this group, encouraging men to assert their dominance, translated the repressive attitudes of Libertinism further down the class structure.

And Skipp's analysis of the pricing of these works revises earlier studies to show that rather than being solely targeted at the gentry, much of this work was cheap and widely available. Though many from the poorer sections of society are considered illiterate because they were unable to sign their name, they may still have been able to read: "Many more people could read than write," she said. "In London, for example, we believe about 70 per cent of men could read."

The works range from books, down to single-sheet pamphlets. "The price and content of this material suggests it was available to merchants, traders, skilled and semi-skilled men and even labourers," Skipp went on. Its accessibility allowed sexual attitudes to percolate down the social strata.

Dr Simon Burrows of the University’s school of history, one of Skipp’s PhD supervisors, described the study as "pioneering work." He said: "Jenny has shown that erotic texts are about much more than sexual fantasy. They can give us genuine new insights into cultural attitudes, sexual norms and social customs."

And Skipp describes a literary quality to the writing which you might struggle to find in modern erotic fiction or top-shelf pornography. "It is very different to today's erotica," she said. "It is more humorous, more literary and more engaged with the wider issues of the life and politics of the times." Its metaphors mirror the passions of the age: "At a time when military power was equated with virility, armed conquest is often used as a metaphor for sex – in phrases such as 'unsheathing the weapon', 'storming the fort' and 'releasing the cannon'."

By the 1770s, the transcripts of adultery trials became a new source of titillation. To secure a divorce, a man would first have to successfully
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