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Before 'Page Three'
Matt Pickles | 16 Feb 12
As The Sun newspaper’s ‘Page Three’ column came under scrutiny in the Leveson inquiry last week, editor Dominic Mohan defended the feature as an ‘innocuous British institution’. In fact, while ‘Page Three’ was first printed in 1970, an Oxford University historian has found that the media’s obsession with celebrity and sex dates back more than 200 years.
In a new book, Dr Faramerz Dabhoiwala cites the example of Kitty Fisher, a famous courtesan in 18th Century England. ‘People like Kitty were the first pin ups,’ he explained. ‘Celebrities like Kitty not only exploited the media to keep their names at the forefront of our attention but they even had pictures of themselves painted and reproduced in thousands of copies for people to buy.’
Based on his research at Oxford University, Dr Faramerz Dabhoiwala of the History Faculty established that the apparent liberalization of sexual attitudes which swept the western world in the 1960s was made possible by developments that began in the 18th Century.
‘In 1600 almost everyone across the western world took for granted that sex outside marriage was a dangerous and pernicious kind of behaviour that should be stamped out – in fact the main pressure for change was to penalise adulterers, fornicators and prostitutes even more,’ Dr Dabhoiwala said.
‘The last person to be executed for adultery in England was probably a woman called Susan Bounty, who was hanged in 1654. Then by 1800 a remarkable change had occurred. In the middle of the 17th Century only about 1% of births took place outside marriage, by 1800 40% of all brides come to the altar pregnant.’
Dr Dabhoiwala first noticed the change in sexual attitudes during his research at Oxford into legal sources from the 17th and 18th centuries at Oxford. He then expanded his research to literary, pictorial and other sources from the period.
Dr Dabhoiwala attributes the first sexual revolution to a changing approach to religion, the collapse of public punishment and the growth of the principle of sexual freedom. ‘In the 18th Century the way people understood religious imperatives changed, the text of Bible was not taken so literally and sexual freedom became more compatible with religious belief,' he said.
'The change can also be explained by the growth of major cities and urban living which made the small-scale self-regulation of village communities impossible. Sex became much more private and the idea that people could do what they want with their own bodies began to be seriously put forward.’
He added: ‘Arguments that have developed with increasing strength in our society over the past 50 years were first articulated and made possible in the 18th century by the great intellectual developments of that day. There is even evidence of people defending same sex relations – Jeremy Bentham spent his entire adult life obsessing about the sexual freedom for homosexuals.’
So whatever the outcome of the Leveson discussion on Page Three, the debate itself is nothing new.
The Origins of Sex is published by Penguin. Top image: The Actress Kitty Fisher, by Joshua Reynolds. Bottom image: Dr Faramerz Dabhoiwala