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Sexuality in Europe during the Enlightenment Era

Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Thomas Rowlandson. Exhibition “Stare” Case”.

Era of Ratio

The era of Enlightenment is characterized by advancing human knowledge from the scientific perspective. Together with other areas of life, human sexuality became a question of scientific rationalism. The unique joint of philosophy and natural sciences brought the best minds of Enlightenment to the question, why Western culture is so rigid and dogmatic in its beliefs on gender roles and sexuality. The idea of procreation as the only reason for sex also was questioned (Crooks & Baur, 2011).

The growing interest in physiology and medicine allowed scientists and philosophers to discuss and speculate on topics of natural bases of human moral and social norms; sexuality was accepted as the most natural base for morality (Wellman, 2002).

Era of Freedom

Traditionally, the 18th century is defined as a century of two revolutions (American and French), open-mind approaches, and sexual emancipation. "What is natural, is not shameful; natural is never ugly," – these words of Seneca seemed to get a revival in the philosophical and moral thoughts of Enlightenment. "Gallant Age," "Frivolous Age," "Age of Change and Reasoning," supported by sex manuals, naughty images, and anecdotes "on the brink" is usually expected to be free of bias, tolerant and non-blinkered. However, it was the "natural" approach that played a wicked trick with the thinkers. Being as much objective as possible, the philosophers and physicians of the Enlightenment still remained in the limits of sexual dichotomy and patriarchy. Thus, the role of males (and notably, the sacral function of sperm) was recognized as the leading in natural processes of generation, and even in making women fertile. According to these views, there's no surprise that gender roles and sexual behaviors were prescribed to people from the point of male supremacy (Wellman, 2002).

The Power of Nature

The impact of "nature" was no more dogmatic than the rule of God during the medieval ages, as it gave the congenital right to domination to rich white heterosexual males, and all other people were considered as inferior. The issues of gender, race, and sexuality were often used as weapons against political and social opposites, so in some way, the "inferiority" of sodomy, skin color, and gender was adjustable (Bauer, 2012). This fact may explain the phenomena of outstanding women of the Enlightenment. For instance, Catherine II the Great of Russia who was in intense philosophical correspondence with Voltaire about humanistic and democratic values and at the same time reinforced absolute monarchy, suppressed national minorities and strengthened the serfdom for Russian peasants (Rubin-Detlev, 2019).

From Phallocentrism to Pathologization

Probably, the opposition of scientific, rational, and open-mindedness on the one side and severe suppression, colonization, xenophobia, patriarchy, and compulsory heterosexuality, on the other hand, are the best characteristics of the 18th century. According to Paul Kelleher, the epoch of Enlightenment had set the tone to modern attitudes towards gender and sexuality, when heterosexual hegemony defines other sexualities not only as sinful and immoral but also as sick and non-natural (2015). Thus, exclusion and persecution of same-sex relationships base on the idea of abnormality of non-hetero sexualities would further evolve and develop into the concepts of degradation, degeneration, perversion, and finally, pathology (Beccalossi, 2010; Upchurch, 2010).

In terms of seeming freedom and rationality, same-sex relationships were marked as disease, madness, confusion of the rules of nature. Otherwise, it should mask under images of "platonic feelings" or "intimate friendship," which was appropriate in the sentimentalism of the 18th century (Robinson, 2003). Pretty frank pamphlets of the beginning of the epoch turn into veiled and blurred allusions in the end (Chow, 2017). This is understandable, because same-sex relationships, were severely prosecuted, being perceived as perverted fashion. Thus, the records of Bastille list the prisoners who were arrested for "sodomy" or "pederasty" in France in the 18th century (Merrick, 2018). As for female "dangerous ties," pathologization has replaced the witch-hunting, which is a positive change. However, pathologization seems to be a new kind of misogyny, when underestimating of women's relationships due to existing phallocentrism (Iwen, 2009). Ula Klein, when speaking about material expressions of the Sapphism in the literature of Gallant age, names dildo as its main symbol (Klein, 2018). It looks like even women-to-women love cannot do without the phallus. Also, if women are depicted as free to choose whoever as a lover, they are dependent on male genitalia and their sacral life-giving power.

The Consequences: Divided by Shame

The new hegemony formulated the ideal of masculinity that would be passed into the next era. The ideal "honest man who married and brought up a large family" (W. Goldsmith) has its roots in the 18th century when two revolutions and scientific progress have reframed the idea of male supremacy (Kim, 2018). The beginning of Victorian epoch might be also found in the image of ingénue, developed in pre-Victorian literature. Naïve, sensitive, and vulnerable young woman who subjected to violent and discriminative actions gave birth to numerous variations in later novels, movies, and series (O'Mahony & Murphy, 2018). At the same time, scholars name prostitute heroines as "the women on their extreme," noting, however, that the literature of Enlightenment experiences the lack of language for describing sex and sexual assault. On the other side of the scale, there are so-called unsexed women; that group could be completed with the married characters, so we approximately can imagine the spectrum of female roles in terms of Enlightenment male hegemony (Morris, 2005). It mostly fits the famous "Madonna/Whore" dichotomy, which, in its turn, reflects the growing gap between categories of public and private as a result of sexual shame (Davidoff, 2003).

Summing up the processes passed by sexuality in the 18th century, the most accurate description, probably, would be "lost opportunities." Starting as a progressive, rational, and open-minded, the Gallant age had reached the opposite side just in one century. Unfortunately, we cannot say that the next Victorian era is a sort of eventuality – the roots of sexual hypocrisy and double standards persist in the Enlightenment era.


Beccalossi, C. (2010). Nineteenth-century European psychiatry on same-sex desires: pathology, abnormality, normality, and the blurring of boundaries. Psychology & Sexuality, 1(3), 226–238.

Bauer, H. (2012). Sexuality in Enlightenment Popular Culture. In Peakman, J. (Ed.) A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment/ London: Berg., 159-183.

Chow, J. (2017). Mellifluent Sexuality: Female Intimacy in Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest. Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 30(2), 195–221.

Crooks, R., & Baur, K. (2011). Our sexuality. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth / Cengage Learning.

Davidoff, L. (2003). Gender and the "great divide": Public and private in British gender history. Journal of Women's History, 15(1), 11-27,237. doi:

Iwen, M. (2009). Women writers and the pathologizing of gender in 18th-century English mad-discourse. Gender Forum, (25), 1. Retrieved from

Kelleher, P. (2015). Making Love: Sentiment and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; Rowan & Littlefield.

Kim, J. (2018). Goldsmith's Manhood: Hegemonic Masculinity and Sentimental Irony in The Vicar of Wakefield. Eighteenth-Century: Theory & Interpretation (University of Pennsylvania Press), 59(1), 21–44.

Klein, U. L. (2018). Dildos and Material Sapphism in the Eighteenth Century. Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 31(2), 395–412.

Merrick, J. (2018). New Sources and Questions for Research on Sexual Relations between Men in Eighteenth‐Century France. Gender & History, 30(1), 9–29.

Morris, M. (2005). Representation, categorization, identity, and sex. Journal of Women's History, 17(1), 201-209,211. doi:

O'Mahony, L., & Murphy, O. (2018). From polite society to the Pilbara: The ingénue abroad in Evelina and the girl in steel-capped boots. Outskirts, 38, 1-23. Retrieved from

Robinson, D. M. (2003). Pleasant Conversation in the Seraglio: Lesbianism, Platonic Love, and Cavendish's Blazing World. Eighteenth-Century: Theory & Interpretation (Texas Tech University Press), 44(2/3), 133–166.

Rubin-Detlev, K. (2019). The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great.Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

Upchurch, C. (2010). Liberal exclusions and sex between men in the modern era: Speculations on a framework. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19(3), 409-431,605. Retrieved from

Wellman, K. (2002). Physicians and Philosophes: Physiology and Sexual Morality in the French Enlightenment. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 35(2), 267-277. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from

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