A Sexual Revolution in the Eighteenth Century?

By Julie Hardwick

Archival records provide us with rich and fascinating insights into young workers’ intimate lives in the Old Regime. In 1740, Claudine Grissonet narrated her relationship and sexual history with Benoit Peyssoneaux. She said he had “lit a passion in her heart” although their first intercourse occurred when he found her alone in a room, locked the door with a key, and violently threw her on the bed to force her to have sex. Her account included what had been the key elements of young peoples’ intimacy for decades:  many evenings of walking out together, clear discussions about getting married that were linked to starting to have sex, and a coerced transition to intercourse. They clearly associated intercourse as a particular form of intimacy associated with marriage, although the use of force is jarring to us in the context of what had been a consensual relationship. Yet at about the same time, other young women began to emphasize new aspects in that multi-stepped process.  Anne Thillier, for example, recalled in a very straightforward way that after months of Pierre Gaylart frequently expressing “warm feelings and love for her” and their discussions of marriage, one day when they were alone he asked her to have sex and promised to marry her if she did, so she “consented.”[1]

These accounts might seem to support a story of change in intimate relationships in the second half of the eighteenth century that aligns with or is explicitly imbricated with the other revolutions of the era in a late eighteenth-century sexual revolution. The debate about a sexual revolution is strikingly gendered in terms of historians and eighteenth-century subjects. Historians who have advocated for a sexual revolution are mostly male. Their revolution was not only simultaneous with the traditional pivotal events of the Age of Revolutions, but a new emphasis on sexual pleasure is tied to new ideas of the Enlightenment, secularization, and new forms of print culture. What exactly the sexual revolution involved varies: sexual freedom, a revolutionary change in sense of self and identity that was critical for sexuality, or an increasing focus on penetrative sex with a concomitant restriction of nonreproductive sex like mutual masturbation. Meanwhile primarily female feminist historians have pushed back against the secularization argument, and observed that an elite interest in sexual pleasure is evident at least from the sixteenth century, and emphasized that fundamental reproductive and productive patterns persisted for women from long before the eighteenth century until well after even if  some young women reframed their relationship stories to emphasize a language of love and enjoyable caresses even while they remained attentive to commitments to marry. [2]

The lived experience of ordinary people, and especially ordinary women, reveals a history of intimacy that spanned well before and long after the Age of Revolutions and confounds the mostly prescriptive claims of a sexual revolution. The intimate daily lives of young workers in Lyon between 1660 and 1789, documented in a rich vein of archival material ranging from paternity suits to legal reports about the circumstances of the discovery of fetal or neo-natal remains around the city, demonstrate a clear set of expectations and practices around sexuality. Single people did not need Enlightenment inspiration or print culture to find sexuality pleasurable or engage in intercourse before marriage. Men who had sex with women in the clear expectation of marriage as far as they and their community were concerned were consistently held responsible for resulting pregnancies.

 From at least the middle of the seventeenth century (and probably longer), young couples who were dating enjoyed an expansive intimacy in working communities. Local communities agreed on a clear set of conventions that were regarded as appropriate and licit.  After young men asked women to walk out together, they spent a lot of time together, kissing and making out in public spaces in front of spectators who might be friends, acquaintances, or strangers, but whose gaze safeguarded the reputations of young women.  For instance, an acquaintance who recounted that Francoise Namy and Guillaume Bergeron went out most evenings between 8 and 10 pm, were “very friendly” with each other, including “kissing and caressing,” added explicitly that they had not engaged in any “inappropriate behavior.”[3] For young couples of the same rank who were seen as feasible marriage partners,  experiments with intimacy in stable monogamous relationships were regarded as predictable and normal.  Girls who kissed different boys every weekend, however, would soon find their reputations damaged. Young men who kissed a lot of different girls could do so with abandon as long as their intimacy did not extend to intercourse with its association with commitment to marriage and risk of pregnancy.

As young couples began to think about marriage, they had explicit conversations about parental permission and intercourse.  Parents did block some marriages even in working communities. Young women also sought young men’s assurance that their promises to marry were real, sometimes getting written confirmation. These notes functioned like Instagram posts of engagement rings: a concrete proof of commitment that young women saved and showed to their friends and neighbors. Yet even in these consensual relationships where couples had discussed the issue of starting to have sex in the context of getting married, young women later recalled the shift to intercourse as a frightening and coerced experience.[4]

Painting of a man and a woman laying on a blanket
Detail from Le Faux Pas (c. 1716-18) by Antoine Watteau. Courtesy the Louvre, Paris.

Without reliable contraception, couples usually quickly faced a fertility challenge and the realization of a woman’s pregnancy was a pivotal moment. Many couples did marry, but others were – at least not yet – ready to marry so they sometimes decided to try to interrupt reproduction. Young men could buy potions that sometimes worked simply by making young women so ill that they miscarried. Occasionally, they might resort to the kind of late termination (what we would consider an abortion) or neonatal intervention (what we would consider infanticide). They could make a plan to charge the newborn baby to a foundling hospital or agree to an informal or court ordered settlement by which the father took custody. In either event, the babies were sent to wet-nurses where they likely died due to extremely high mortality rates for wet-nursed infants. Couples negotiated, argued, planned, and fell out over these challenging fertility issues.[5]

Women, their families, employers, neighbors, clergy, social welfare officials, and courts all held young men firmly responsible for the reproductive consequences of their sexual activity. In established relationships between young people of equal rank where marriage was feasible, everyone expected men to meet a clear set of obligations: to pay for their partner’s financial costs associated for childbirth delivery and to take physical custody of the baby. Young men were often even held in prison to secure their agreement if young women filed paternity suits. This arrangement allowed young women to reset their lives without the encumbrance of a baby and with their reputations intact. They could go back to work and go on to marry. It saved communities the economic burden of a single mother and child, and it publicly regulated and disciplined young men.

The politics of the Revolution sought to remake the politics of marriage, and ordinary people sometimes saw in the Revolutionary debates an opportunity to remake their own family situations. The emphasis on choice of partners without parental permission and the short-lived legalization of divorce aligned closely with the idea of having a choice of government systems. .The Revolution promised to destigmatize illegitimacy and make all children equal heirs regardless of their parents’ marital status.[6]  

Yet the Revolutionary era did not remake sexuality for the vast majority of people: courtship, broken promises to marry, untimely pregnancy, and efforts to interrupt reproduction remained key elements of young working people’s intimate lives. The persistence of gender hierarchies in what Judith Bennett calls “the patriarchal equilibrium” was much in evidence.[7] Just as supporters of the Revolution could not agree with each other on what new political form should prevail and some people still supported monarchy, changes in family and youthful relationships appeared slowly and unevenly in ways that were often segmented by rank, place of residence, religion, and gender.  

Nor did changes necessarily mark progress towards equality. Even if some women began to use a language of consent and began to explain the shift to intercourse based on their feelings of love and the pleasure of caresses, their consent to sex and marriage did not impact men’s legal rights within marriage. The law of coverture remained untouched: it continued to underwrite men’s access to women’s bodies, especially bodies of women transitioning to wives, as well as to be the administrators of family property and the legal representatives of the household. Women might have said they consented because they thought they ought to say that, or they agreed after men badgered them relentlessly for sex.  When young workers exploring intimacy used a language of affection, their choice of vocabulary did not equalize women’s and men’s experiences of intimate relationships and its consequences.  

The concept of an eighteenth-century sexual revolution seems to pertain at best to a small group of elite, white, straight men. It ignores the multiplicity of sexual cultures that existed before the second half of the eighteenth century, and the long histories of persistent patterns of intimacy. Women enjoyed physical intimacy long before the Revolution. Risk remained the center of women’s sexual experiences long after.  Pregnancy, efforts to terminate pregnancies, and childbirth still threatened women’s reproductive health and sometimes their lives. Their partners sometimes remained refused to marry them and left them facing uncertain futures. If there was a sexual revolution that preceded a technological revolution of fertility, it was tied to changes from the early 1800s that allowed young expectant fathers to walk away in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while young pregnant women were shamed and stigmatized in stark contrast to the support they could find in the Old Regime.[8]  

Julie Hardwick is the John E. Green Professor of History and Distinguished Teacing Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book is, Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Title Image:  Jan Steen, Romping Couple, c. 1660.

Further Readings:  

Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Rachel Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1997)

Sarah Knott, Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

Carolyn Steedman, Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)


[1] Archives Départementales du Rhône (hereafter ADR) BP 3551 2 June 1740 Dossier of Grissonet and Peyssonaux; ADR BP 3549 15 September 1730 Dossier of Thillier and Gaylart.

[2]  Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1997); Dror Wharman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006); Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1997); Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1997); Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the Renaissance(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Sarah Knott, Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

[3] ADR BP3542 17 October 1686 Dossier of Namy and Bergeron.

[4] The issue of how to assess young women’s recollection of sexual violence in later lawsuits is complicated.  For a full discussion, see Julie Hardwick, Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[5]  For young couples’ efforts to induce miscarriages or otherwise interrupt reproduction, see Hardwick, Sex in an Old Regime City

[6]  See Suzanne Desan, “Recent historiography on the French Revolution and Gender,” Journal of Social History (2018) 1-9; Guillaume Mazeau and Clyde Plumazille, “Penser avec le genre: Trouble dans la citoyenneté,” La Révolution française: Cahiers de l’Institut d’histoire de la Révolution françaises 9 (2015) 17-18; Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). 

[7]  Dena Goodman, “Marriage Choice and Marriage Structure.”

[8]  The twentieth-century technological sexual revolution (with cheap rubber condoms that became widely used after World War 1 and the development of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s) that liberated women from pregnancy and detached birth control from the experience of sex is by far the most important for women, and many men too. Among many examples of stigma and shaming as the norm in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see the instances of appalling abuse in Irish homes for unwed mothers recently documented in multiple investigations: https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/irish-pm-says-perverse-morality-drove-unwed-mothers-homes-1.5263261

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