• Documentary, ‘Sex and Sensibility’. (One Tribe TV)Source: One Tribe TV
This documentary suggests the prim and proper world of Jane Austen and Co. was business at the front, party out the back.
Travis Johnson

14 Feb 2022 - 3:53 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2022 - 10:25 AM

Our ancestors had sex – we’re the evidence. And, despite what the social mores of many past eras might have tried to say to the contrary, they had quite a lot of it – although they generally had to be a lot more discreet about it. Even the most straight-laced of eras had its share of scandal, and the documentary Sex and Sensibility demonstrates that the genteel Georgian era was no exception.

Thanks to the works of writers such as Jane Austen and the popularity of series like Bridgerton, the Georgian era, particularly the early 1800s, has a reputation as a time of (mostly) genteel romance and strict decorum when courtship was carried out through coded wooing, and rigorous social protocols ruled every waking moment. And that’s true to a degree.

Sex and Sensibility presents us with a fictional framework through which we explore the sexual habits of the day, following a wealthy but common-born businessman’s efforts to find a suitable – and titled – match for his eligible daughter. But, as historian and sexologist Kate Lister, author of Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale, tells us in the show, the cast of this romance paperback plot would have been “…absolutely at it like rabbits.”

But as Sex and Sensibility makes clear, there were double standards at play. While women of 'good breeding' were expected to remain chaste until their wedding, it was considered normal for young gentlemen to sow their wild oats before settling down. Prostitution was rife to such a degree that in the late 1700s an annual guide, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, was published to help the discerning punter navigate one of London’s more notorious stews.

The fabled Grand Tour of English tradition, where young gentry would travel the great cities of the continent as part of their education, was also an excuse to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, and we’re told that more than one noble came home with empty pockets but a full dose of venereal disease.

Women largely had to settle for erotic writing or pornography, if they were lucky enough to find it. At odds with the era’s prim and proper reputation, the porn business was booming, with Fanny Hill, written in debtor’s prison by John Cleland and published in 1748, only one of countless erotic novels available to the curious reader. The establishment was scandalised by the quite open – for the time, at least – sexuality of the novel, and when an earthquake hit London in 1750, the Bishop of London declared that it was divine punishment for allowing the publication of Cleland’s saucy tome.

But never mind earthquakes – the Bishop may as well have been trying to turn back the tide. As historian Edson Burton notes, it was a period of sexual awakening in Britain – at least for the upper classes. Sodomy was still a hanging offence, but gay liaisons among the wealthy and landed were tolerated as long as they were kept discreet. Gay brothels were not as common as straight ones, but they were just as enthusiastically patronised. And as for kink, notorious private clubs like The Hellfire Club catered to a wide range of predilections.

Combining costumed drama as our businessman’s daughter and others navigate their first London Season, plus a look at the situation for those employed in aristocratic households, and interviews with experts on courtship and sex in the Georgian era, Sex and Sensibility explores attitudes to sex, love and courtship and the often cynical nature of marriage at the time. 

Sex and Sensibility is an absolute romp, and a useful reminder that our forebears got up to much more than we often give them credit for. Keep it in mind the next time you cue up your favourite Regency Romance.

Sex and Sensibility premiered on SBS and is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

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