Faramerz Dabhoiwala is a Parsi boy made good — in fact, his new book on sex has very quickly become just about the hottest property in the literary world.
When an online article on The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution appeared in a British national newspaper, Dabhoiwala confides to The Telegraph, “thousands and thousands of people around the world read that and hundreds of people tweeted about it — and some of those tweets are from people in India”.
The basic message in the book is that sexual freedom is taken for granted in the West in general and in Britain in particular, but before the start of “the age of Enlightenment” in 1800, sex outside marriage was completely taboo. And same-sex marriage was considered nothing short of sinful.
Dabhoiwala has been flooded with requests for interviews about his book (Allen Lane, Penguin, £25), which initially began as a PhD thesis before he spent 10 years on scholarly research into the subject.
As he points out in his book, the subject has universal appeal: “Sexual intercourse is a universal human practice. Yet sex also has a history.”
In between meeting the demands for interviews, Dabhoiwala laughs and says he has got to keep his day job going — he is the senior fellow in history at Exeter College, Oxford, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
“I am travelling all the time but I have to be in Oxford because my job continues, because it is term time and I am teaching and I am doing all the things one has to do,” he points out.
“I feel my life is even more exciting and enjoyable than it was a few months ago,” he goes on. “I have had terrific help from my publishers.”
It has been 10 years or so since Dabhoiwala was last in India but he is looking forward to doing a book tour of the country — this should be possible soon since his publishers are Penguin, except in the US where The Origins of Sex is being brought out by Oxford University Press.
His literary agent in America is none other than Andrew Wylie, whose stable of celebrity authors includes some of the highest earners in the business, including Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Patrick French.
So, people in India can draw up a list of questions on sex — one could be on how far India should go in following western notions of sexual freedom.
“My people are Parsi,” confirms Dabhoiwala. “My dad got married in the late 1960s and emigrated from India to England to complete his medical training as a surgeon.”
Dabhoiwala, who is in his forties, has dedicated the book to his partner, Jo, and their daughters, Jocelyn and Zoë.
“I was born in England and I lived in England until I was five and then we moved to Amsterdam and I grew up there and decided that I wanted to go back to England to go to university,” he tells The Telegraph. “I have family in Bombay still.”
He explains: “The PhD was the seed from which this huge project was finally completed after more than 10 years.”
He had no idea of the enormity of the task he was taking on. “I did know that I wanted to write a total history.”
The Origins of Sex is essentially set in the West but Dabhoiwala says: “I would love people to read the book anyway and think about the parallels between what I am describing and what their own outlook and circumstances are.”
A paperback version will follow soon and the e-book is available for downloading straightway.
There is a clear inference in the book that there is a correlation between sexual and democratic freedoms.
There was a time before 1800 when “the sexual culture of the West was exactly opposite to what we nowadays take for granted. All sex outside marriage was criminal. People were everyday flogged and imprisoned and punished for it. People were even being executed across Europe for adultery.”
When the old rules were relaxed, the benefits did not extend to everyone, Dabhoiwala argues, but followed existing power structures. It was decided that “it’s only white, upper-class men in both the political and sexual spheres that should really have these freedoms. It’s not okay for black people to have the vote. It’s not okay for women to have the vote. Similarly, it’s not okay for them to have the same kind of sexual freedoms (as men).”
Same-sex activity attracted the strongest condemnation. “In the 18th century that is one of the red lines between what is natural and what is unnatural and you see an increase in persecution of people for same-sex activity. There is also this idea that women are essentially passionless, asexual and it is unnatural for them to have sexual desire.”
Perhaps when Dabhoiwala comes to India, he will be able to expand more fully on how an essentially conservative country will be able to find a balance between repressive orthodoxy and the “anything goes” attitudes prevalent today in sections of western society.
Sex is good, the more the better, according to Dabhoiwala’s findings. But have the breakdown of family life and the growing incidence of single mothers who have a number of children by different fathers really been good for the individuals or society in general? And if not, when does good sex become bad sex?
He responds: “One of the things that I end my book with is the extent to which, in the West at any rate in the last 30 or 40 years, the idea of individual rights — that individuals have the right to determine what they do sexually — has become seemingly much more important than the idea of the common good. In fact, people don’t really allude to the common good any more when talking about sex. It makes them uncomfortable.”
He hopes Indians will reflect on what he has to say about prostitution. “I hope that Indian readers will recognise what I say about 19th century attitudes more generally — for example, on the question of prostitution which becomes hugely more important and widespread from the 18th century onwards. If you assert it is natural for men to be promiscuous but it is also natural for respectable women to be chaste then one solution to that is prostitution. You create a different class of women.”
As St Valentine’s Day approaches, self-styled guardians of Indian morality will seek to place a ban on youthful expressions of mutual affection and fun.
But Dabhoiwala offers this prediction: “Just as western feminism has had an impact across the globe, so too have western concepts of sexual freedom.”