Roy Porter and Lesley Hall explore the moral, religious, scientific, medical, domestic, social, and cultural backgrounds of various periods in which sexual information was received. They assess, for example, the impact of literature on sex on the legal regulation of prostitution, the control of contagious diseases, gender relations in and out of marriage, social purity movements, and social hygiene concerns. They describe the emergence of evolutionist and laboratory discourses on sexuality, the origins of sexual surveys, debates about marriage and free love, and associated revelations of personal sexual experiences.
Examining texts that range from Nicolas Venette's Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal'd, written near the close of the seventeenth century, to Marie Stopes's Married Love, a famous tract of the twentieth century, Porter and Hall show how these texts established and authorized sexual knowledge and sexual practices. They describe the authors of these texts, their careers, and the motives for involvement in medico-moral campaigns that were often thought unsavory and commonly led to criticism and censure.
Challenging and overturning common assumptions and historiographical traditions—from hoary myths of the Victorians to the work of Michel Foucault—the book adds a great deal to our understanding of the origins of sexual mores and knowledge.