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  • Online publication date: December 2014

4 - Carnal Bodies


Within the eighteenth-century European imagination there were competing theories about savage sexuality. Some believed uncivilized societies indulged in carnal acts unfettered by the institutions which regulated sexual intercourse within civilized society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, in his treatise on natural man, congratulated the ‘savage [who] obeys only the physical side’, thus, as historian Carol Blum comments, ‘separating sexual pleasure from its reproductive consequences and sentimental entanglements’ such as marriage and child-rearing. Rousseau conjectured that, ‘Limited merely to the physical aspect of love … [natural] man peacefully awaits the impetus of nature, gives himself over to it without choice, and with more pleasure than frenzy; and once the need is satisfied, all desire is snuffed out’.

The assumption that in ‘rude nations’ sex was little more than a carnal act was, however, more often condemned than applauded by eighteenth-century philosophers and explorers. Instead ‘savages’ were often supposed to be promiscuous and libidinous for they lacked the sentiments of love, chastity and modesty which regulated civilized marriages and procreation. Further, as Blum demonstrates, growing demographic concerns throughout the eighteenth century demanded that sex and procreation be strictly regulated within the sanctity of marriage, not only out of religious observance, but also increasingly for the purpose of consolidating the territory and defence of the state by expanding its population. Lord Kames, for example, generalized that ‘male savages, utter strangers to decency or refinement, gratify animal love with as little ceremony as they do hunger or thirst’, and worried that, if ‘the carnal appetite [was] always alive, the sexes would wallow in pleasure, and be soon rendered unfit for procreation’, endangering the continuation of ‘the species’. However, an alternative theory considered sensual pleasure a consequence of civilization, and so savages were presumed to be passionless. John Millar held that the ‘sexual appetite’ of savages ‘must be in great measure overlooked in that miserable state of society’ which is preoccupied by the endless pursuit of sustenance.

In addition to these generic discourses on savage sexuality, Europeans stereotyped the particular sexual mores of different indigenous peoples, most notably Africans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.