One of the interesting laws that governed sexual practice in colonial America was that of "seed spilling." In Massachusetts, the practice of masturbation was severely condemned by the clergy. The law was inspired by the Biblical precedent in Genesis 38:9, which states, "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, least he should give seed to his brother." The subsequent verse then mentions god's wrath and how Onan lost his life for such a practice.
Citizens of the various colonies were encouraged to report the practice of "seed spilling" --which included a number of different sex acts but primarily dealt with masturbation -- wherever such cases were discovered. The initial punishment in Massachusetts for such a crime was death, following the Biblical precedent. The punishment was changed, however, in the latter parts of the 17th century to be "Four hours in the stocks."
The reason I bring up this law is because it illustrates an important aspect of American colonial society. Sexual deviance, though common in America throughout the colonial period, carried a strong religious condemnation that was very real for many people. Just look at the case of Joseph Moody. In the William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, historian Brian Carroll discusses how religious beliefs regarding sex impacted colonial society. In Moody's diary are written the following entries:
Thurs. [July] 19 [1722 ]. This morning I got up pretty late. I defiled myself, though wide awake. Where will my unbridled lust lead me? I have promised myself now for a year and a half that I would seek after God, but now I am perhaps farther away from him than ever before.
Mon. [April] 13 [1724 ]. Pretty Cold; wind from N. W. to S. fine weather. . . . I dined with the doctor and schoolmaster Abbott. Then with the doctor I called on Captain and Ensign Allen. I stayed up with my love not without pleasure, but I indulged my desire too freely, and at night the semen flowed from me abundantly.
The overwhelming sense of guilt that plagued Moody's soul gives us valuable insight into the moral mindset of colonial America. Even if sexual promiscuity was a common occurrence (and it most certainly was in colonial America), there were others who felt deeply about god's moral judgments that awaited them in the life to come.