Saturday, November 8, 2008

The "Sexual" American Revolution

The American Revolution can, at times, be characterized as a collection of smaller revolutions, all of which contributed and eventually led to the larger revolution -- i.e. the literal split from Great Britain. For example, the Great Awakening is often considered a revolution in and of itself, since it completely changed the way American colonists understood religion. The Market Revolution, which followed the actual American Revolution, can also be seen as another "mini-revolution," in which capitalism made its debut on the American stage.

In addition to these and numerous other "mini-revolutions" a sexual revolution of sorts also took place in early America. Richard Godbeer, a historian with the University of Miami and author of the book, Sexual Revolution in Early America has put together an excellent piece of work on how sex and gender relations underwent a tremendous transition in colonial America.

Here is a brief introduction and review of the book by John Hopkins University Press:

In 1695, John Miller, a clergyman traveling through New York, found it appalling that so many couples lived together without ever being married and that no one viewed "ante-nuptial fornication" as anything scandalous or sinful. Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister in South Carolina in 1766, described the region as a "stage of debauchery" in which polygamy was "very common," "concubinage general," and "bastardy no disrepute." These depictions of colonial North America's sexual culture sharply contradict the stereotype of Puritanical abstinence that persists in the popular imagination. In Sexual Revolution in Early America, Richard Godbeer boldly overturns conventional wisdom about the sexual values and customs of colonial Americans. His eye-opening historical account spans two centuries and most of British North America, from New England to the Caribbean, exploring the social, political, and legal dynamics that shaped a diverse sexual culture. Drawing on exhaustive research into diaries, letters, and other private papers, as well as legal records and official documents, Godbeer's absorbing narrative uncovers a persistent struggle between the moral authorities and the widespread expression of popular customs and individual urges. Godbeer begins with a discussion of the complex attitude that the Puritans had toward sexuality. For example, although believing that sex could be morally corrupting, they also considered it to be such an essential element of a healthy marriage that they excommunicated those who denied "conjugal fellowship" to their spouses. He next examines the ways in which race and class affected the debate about sexual mores, from anxieties about Anglo-Indian sexual relations to the sense of sexual entitlement that planters held over their African slaves. He concludes by detailing the fundamental shift in sexual culture during the eighteenth century towards the acceptance of a more individualistic concept of sexual desire and fulfillment. Today's moral critics, in their attempts to convince Americans of the social and spiritual consequences of unregulated sexual behavior, often hearken back to a more innocent age; as this groundbreaking work makes clear, America's sexual culture has always been rich, vibrant, and contentious.
In addition, colonial historian Alan Taylor gives the following critique of Godbeer's book:

Previous scholars also balked at examining colonial sex as its own subject, largely from a fear that the historical sources were insufficient. Godbeer forged ahead, "astonished by the richness of the material that survives on the subject." The problem is not that Godbeer lacks sources, but that they are trickier than he recognizes. Few diaries and letters survive from the colonial era, and fewer still offer frank admission to sexual thoughts and acts. Generalizing from those scatological few to the larger colonial population is problematic, to say the least. More often Godbeer must rely on hearsay accounts recorded by travelers who were keen to gather scandal at the expense of locales they disliked; and most often he depends on the recorded testimony in court cases brought by authorities or by aggrieved spouses seeking divorces. The travelers' accounts and court cases provide plenty of seamy and steamy quotations, but taking them at face value skews our picture of colonial sexuality toward the sensational. Finding what he seeks, Godbeer proves reluctant to doubt any of his sources. That he discovers more conflict than consensus, more deviance than conformity, seems inevitable given the nature of his sources -- and his disinterest in challenging them. Reading today's police log or tabloid newspaper certainly conveys a gritty reality denied in other genres, but it is a reality that needs to be kept in proportion when characterizing an entire society....

...A specialist in the cultural history of seventeenth-century New England, Godbeer appears most comfortable and persuasive when analyzing particular episodes and texts drawn from that region and that century. In an especially impressive passage, Godbeer examines the case of Nicholas Sension of Windsor, Connecticut in 1677. Sension's prosecution for sodomy seems to confirm Puritan rigidity and intolerance, but Godbeer shows that for more than twenty preceding years Sension's neighbors had recognized and reproved his behavior without involving the court. Since Sension was otherwise a good neighbor and a prosperous farmer who acted only upon young men of lower status, his townsmen balked at prosecuting him for a crime that carried the death penalty. Despite abundant evidence for multiple acts, the jury convicted Sension only of the lesser charge of attempted sodomy, which brought a public whipping and shaming instead of hanging. His Puritan neighbors persistently saw Sension as a wayward but redeemable sinner no different from any other soul, rather than as a distinctive sodomite. Throughout the century, only two men suffered execution for sodomy in New England.

In addition to softening our image of Puritan moral enforcement, Godbeer ameliorates the Puritans' cold image by recovering their sexual passion within both marriage and spirituality. In this emphasis, he follows the lead of Edmund S. Morgan, who made a similar case in 1942. Puritan sermons, poetry, and love letters celebrated marital and procreative sex in part to discourage all sexuality before or outside marriage. Never people to do things by halves, the Puritans extolled foreplay and orgasm by husband and wife. In a guide to marriage, Reverend William Gouge preached that sex "must be performed with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully." Believing that conception depended upon a female orgasm, ministers urged every husband to attend to his wife's needs. Another marital guide instructed that "when the husband cometh into the wife's chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behavior, and allurements to venery."

More striking still, the Puritans expressed their spirituality in erotic terms that transcended gender. Ministers exhorted Puritans, male and female, to submit to "an eternal love affair with Jesus Christ." One young man asked in his diary, "Will the Lord now again return and embrace me in the arms of his dearest love? Will he fall upon my neck and kiss me?" Since souls were equal and either without gender or vaguely female, Puritan men comfortably spoke of submitting as brides to ravishment by Christ as their spiritual bridegroom. Godbeer concludes that "Puritan sensibility offered a way to spiritualize sex and sexualize the spirit in a glorious and torrid symbiosis."


Lori Stokes said...

Someone said "Puritan"! so here I am. It's true that the image of Puritans as anti-sex is a complete myth. They had no problem with sex, and pre-martial sex was absolutely common. In fact, by the 18th century New England had a system for child support that anyone would envy today: if a woman claimed a man had fathered her child, and there was no good proof he hadn't, he was bound to support the mother and child financially until the mother married. There was no burden of shame on the mother; in fact, it was the father of an illegitimate child who was castigated, since it was assumed a woman could not prevent a man from making advances to her, or even from being swept away by passion.

I agree that it tends to be the scandalous cases that are preserved, thus skewing our view of colonial sexuality, but it's also true that pastors wrote things in their private diaries that could not have been meant for the public that prove that country people in colonial times at least were often unconcerned with covering their nakedness. I always remember one pastor who came out from Boston to the western frontier (western MA) in the late 1600s who described women coming to church in the hot summer wearing nothing but a see-through cotton slip, and men basically wearing their underpants and nothing else. The pastor was very embarrassed and didn't know what to do, confiding only to his diary. It's moments like this that bring these people to life!

Brad Hart said...

Some excellent insight, Lori. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this up. I had been interested in this book, but had not heard much about it. I will definitely pick it up now.

By the way, I am adding your blog to my blogroll. Just felt that you should know.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, driftingfocus! We appreciate the support!