Review of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America

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A Review of INTIMATE MATTERS: A History of Sexuality in America

by John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman

San Francisco/ New York: Harper & Row

Review Copyright © 1988 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



In 1850 adultery was so scandalous the subject made Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter one of the most revolutionary novels in American letters. A century later, however, half the married American males and a quarter of the married American females polled by Alfred Kinsey acknowledged at least one episode of their own adultery. More recent studies by Shere Hite and others suggest the percentages have continued to grow, and the gender gap to narrow.

Similarly, masturbation was known by 18th Century medical science and clerical authorities to destroy a person's physical health and to cause insanity. When Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, urged men to avoid masturbation in his 1812 sex manual, Diseases of the Mind, he was fully in the mainstream of his culture. Like other moderates, Rush believed men could safely have intercourse with their wives; but early 19th Century sex radicals such as Sylvester Graham (inventor of Graham crackers) and John Kellogg (of Corn Flakes fame) warned that any sexual excitement – even spousal intercourse, but especially masturbation – was dangerous to a man's health because every ejaculation depleted his body's energy reserves. Women apparently did not have to wrestle as much as men with erotic problems, since in those days it was also well known that the fair sex had fewer of the unhealthy, unnatural carnal desires than had the brutish male. But virtually all the American men Kinsey and his colleagues interviewed acknowledged that they masturbated, as did more than 60 percent of their female counterparts.

Did American attitudes and actions regarding sex really change so greatly in a scant hundred years? Apparently they did, and they changed as well in each of the three preceding centuries that complete the span of what we call American history – if, that is, "American" means that special group of Western European-descended white, male, propertied folk we've come to identify as the pillars of the middle-class. This group, small in numbers but potent in its control of media, legislators, priests, and other judges, has largely dictated what everyone else is supposed to call "normal," as it has also usually claimed some special provenance in knowing what God wants and therefore has dictated what everyone else is also supposed to call "moral."

But as John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman make clear in Intimate Matters, it is "everyone else" – those people whose race, gender, politics, or erotic practices have kept them outside the fringes of the normal and moral white, male, propertied, middle-class American society -- who has gradually wrested freedom in sexual matters from narrow Puritan confines, chiefly by insisting on the right to respect their own erotic natures.

When some English pilgrims migrated to Chesapeake Bay about 1607, to the remainder of New England after 1620, and to Pennsylvania, New York, and the Carolinas after 1660, they brought with them a belief in the Biblically-ordained procreative function of sex, and a concomitant belief that any other erotic expression was at least shameful and probably sinful. It disturbed them greatly that many Native American tribes accepted and even endorsed premarital intercourse, polygamy, institutionalized homosexuality, and other sexual practices the pilgrims regarded as damaging. Although a few immigrants embraced both these Native Americans and their sexual practices, as Thomas Morton did in his self-styled community at Merry Mount, such libertines did not last in the colonies. Morton, for instance, was deported back to England after three years; when he later returned to America he was imprisoned and so badly maltreated that he died within a year of his release.

The road toward sexual freedom has been a constant struggle, with every two steps of liberty undermined by one step of backlash. For each Frances Wright, advocating free love between the races in the mid-1700s, and for every Margaret Sanger advocating birth control despite threats of prison and violence, there has been an Anthony Comstock, the Connecticut dry-goods salesman who enlisted the white male establishment that controlled the YMCA to support "his life's work" which was "combating sex in print, art, or private correspondence."

The YMCA began its anti-obscenity crusade in 1866, and Comstock soon joined it with a vengeance. By 1872 he was lobbying for state and federal laws against every sort of sexual expression. After the so-called Comstock Act of 1873 made it illegal to mail "obscene, lewd, lascivious, and indecent writing or advertisements, including articles that aided contraception or abortion," Comstock became an unpaid postal inspector. Single-handedly he busted whatever he personally found obscene, including girlie postcards and fine art nudes, cheap sex books and one of Tolstoy's classic novels, sexually explicit rubber goods and medical discussions of sex education.

Ironically, like every person or movement that has ever tried to suppress the erotic in America, Comstock instead called attention to sexuality, and eventually provoked greater erotic liberation than he had suppressed. But even more than the individuals and the causes they espoused, as D'Emilio and Freedman make clear, the forces of culture and history have encouraged a general drift in social matters away from communal regulation of private acts, and toward individual choice. So have they determined America's sexual liberation.

Sexual conservatives, seeking to restrain and regulate everything erotic, have repeatedly lost ground to shifting social norms: to the presence of the automobile, which made privacy available; to the fact of wars, which made people both lonely and independent; to the advent of condoms, diaphragms, safe abortions, and especially The Pill, which allowed people to fornicate without producing progeny. Conservatives' attempts to hold sex at bay with arguments upholding the values of a rural, agrarian, family-oriented society have been vitiated by the disintegration of the entire agrarian lifestyle that followed inevitably on the heels of urbanization. Finally, those who have sought to limit sex to a procreative function between husband and wife have been unable to compete with American business, which has long found good money in providing people with pleasure and titillation.

Intimate Matters is social history in the best tradition: thoroughly researched, lucidly organized, and clearly presented, and embodies the great gift that good historical research offers to people living in the historical present: the reminder that the social realities that dominate our lives were not and will not always be prominent. What was a big deal yesterday may count for nothing today, and what is a big deal today may count for nothing in the very near future. However much attitudes and behaviors about sex have changed in any of the past several hundred years, there is no reason to suppose they will not change some more. It is a very good bet that our modern erotic standards will seem just as quaint to our children's children's children as our great grandparents' standards seem to us, and our descendants will be fortunate indeed if they have a guide to their socio-sexual history as solid and complete as the one D'Emilio and Freedman have given us.


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