Cover image for Rereading sex : battles over sexual knowledge and suppression in nineteenth-century America
Rereading sex : battles over sexual knowledge and suppression in nineteenth-century America
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2002.
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viii, 514 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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HQ18.U5 H673 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A lively, scholarly, and often startling exploration of 19th-century American attitudes toward sexuality -- what we felt, thought, wrote, and said about the human body; about love, lust, intercourse, masturbation, contraception, and abortion; about the power of sexual words and images.Horowitz shows us a many-voiced America in which an earthy acceptance of desire and sexual expression collided with the prohibitions broadcast from pulpit and printed page by evangelical Christian elements. She describes the new sensibility that placed sex at the center of life; visionaries like Robert Owen, espousing free love, and the lively new commerce in erotica -- including newspapers like The Sunday Flash and, most famously, The National Police Gazette (which featured a legal way to write explicitly about sex). We see a rising opposition instigated by conservative New Yorkers who feared the corruption of young male clerks living in boardinghouses, deprived of parental influence. And we see how this movement led into an era of suppression -- pitting Anthony Comstock, who succeeded in banning sexual subject matter from the mails, against the new dissenters committed to free speech -- and into the opening battles of the national cultural wars that continue to this day.

Author Notes

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor in American Studies at Smith College, is the recipient of grants and fellowships from, among others, the Radcliffe Institute and the American Antiquarian Society. She has taught at Scripps College and the University of Southern California. She and her husband, Daniel, live in Northampton and Cambridge, Massachusetts

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1839, a young physician named Charles Knowlton challenged the prevailing argument that birth control was somehow "against nature." "It is also against nature to cut our nails, our hair, or to shave the beard," he wrote. "What is civilized life but one continual warfare against nature?" While many agreed with Knowlton's views, others found his support for contraceptives dangerous or even obscene, since it would certainly encourage the young men and women who yearned for sexual intimacy without any consequences. Conflicts between those committed to sexual knowledge and those determined to suppress it form the foundation of this well-researched study. Horowitz (The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas) argues that 19th-century Americans did not have a single, dominant sexual culture; rather, competing groups of Americans fought for their own definitions of sex in courtrooms, in the press, in churches and in politics. Americans were "engaged in a complex four-way conversation about sex": there was the "American vernacular sexual culture" (with its "earthy acceptance" of desire), evangelical Christianity (which was more prudish), "reform physiology" (whose adherents focused on healthy bodily functions) and a "new sensibility" (which viewed sex as life's central act). Horowitz offers a sharp and insightful scholarly examination of these conflicting frameworks, steeped in 19th-century history, cultural politics, religion, legal battles, science and medical practices. Her work addresses conflicting attitudes toward sexual knowledge, erotica, birth control, masturbation, abortion and obscenity laws, previewing the passionate cultural battles that continue to grab headlines today. 86 illus. (Sept. 8) Forecast: Though this thoughtful and jargon-free history may feel a bit erudite for the lay reader, it's a natural for students of social and sexual history. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

This is a lively romp through 19th-century US attitudes on free love, copulation, masturbation, abortion, obscenity, and several other topics related in one way or another to sexuality. Horowitz (American studies, Smith College) is concerned primarily with what men and women thought and wrote, rather than how they actually behaved. The usual suspects, including Sylvester Graham, Victoria Woodhull, John Humphrey Noyes, and Anthony Comstock, receive the predictable treatments, but this account is no mere rehash of earlier works on Victorian notions of propriety and impropriety. Horowitz constructs a theoretical matrix designed to account for the multitude of contending voices that shaped the nation's discourse on sexuality 150 years ago. Although comparable in some respects to Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians (1966) and Luc Sante's Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), this a thoroughly original study. Revelations about the freewheeling literature on sexual matters in the antebellum era are particularly fascinating, not least because so little is known of either popular or pornographic materials published in the decades preceding the Civil War. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels/collections. B. R. Burg Arizona State University

Booklist Review

Struck by America's paradoxical attitudes toward sex, the explicitness of popular culture on one hand and the refusal to educate young people about sexuality for their own protection on the other, cultural historian Horowitz, author most recently of The Power and the Passion of M. Carey Thomas (1995), sought the roots of this dilemma. To that end, she scrutinizes a great spectrum of nineteenth-century printed matter, from treatises on reproduction to penny papers and the "sporting" man's weekly magazines published in New York City, the epicenter for struggles among the prudish, the prurient, and the progressive. Horowitz traces the effects on sexual politics of the abolition movement, advances in medicine, and court cases that established obscenity laws, zestfully analyzing a phenomenal amount of diverse material, and profiling such influential individuals as the groundbreaking reformer Frances Wright and the censorious Anthony Comstock. Along the way, Horowitz addresses myriad vital issues, from how children learned about sex to how women secured contraception, from the status of prostitutes to the influence of evangelical Christians and freethinkers. The impressive and compelling result is an intricate tapestry of nineteenth-century American sexual culture that fully reveals the power and complexity of sexuality and its profound impact on every facet of life. --Donna Seaman

Library Journal Review

This detailed examination of the representation as distinct from practice of American sexuality in the 19th century is the most thorough treatment of the subject yet to appear. Horowitz (American studies, Smith Coll.) is one of the great historians of American feminism, and her 1997 Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas, a biography of the visionary advocate/designer of women's higher education, is the most acclaimed among a half-dozen books that have made their mark in academe. Horowitz's singular contribution here is her reconstruction/rediscovery of Victorian-era erotic literature or what has survived of it; her "rereading" establishes that the current contest over what is pornographic and where the lines meet among the expressive, informative, and prurient continues a long contest. Many of the players in these debates, however, are well-known subjects of important biographies and smaller-scale histories, including Sylvester Graham, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock. And while New York as publishing and entertainment center was undeniably the locus for struggles over sex, Horowitz might have shown greater interest in what was happening with these questions outside the five boroughs. Of course, that leaves an opening for her colleagues. Essential for academic libraries.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 Introduction Historians live in both the present and the past, and their work reflects their Janus-like double gaze. In the mid-1990s, I found myself bewildered by forces in the society that seemed to insist on the suppression of straight talk about sex in the public arena when, at the same time, popular culture was rife with sexually explicit lyrics and films. AIDS was taking a terrible toll, but parents and school boards were attempting to prevent schoolchildren from receiving scientific knowledge about sex. As the Internet broke down boundaries to the transmission of information, it opened up a vast universe of sexually arousing and violent images. And yet, after Dr. Joycelyn Elders answered a question following an AIDS conference in which she stated that as a part of human sexuality, masturbation was an appropriate subject in sex education classes, she was forced to resign as surgeon general of the United States. I felt I was living in a baffling sexual culture. This sense was in my head and heart when I began to think about returning to historical research. I had just completed a biography of M. Carey Thomas, in which I had tried to determine what she had known about sexuality as she came to maturity in the 1870s. I had learned a great deal about my subject but wanted to know more about her era. I began with a seemingly simple question: How did Americans imagine sex in the nineteenth century? This turned out to have no easy answer, and I started to study the impact of new understandings of the body, especially the reproductive organs and the nervous system, on the conception of desire. I came to ask how sexual knowledge and the questions it posed shaped the ways in which sexual matters were written about and discussed in the public arena. In the process I uncovered the nineteenth century's complex conversation about sex. In reading it, I bumped into efforts, partially successful, to suppress elements of that conversation. I learned also that, from early on, as critics challenged the power of the state to regulate sexual speech, they created a vital countertradition opposing censorship. I had already begun to question the usual way that standard texts treated the history of nineteenth-century sexuality in America. They contained many versions of "Victorian sexuality"-that Americans beginning in the antebellum years had constructed a self that focused on self-control, suppression of sexual urges, and denial of women's sexual feeling. Even writers who in recent years have challenged the hegemony of sexual repression have nonetheless continued to work within a conceptual framework that allows an easily comprehended conflict between expression and restraint. They have not seen what this book demonstrates, the role of the courts. Notions of nineteenth-century Victorian repression emerged in part because the normal routes of historical discovery were distorted by government suppression. My book contests "Victorian sexuality" at a deeper level than earlier works, and I hope it will lay both the concept and the term to rest. By rereading sex in terms of contending conversations, this study offers a new and more supple way to envision sexual discussion in both past and present. The American polity was split along many lines, economic, religious, and ideological. Among the matters about which Americans disagreed most sharply was sexuality.1 I take Americans quarreling about sex as my subject and look at many of them as I track the cultural divides shaping distinct understandings of the body, reproduction, and desire. I focus on the work of some famous Americans, such as Sylvester Graham, Robert Dale Owen, and Anthony Comstock; I also examine that of others, such as Mary Gove and Cephas Brainerd, who are relatively unknown today. As I have read what Americans wrote in the nineteenth century, I have discerned from the welter four primary voices, and I have come to imagine Americans engaged in a complex four-way conversation about sex. In the conversation each side not merely disagreed; each imagined sexuality from a distinct cultural perspective. Each of these four stances shaped the way Americans received and conveyed sexual knowledge. Because it is a metaphor that invokes both structure and background, I have adopted the term "framework" in referring to each of the four sexual cultures. American vernacular sexual culture, the first framework, was based on humoral theory and carried with it an erotic edge. Evangelical Christianity, the second, held a deep distrust of the flesh. In the nineteenth century the third framework emerged, a new consciousness linked to new notions of the body, nerves, health, and the relation of mind and body. At its outer edge, a new sensibility that placed sex at the center of life came into being, creating the fourth framework. Exploration of the four sexual frameworks in nineteenth-century America begins with vernacular culture. Passed down through the generations and sideways among peers, this framework sustained an earthy acceptance of sex and desire as vital parts of life for men and women. It is best labeled "vernacular" because it was a largely oral tradition outside the literate discourses of religion, science, and law and typically despised by those in power. As it portrayed sex, vernacular sexuality looked back deep into the European past to the medical perception of the body as governed by the four humors-blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile-related to the four states-hot, cold, dry, and moist-with heat and blood as the source of sexual desire. Its gendered forms took different emphases. What can be known about female vernacular sexual culture centered on childbirth and efforts to control fertility. Male vernacular sexuality paid great attention to sexual intercourse between men and women, emphasizing sharp arousal and release. This framework has been the source of bawdy humor in America, many popular terms, and, as literacy spread, numerous sexually arousing texts. Lying at the base of conscious awareness and corresponding to strong bodily urges, vernacular sexuality retained power throughout the nineteenth century. Although plenty of prescriptive statements from the pulpit and the printed page attempted to shape what Americans thought and felt, they did not fully supplant what seemed to many to be common wisdom. My sense of the power of vernacular culture is one of the reasons why I have chosen the word "framework" instead of the more fashionable word "discourse." In contrast to those who deem that ideas about sexuality are linked seamlessly to sexual practice, I perceive more disjuncture and internal conflict, possibilities allowed by imagining a conversation in which participants expressed competing sexual frameworks and perhaps accepted into their own lives and practice messages from more than one.2 Christian ministers were certainly aware of vernacular sexuality, as it was for them a central component of "Old Man Adam." As men such as Lyman Beecher put it, ever since God placed man on earth, he had a tendency to sin. And "Eve," that representative wayward woman, hardly helped. In the nineteenth century, as revivals spread evangelical Christianity across the nation, ministers waged war against many sins of the flesh. In this second framework, lust became a preeminent deadly sin, its fiery rages threatening both body and spirit. As preachers fought for the souls of sinners, they knew that they had a battle on their hands. Their strength increased through lay efforts to found and support Sunday schools and missionary, Bible, and tract societies. In New England, with its long tradition of communal oversight of moral behavior, the Second Great Awakening unleashed campaigns against alcohol, prostitution, slavery, stimulating food and drink, desecration of the Sabbath, and obscene images and words. By the 1830s, evangelical Christians were not alone in their verbal efforts to shape sexual feeling and behavior. As freethinkers such as Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen demanded a new approach to sexual questions, a vast conversation about sex began. Basing their philosophy on the Enlightenment's credo "Let there be light," radicals such as Owen valued frank, open discussion of sexual matters. Owen wrote and published the first book on birth control in the United States. Encouraged by the example and hospitality of freethinkers, Charles Knowlton added his scientifically grounded book on contraception. Owen and Knowlton created a new literature of sexuality that, beginning in the 1830s, laid one of the foundations of the third framework. The books and pamphlets took the term "reform physiology" to designate their efforts to describe the reproductive organs and their functions and to prescribe healthful ways of living. Readers of reform physiology included those rural and urban northerners who were successfully seeking ways to limit the size of their families. Alongside the freethinkers, reformers rooted in the Christian tradition, such as Sylvester Graham, laid the third framework's other foundation. Soon ministers, moralists, doctors, and commentators added their voices and printed words to the conversation. These texts of reform physiology began to displace a conception of sex existing within a body of four humors with new notions of the body, nerves, and the relation of mind and body. Sexual desire, no longer imagined as springing from heated blood, was in mind, originating in messages sent from the brain through the nerves. In turning to health and disease, lecturers and writers focused concern on the nervous system. As they added new notions of romantic love that put feeling and its expression at the center, some found reasons to separate sexual intercourse from conception. Locating sex in mind at a time when poems and fiction centered on heightened emotion emphasized the potential power of imaginative literature and thus its danger. Such ideas constituted the third sexual framework in its early phase. Although based in an emerging science of the body emphasizing the nerves and health, the third framework was divided from the outset. As its writers explored the relation of sexuality to new notions of the body, mind, and health, they struggled over words and concepts by which the passions and the reproductive organs and their functions could be best understood and explained. In this clash, voices urging restraint and inhibition, such as Graham, were contested by others, such as Knowlton, seeking sexual expression less constrained by traditional morality. Health reformers, for example William A. Alcott and R. T. Trall, preached ways of healthy living, including sexual practices believed conducive to well-being. As some evangelical Christians joined the discussion and adopted the new language of health, they added medical reasons for denying the flesh. Books authored by such writers as Luther V. Bell and Mary Gove proliferated, counseling youth against masturbation and describing a youthful sexual culture that seemed especially worrisome to adults at a time in which more and more boys and girls were leaving home for school and work. These writers were countered by a strong strain of medical common sense and religious free thought in writers such as Frederick Hollick and Edward B. Foote, insisting on the naturalness of the body's sexual appetites and desires. Moreover, within this large evolving third configuration there was movement and change. Some of those who began with a reawakened evangelical Christianity ended up as enthusiastic about sex as they once were about the Second Coming. Amherst College graduate Orson Squires Fowler, for example, preached phrenology and gradually moved from exhorting his audience to suppress "amativeness," or the reproductive instinct, to celebrating it. Sexual experimentation played an important role in a number of reform and utopian movements of the antebellum years, some of which began within evangelical enthusiasm. John Humphrey Noyes's utopian colony of perfectionists at Oneida, New York, believed in "complex marriage," where each member of the community was a potential sexual partner of every adolescent and adult of the opposite sex. Within the emerging Spiritualist community the notion of spiritual affinity led some to reject their husbands and wives to take new temporal as well as spiritual lovers. The authors of the third sexual framework attempted to present to a growing middle-class audience the new science of the body, along with prescriptions for living. To the uncertain world of the emerging middle class, many counseled sobriety and habits of order. New canons of middle-class respectability emphasized decorum and bodily control. Unquestionably in the antebellum years there came into being a middle-class awareness of appropriate public behavior that sought to remove overt sexuality from the public arena. A range of evangelically inspired movements before the Civil War added their voices, urging temperance and Sabbath keeping. Writings of the third framework often contribute to this project. I would distinguish, however, between admonitions about public behavior and prescriptions in areas governing private life, as well as between what is written and how it is read. Much of what others have understood as Victorian sexuality is the play of this verbiage over vernacular sexuality. It is a mistake to see the sexual prescriptions of reform physiology, however, as all of a piece. I emphasize both the varied nature of this writing and the complexity of its hold on the psyche. I agree with Karen Lystra that reform physiology spans a spectrum from sexual restriction to sexual enthusiasm and with Carl Degler that there was a gap between what people did and what the prescriptive literature told them to do.3 In addition, I think that there was often a cognitive gap between contending sexual frameworks. To me the nature of the human psyche is such that individuals can hold multiple understandings about sex and be divided within themselves. While human complexity may have generated the confusion and guilt apparent in some diaries and letters, it also made possible a realm of freedom that allowed mid-nineteenth-century men and women room to find their own way. In sum, reform physiology was varied and normally had a lighter hold on the psyche than is generally understood. Moreover, from the beginning through the middle and end, there were countervoices to sexual prescription and messages of restraint. America has had a continuous and lively tradition of free thought that punctures pieties and demands straight speech. Early in the nineteenth century there were those, such as Abner Kneeland, who took frank relish in blasphemy. As the century progressed, freethinkers and materialists such as Charles Knowlton pushed the limits of the sexual conversation, challenging medical orthodoxy and notions of verbal propriety. By midcentury, social movements began to alter the nature of the sexual conversation in the United States, adding the voices of John Humphrey Noyes, women's rights advocates, Spiritualists, Fourierists, and free lovers. By the 1850s, there were those at the far reaches of reform physiology who placed sex at the center of life. Provoked by agitators, including Victoria Woodhull and Ezra Heywood, the fourth framework combined visionary and radical politics with notions of sexual liberty and freedom of expression. Believing that sex lay at the core of being, adherents held that sexual expression in heterosexual intercourse was the most vital facet of life, as important for women as for men. They asserted that because sex was so valuable to the self, it must be freely expressed, that any diversion or repression of sexual urges from their "natural expression" in coition was harmful. Excerpted from Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 Introductionp. 3
Part I The Sexual Conversationp. 17
2 Vernacular Sexual Culture, Commercial Erotica, and Obscene Libelp. 19
3 Free Thought, Sexual Knowledge, and Evangelical Christianityp. 45
4 Blasphemy, Birth Control, and Obscenityp. 70
5 The Masturbation Scare and the Rise of Reform Physiologyp. 86
Part II The New York Scenep. 123
6 New York and the Emergence of Sporting Culturep. 125
7 Moral Reformersp. 144
8 The Sporting Weeklies and Obscene Libelp. 159
9 Abortionp. 194
10 Obscenity in the Cityp. 210
Part III Additions and Complicationsp. 249
11 Placing Sex at the Core of Beingp. 251
12 Blurring the Boundariesp. 272
Part IV Sexual Knowledge and Obscenity in New York and the Nationp. 297
13 The Y.M.C.A. of New York, the Civil War, and Anthony Comstockp. 299
14 Sex Talk in the Openp. 319
15 Victoria Woodhullp. 342
16 The Comstock Lawp. 358
17 Comstock's Crusadep. 386
18 Convictionsp. 404
19 Constitutionality and Resistance: Bennett, Benedict, and Blatchfordp. 419
20 Conclusionp. 439
Notesp. 445
Acknowledgmentsp. 493
Indexp. 495