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Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for History
A lively, scholarly, and often startling exploration of nineteenth-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 the pulpit and the printed page by evangelical Christian elements. She describes the new sensibility of agitators like Victoria Woodhull placing sex at the center of life, visionaries like Robert Owen and Frances Wright espousing free love, faddists like Sylvester Graham obsessing about the dangers of masturbation, a country physician writing the first scientifically grounded book on contraception, the lively new commerce in erotica—including newspapers such as the Sunday Flash and, most famous, 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—an early battle of the national cultural war that continues to this day.
“Superb. . . . Full of fresh material, shrewd analysis and sound judgment… Horowitz’s enthusiasm and sense of fun are infectious.” —Los Angeles Times
“A fine new study of the debates over sexual knowledge in 19th century America. . . . Horowitz is a rigorous and supple thinker on inflammatory issues.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Rereading Sex brings marvelous order to the bewildering array of conflicting voices that spoke out and wrote about human sexuality in mid-19th-century America. Deftly separating the strands of argument, Helen Horowitz illuminates this fascinating multi-part debate that appeared and recurred in disputes over prostitution, abortion, birth control, health reform, sexual pleasure, obscenity and pornography. Her definitive account moves us beyond the old binary of Victorian lights and shadows, of prudery versus passion, to show the interwoven complexity of our first national conversation about sex.” —Patricia Cline Cohen, author of The Murder of Helen Jewett
“A fascinating survey of the fragmented and contested worlds of sexual ideologies in nineteenth-century America; it implies an equally complex and conflicted world of behaviors and feelings. At the same time, Horowitz has made a substantial contribution to the equally complex, richly diverse—and ever changing—world of print culture from which she has drawn the bulk of her evidence.” —Charles Rosenberg, author of No Other Gods: Science and American Social Thought
“Rereading Sex is a big, important book about power and ideas, rogues and radicals, publishers and prudes, courtroom warriors and ordinary Americans trying to make sense of sex and their world. With insight and verve, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz transports the reader to the epicenter of the culture wars of the nineteenth century. The result is an original work of scholarship that is also a terrifically good read.” —Andrea Tone, Editor of Controlling Reproduction: An American History
“In Rereading Sex, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz gives us a wide-ranging study of how nineteenth century Americans wrote, thought, and legislated about sex. It is a careful and subtle work, filled with wonderful detail. The Victorians, their piano legs included, will never be the same.” —Elliott Gorn, author of The Manly Art:Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America
“Rereading Sex is remarkably clear-eyed about why America’s culture wars are neither new nor over. Her careful research and lucid prose reveal how, in the real lives of nineteenth-century Americans, sexual ideas were mixed, muddled, and manipulated in ways that ‘discourse’ never is. Uncovering a vast grassroots struggle over sexual free speech, she remaps American legal and social history. No one will ever talk about ‘Victorian culture’ (or free speech) in quite the same way again.” —Francis G. Couvares, author of Movie Censorship and American Culture
“Completely fascinating. . . . Highly entertaining and accessible.” –The Women’s Review of Books
“Impressive and compelling . . . 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.”–Booklist (starred review)