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  • Written by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
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Rereading Sex

Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America

Written by Helen Lefkowitz HorowitzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

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From bawdy talk to evangelical sermons, and from celebrations of free love to prosecutions for obscenity, nineteenth-century America encompassed a far broader range of sexual attitudes and ideas than the Victorian stereotype would have us believe. In Rereading Sex, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz lets us listen to the national conversation about sex in the nineteenth century and hear voices that resonate in our own time.

Probing court records, pamphlets, and “sporting men’s” magazines, Horowitz shows us a many-voiced America in which an earthy acceptance of desire and sexual expression collided with prohibitions broadcast from the pulpit. We encounter fascinating reformers like Victoria Woodhull, who advocated free love and became the first woman to run for president; faddists like Sylvester Graham, who obsessed about the dangers of masturbation; and moral crusaders like Anthony Comstock, who succeeded in banning sexual subject matter from the mails. We also see how newspapers like the Sunday Flash treated prostitutes like celebrities and how the National Police Gazette found a legal way to write about explicity about sex through crime reports that read like gossip columns. Employing an encyclopedic knowledge artfully rendered, Horowitz brings to the fore a wide spectrum of attitudes and a debate echoed in the culture wars of today.


Chapter 1

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.

From the Hardcover edition.
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz|Author Desktop

About Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz - Rereading Sex

Photo © Fish/Darham

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor in American Studies at Smith College, is the author of The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas (1994), Campus Life (1987), Alma Mater (1984), and Culture and the City (1976). She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from, among others, the Radcliffe Institute and the American Antiquarian Society. Rereading Sex was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the finalist for the Francis Parkman Prize, and the winner of the Merle Curti Prize from the Organization of American Historians. She has taught at Scripps College and the University of Southern California. She and her husband, Daniel, live in Northampton and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Author Q&A

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz on REREADING SEX

Rereading Sex puts the 1873 Comstock Law in the context of the nineteenth century’s quarrel about sex. At one level it tells a national story about sexual knowledge, based on materials about sex published between 1820 and 1880. In a complex conversation about the body, reproduction, and desire, four voices emerged: American vernacular sexual culture; evangelical Christianity; moral physiology reimaging the body, nerves, health, and the relation of mind and body; and a new sensibility placing sex at the center of life. Rereading the texts that animated this conversation demands reimagining sexuality in nineteenth-century America.

At another level, Rereading Sex tells a New York story. As the leading cultural center of the nation, it was the location of those who produced and distributed both erotica and works about reproduction and sexuality. New York was also a center of reform agitation about sexual questions. It had the courts that established the central traditions of legal practice dealing with obscene libel. Perhaps most tellingly, it had the critical social forces to battle what was perceived as obscenity. The Young Men’s Christian Association of New York came into being in the 1850s to offer young male clerks moral alternatives to the culture of sporting life. Confronting printed erotica, it turned to suppression. These efforts were successful after the Civil War in getting federal and state legislation to curb not only commercial erotica, but books on sexuality and sexual reform. Anthony Comstock became empowered to enforce the law as a federal agent of the U.S. Post Office.

In 1879 the constitutionality the law was affirmed, but a community of dissenters emerged, committed to keeping free speech alive in an era of suppression. What began as a New York struggle became a national battle over sexual knowledge and suppression that still resonates in our own time. American culture remains profoundly divided over questions of morality and its relation to government. At the dawn of the twenty-first century each day’s news presents reports of contemporary clashes over medical research, abortion, pornography, teenage sex education, and censorship of the Internet. New technology and new sources of sexual knowledge bring new threats to freedom of expression. As we read sex in our own times, echoes of America's nineteeth century battles over sexual knowledge and suppression, one of our first culture wars, still reverberate in our ears.

--Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Praise | Awards


“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

“Completely fascinating. . . . Highly entertaining and accessible.” —The Women’s Review of Books

“A highly readable book that maintains high standards of scholarship and integrity.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“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)

“In letting us eavesdrop on 19th-century discussions of sex, Horowitz demonstrates that while the language has certainly changed, many of the arguments have not.” —Providence Journal

“In Helen Horowitz’s wide-ranging account of the culture wars of the nineteenth century, anxieties that we live with today—about pornography, contraception, abortion, and free expression—turn out to have surprising histories.” —Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies

“Entertaining. . . . The huge number of philosophies and personalities that played a role in the debate, and made a foundation for our current sexual ideas, are brilliant distilled.” —The Lafayette Times

“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


WINNER 2003 Merle Curti Award

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