Sex and Sexuality in Early America

Sex and Sexuality in Early America

Sex and Sexuality in Early America

Sex and Sexuality in Early America

Synopsis

What role did sexual assault play in the conquest of America? How did American attitudes toward female sexuality evolve, and how was sexuality regulated in the early Republic?

Sex and sexuality have always been the subject of much attention, both scholarly and popular. Yet, accounts of the early years of the United States tend to overlook the importance of their influence on the shaping of American culture. Sex and Sexuality in Early America addresses this neglected topic with original research covering a wide spectrum, from sexual behavior to sexual perceptions and imagery. Focusing on the period between the initial contact of Europeans and Native Americans up to 1800, the essays encompass all of colonial North America, including the Caribbean and Spanish territories.

Challenging previous assumptions, these essays address such topics as rape as a tool of conquest; perceptions and responses to Native American sexuality; fornication, bastardy, celibacy, and religion in colonial New England; gendered speech in captivity narratives; representations of masculinity in eighteenth- century seduction tales, the sexual cosmos of a southern planter, and sexual transgression and madness in early American fiction. The contributors include Stephanie Wood, Gordon Sayre, Steven Neuwirth, Else L. Hambleton, Erik R. Seeman, Richard Godbeer, Trevor Burnard, Natalie A. Zacek, Wayne Bodle, Heather Smyth, Rodney Hessinger, and Karen A. Weyler.

Excerpt

In 1683, Priscilla Willson, a sixteen-year-old orphan from Hammersmith, Massachusetts, was convicted of fornication. Samuel Appleton, the presumed father of her child, was not. Several witnesses suggested he had forced himself on Willson, whom neighbors testified had “behaved herselfe soe modestly and Civilly all her time before this transgression.” The notion that pregnancy could result only from consensual sex was so pervasive, however, that despite evidence to the contrary, no one in the village actually accused Appleton of rape. The people of this Puritan community assumed that Priscilla Willson had misbehaved, even if she had been led astray by Appleton. The reality of the situation, that Appleton most probably seduced or raped the much younger Willson, was lost to a canon that condemned premarital sex, but permitted class and gender double standards. Although Appleton did have to pay half the court costs, as well as expenses incurred with the birth, his status as a gentleman and his connections to the judges enabled him to maintain his honor.

Similarly, Virginia planter William Byrd's standing as a gentleman affected both his public and private personas. Although he was concerned with how those in the larger world perceived him, he conducted his intimate relationships, too, with an awareness of his social status. Indeed, as Richard Godbeer points out, Byrd considered his sexual performance a significant aspect of his self-image as a “gracious yet masterful gentleman.” This elite position gave him additional advantages in sexual encounters. Within the transatlantic world of an early eighteenth-century Virginia planter, Byrd had access to the bodies of servants and slaves who worked for him—and like Appleton had the power, if not the inclination, to coerce sex with them.

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