Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830

Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830

Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830

Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830


Placing sexual culture at the center of power relations in Revolutionary-era Philadelphia, Clare A. Lyons uncovers a world where runaway wives challenged their husbands' patriarchal rights and where serial and casual sexual relationships were commonplace. By reading popular representations of sex against actual behavior, Lyons reveals the clash of meanings given to sex and illuminates struggles to recast sexuality in order to eliminate its subversive potential.

Sexuality became the vehicle for exploring currents of liberty, freedom, and individualism in the politics of everyday life among groups of early Americans typically excluded from formal systems of governance--women, African Americans, and poor classes of whites. Lyons shows that men and women created a vibrant urban pleasure culture, including the eroticization of print culture, as eighteenth-century readers became fascinated with stories of bastardy, prostitution, seduction, and adultery. In the post-Revolutionary reaction, white middle-class men asserted their authority, Lyons argues, by creating a gender system that simultaneously allowed them the liberty of their passions, constrained middle-class women with virtue, and projected licentiousness onto lower-class whites and African Americans.

Lyons's analysis shows how class and racial divisions fostered new constructions of sexuality that served as a foundation for gender. This gendering of sexuality in the new nation was integral to reconstituting social hierarchies and subordinating women and African Americans in the wake of the Revolution.


This book explores power in an early American city. It investigates the sexual culture created in Philadelphia and the intimate history of its people. Cultural understandings of sexuality were central to establishing, regulating, and contesting social hierarchies from early colonial days through the Revolutionary era and into the nineteenth century. The study of sexuality provides a rich entry point to explore power relations between men and women, whites and blacks, and the better and lower sorts during the formative years of the new nation.

The reader is asked to re-envision early Philadelphia. Images of chaste Quakers in an orderly city need to be replaced with a vision of a small but growing, heterogeneous, frequently raucous colonial city that permitted a wide array of sexual expression. During the middle of the eighteenth century, Philadelphians created a vibrant pleasure culture and made nonmarital sexual indulgence a part of it. They fashioned a malleable gender system, which entertained increasing assertions of female autonomy as the century wore on. Following the Revolution the pleasure culture grew, and more Philadelphians engaged in casual sexual relations. Sex commerce expanded, illegitimacy increased, and adulterous liaisons became more common, as did serial relationships. Across a broad spectrum, men and women adopted expansive sexual lives independent of marriage, and they crossed all social boundaries to do so. The expanding sexual possibilities of the late eighteenth century reflected new ideas of the proper power relations between men and women and between social classes.

In the early nineteenth century these heterogeneous possibilities would be foreclosed by the reconstruction of the gender system and new efforts to police sexuality. The city’s emerging middle class promoted new notions of normal male and female sexuality to circumscribe behavior and restrict legitimate sexual practice. This study explores that profound transformation, why it occurred and what role it played in negotiating power relations in the new nation. Redefining and regulating sexuality could constrain the autonomy of the individual, strengthen the institution of the family, and thus bolster the stability of society.

Eighteenth-century Philadelphians, like Europeans, lived through the tumultuous times of the Enlightenment. The changes in gender, sex, and power in Philadelphia were part of this larger transformation in worldview. Early . . .

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