Early America and Sex; the Power, the prejudice.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 14, 2002 | Go to article overview

Early America and Sex; the Power, the prejudice.(BOOKS)


Byline: Evan Haefeli, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With this book Richard Godbeer has married explicit sex to social history. Colonial history will never quite be the same. "Sexual Revolution in Early America" is the most thorough compendium of sexual incidents, attitudes, laws, and literature in British America before 1800. Mr. Godbeer's book builds on a growing body of scholarship, but he has contributed substantial amounts of his own research as well. The result is the first account to try and make sense of patterns of sexual practice, prejudice, and prosecution everywhere from Maine to the West Indies, from the first settlements in the 17th century to 1800. This work will be the central reference point for our understanding of sexuality in early America for many years to come.

The book has much to offer both the casual and the thoughtful reader. If you want to see sailors and women carousing in Boston, it's here. If you want evidence of interracial sex, it's here. In this book the author says just about all that can be said about homosexual relations in the colonies, carefully employing the few scattered pieces of evidence to set them within their proper context (which is significantly different from what it is now).

Court cases, diaries, sermons and more provide plenty of material to prove that sex was something that preoccupied Americans in the colonial period about as much as it does now.

Mr. Godbeer does us a great favor by emphasizing how unsexy sex was. Or, rather, he shows that sex was often about much more than mere gratification or even reproduction. Instead, it was often about power relations and social connections.

Young men working as servants found themselves exposed to something like the treatment that many female servants and slaves encountered. Because the men who preyed on them were of considerable standing within their communities, their activities could often go on for years without serious ramifications. As with everything else in early American society, it was the poor and powerless who were most likely to suffer for their human failings. Those more wealthy and powerful had more opportunities to redeem themselves if and when they were called to account.

Running throughout Mr. Godbeer's book is a continuous struggle between secular and religious authorities, who sought to regulate sexual behavior, and the people, who had their own ideas about what was and was not permissible. Mr. Godbeer is attentive enough to realize that when ministers denounce the scandalous and licentious manners of colonists, they are often expressing frustration with popular attitudes toward sexual relationships, which tended to be (of necessity often) more flexible than those of the authorities.

Yet, though they may have been willing to tolerate more than the authorities, they did have their own ideas about what was and was not proper. Much of the everyday policing of sexuality was done by commoners themselves as they espied their neighbors in elicit acts, gossiped about, threatened, or bargained with those who went too far.

Though this is a book about sex, it is a serious academic study. There are scandals and outrageous deeds, but there is real food for thought as well. We see how sexual practices and attitudes varied over time and space. The possibilities and problems of sexual encounters shifted significantly depending on a series of not terribly sexy factors like economy, demography, and settlement patterns. Attitudes toward race, for example, can be seen to vary from one colony to another. Interracial sex happened wherever slavery existed. In fact the desire to rape one's slave women seems to have been an almost irrepressible aspect of the slave system for male European masters.

But it was not equally acknowledged or tolerated everywhere. The larger the enslaved African population, the fewer European women, and the greater the dependence of the Europeans on the Africans, the more open and tolerant Europeans were towards sexual relations with Africans. …

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