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Attitudes Toward Sex in Antebellum America: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History and Culture)by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
Synopses & Reviews
Nineteenth-century America saw numerous campaigns against masturbation, which was said to cause illness, insanity, and even death. Riotous Flesh explores womenandrsquo;s leadership of those movements, with a specific focus on their rhetorical, social, and political effects, showing how a desire to transform the politics of sex created unexpected alliances between groups that otherwise had very different goals.
As April R. Haynes shows, the crusade against female masturbation was rooted in a generally shared agreement on some major points: that girls and women were as susceptible to masturbation as boys and men; that andldquo;self-abuseandrdquo; was rooted in a lack of sexual information; and that sex education could empower women and girls to master their own bodies. Yet the groups who made this education their goal ranged widely, from andldquo;ultraandrdquo; utopians and nascent feminists to black abolitionists. Riotous Flesh explains how and why diverse women came together to popularize, then institutionalize, the condemnation of masturbation, well before the advent of sexology or the professionalization of medicine.
The claim that masturbation isnand#8217;t good for you didnand#8217;t just come out of nowhere. As April Haynes shows, a range of feminist reformers in nineteenth century America all agreed that the solitary vice caused untold suffering and death; that women and girls masturbated as frequently as did men and boys; that they did so because they lacked access to sexual information; and that therefore, female sex education would save lives. Haynes, in short shows that nascent feminists remade what might have been a puritanical crusade into a basis for envisioning their own sexual self-masteryand#151;with mixed results, for Haynes also tells the story of how, before the advent of sexology or even the professionalization of medicine, a and#147;great silent armyand#8221; of evangelical female reformers first popularized, then institutionalized, the normative sexual discourse of the nineteenth century.
With this colorful collection of documents, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz overturns the monolithic picture of Victorian sexual repression to reveal four contending views at play during the antebellum period: earthy American folk wisdom, the anti-flesh teachings of evangelical Christianity, moral reform grounded in science, and the utopian free love movement. Horowitz's introduction discusses how these diverse views shaped the antebellum conversation about the moral, social, and physical implications of sex and reflected the larger cultural and economic changes of this period of rapid industrialization and urban migration. Helpful headnotes contextualize this selection of hard-to-find documents, which includes scientific manuals, religious pamphlets, advertisements, and popular fiction. Contemporary illustrations, a chronology, and a bibliography foster students' understanding of antebellum sexual attitudes.
About the Author
HELEN LEFKOWITZ HOROWITZ (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor in American Studies at Smith College. Her work in American history has explored cultural philanthropy, higher education, the American landscape, and sexuality. She has received fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute and was a Mellon Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. Professor Horowitz is the author of The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas (1994), Alma Mater (1993), Culture and the City (1989), Campus Life (1988), and Rereading Sex(2002), which was the winner of the OAH Merle Curti Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and for the Francis Parkman Prize.
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