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Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America Hardcover – September 3, 2002

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (September 3, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037540192X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375401923
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #585,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1839, a young physician named Charles Knowlton challenged the prevailing argument that birth control was somehow "against nature." "It is also against nature to cut our nails, our hair, or to shave the beard," he wrote. "What is civilized life but one continual warfare against nature?" While many agreed with Knowlton's views, others found his support for contraceptives dangerous or even obscene, since it would certainly encourage the young men and women who yearned for sexual intimacy without any consequences. Conflicts between those committed to sexual knowledge and those determined to suppress it form the foundation of this well-researched study. Horowitz (The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas) argues that 19th-century Americans did not have a single, dominant sexual culture; rather, competing groups of Americans fought for their own definitions of sex in courtrooms, in the press, in churches and in politics. Americans were "engaged in a complex four-way conversation about sex": there was the "American vernacular sexual culture" (with its "earthy acceptance" of desire), evangelical Christianity (which was more prudish), "reform physiology" (whose adherents focused on healthy bodily functions) and a "new sensibility" (which viewed sex as life's central act). Horowitz offers a sharp and insightful scholarly examination of these conflicting frameworks, steeped in 19th-century history, cultural politics, religion, legal battles, science and medical practices. Her work addresses conflicting attitudes toward sexual knowledge, erotica, birth control, masturbation, abortion and obscenity laws, previewing the passionate cultural battles that continue to grab headlines today. 86 illus.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This detailed examination of the representation as distinct from practice of American sexuality in the 19th century is the most thorough treatment of the subject yet to appear. Horowitz (American studies, Smith Coll.) is one of the great historians of American feminism, and her 1997 Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas, a biography of the visionary advocate/designer of women's higher education, is the most acclaimed among a half-dozen books that have made their mark in academe. Horowitz's singular contribution here is her reconstruction/rediscovery of Victorian-era erotic literature or what has survived of it; her "rereading" establishes that the current contest over what is pornographic and where the lines meet among the expressive, informative, and prurient continues a long contest. Many of the players in these debates, however, are well-known subjects of important biographies and smaller-scale histories, including Sylvester Graham, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock. And while New York as publishing and entertainment center was undeniably the locus for struggles over sex, Horowitz might have shown greater interest in what was happening with these questions outside the five boroughs. Of course, that leaves an opening for her colleagues. Essential for academic libraries.
Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 29, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz says that she was puzzled by the stir in 1994 when Joycelyn Elders made a mild comment mentioning that masturbation might be taught about as part of sex education in schools. Our nation is used to hearing daytime talk show chatter about sexual abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, and more, but mentioning this universal and enjoyable practice as something that should be taught about (the religious right twisted her words into "should be taught") was enough to get Elders fired as Surgeon General. Why was there such a hysterical reaction to a mention of masturbation? Horowitz is a historian, a professor of American studies, and the one thing she could do to find an answer is historical research. She has done a mountain of it, looking into obscure court cases, journals, and newspapers, to produce the monumental _Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America_ (Knopf). As the title reveals, Horowitz has not just covered ideas about masturbation (although ridiculous fears of that "evil" seem to have percolated through the minds of every parent and preacher of the time), but has covered the huge topic of what our predecessors thought about many aspects of sex.
The evangelical Christian movement sweeping across the country in the first half of the nineteenth century seized upon such worries about masturbators and lustful women, and "sinful lust became a chief way of comprehending sexual desire." The American Tract Society was particularly vehement on such issues, and was aghast at the scientific understanding of sexual function that was beginning at the time. Especially important was the protection of female virginity, and fear of pregnancy was a vital shield of the nation's maidenheads.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book is an educational, informative study of America's attitudes towards sex during the 19th century. The author's thorough research and interesting approach (taken from four very different perspectives, depending upon gender, profession, and philosophy/religion) offer a unique explanation and understanding of how Americans viewed sex during the 19th century. I was surprised by how much information (though much of it is incorrect, such as the "fact" that women who are raped cannot become pregnant because they do not feel passion during the rape) there was available to 19th century Americans about this taboo topic. Some of it was not a surprise (the whole male sporting culture, which was adopted as a Victorian moral code for men and women in which men are permitted and encouraged to have as many sexual relationships as possible whether they are married or single and in which women are to be kept ignorant of their husbands' (and fathers', brothers', etc.) relationships or, if they are aware of them, they are to turn a blind eye, yet absolute fidelity on the part of the females is required. It sets up an illogical double standard--who are these men having sex with if women are to remain virgins until marriage and faithful after marriage?) Other parts were a surprise--the concept of "free love" appeared much earlier than I thought and censorship appeared much later than I thought. The reasons for turning to the courts and for using censorship were also explained, with thorough detail about how mores changed as the century progressed, and the full impact of the Industrial Revolution made its mark on every aspect of Americans' lives. Horowitz shows how, with the Industrial Revolution, work changed, and young people left home to work in larger cities.Read more ›
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Robert Manning on November 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This marvelous books contains lots of surprises: that legal censorship of written material about sex came later in the 19th century than I had suspected; that "scientific " reformers who believed that disseminating informaton about sex appeared on the scene earlier; and that the perception that masterbation was a threat to American society came not from religious fundamentalists but from the scientific theories of some of these same reformers. Elegantly written, and brilliantly researched, this book is a must for anyone wanting to understand the strange cross-cutting attitudes about sex in contemporary America.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By CJ on May 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is for those who wish to take the long lens, and an extremely academic, look at the public discussion of sexuality in 19th century America. Those who are looking for an, um, less academic study need to look elsewhere (titillation it is not). Horowitz demonstrates a thorough analysis of her subject, but presents it without becoming too bogged down in particular statistics. NIce job presenting the spectrum of thought in the 19th century while also connecting the course of history with the 18th and 20th centuries. Although a lot of her story is focused on NYC, the country at large is not forgotten. A book that delivers as advertised.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mel on December 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most modern sexist narratives of history that I have ever encountered. Especially in the chapter about Victoria Woodhull, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz paints a picture of woman that is of emotional, vindictive people. She says that Woodhull "targets" Henry Beecher to further her own goals. I'm sorry, but it is not her fault that he actively denounced sexual relationships while simultaneously having an affair with his close friends wife for years. He is the definition of sexual hypocrisy. One would think that Horowitz would be critical of Beecher, but no, she condemns Woodhull for releasing this story. She treats as a moody woman who took her PMS out on an innocent, lovely pastor. I was incredibly disappointed with this book and I am ashamed that it was written so recently.
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More About the Author

I enjoy working in a number of fields that connect my interest in American history with women's studies, landscape studies, architecture, education, biography, sexual representation, law, and medicine. I began at Wellesley where I got my B.A. in 1963 and continued at Harvard, where I earned an American Studies Ph.D. in 1969. I've taught at MIT, Union College, Scripps College, the University of Southern California, and, most importantly, Smith College. I love to write and learn about new subjects. I am currently working on neurasthenia and hysteria in the era before Freud.