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Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America Hardcover – September 3, 2002
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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.
Top customer reviews
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. Physiological explanations of birth control were seen as a special danger; unimpeded by fear of impregnation, there was no telling what the women would get up to. Tractarians saw the freethinkers who promoted sexual knowledge as blasphemers. Nothing shocked them more than the non-religious (and it was generally the freethinkers who promoted the spread of physiological ideas) insisting that women had similar sexual desires and need for satisfaction as men, or that birth control would promote happiness, health, and economic freedom. It is surprising that the Young Men's Christian Association looms large in these pages. The YMCA had as a goal the promotion of evangelical religion, and during the Civil War, it was worried about Union soldiers, displaced from home, and in 1865 the YMCA was able to advocate for a post office bill that would forbid mailing erotic prints and books, the first time the federal government tried to regulate moral content of mailed material. The anti-sex activities of the YMCA were linked to the famous and foolish reformer, Anthony Comstock, whose censorious aims even kept birth control information out of medical texts.
Horowitz has summarized four "frameworks" out of the confusing discourse about sex during the period. The Vernacular Tradition consists of sexual information (and misinformation) passed generally by word of mouth. Evangelical Christianity hated lust and equated most sexual activities with sin. Reform Physiology looked to the science of the body (often composed of wildly inaccurate assertions) to promote sexual freedom, and sometimes sexual restraint. And then there were Utopians, who thought sex was the central part of human existence and should be untouched by the government. These four voices, in the printed works and journals of the time, often overlapped and swamped each other with rhetoric. The huge number of philosophies and personalities which played a role in the debate, and made a foundation for our current sexual ideas, are brilliantly distilled into this large, well-referenced book, which is an entertaining academic tome without ever being fusty or tedious.
This book is very well researched and well-written. Academics and non-academics alike will find it easy to read, theories are set out and backed up with research and facts, and many of the stranger mores associated with the 19th century explained. It makes an interesting study for anyone who has ever wondered how and why Americans came to be so schizophrenic (using sexual images to sell everything from cars and copy machine toner to chocolate, yet there was a huge fuss a few years ago about a billboard that showed a woman nursing a baby) about sex during the 20th century because it shows that Americans were equally conflicted about sex during the 19th century, and had not resolved those issues. Highly recommended.