Always a New Frontier

As the discussion on sexuality in American history turns the page to sexuality in American current events, the trends and historiography of various topics that we’ve covered have become more apparent than ever. Sexual issues revolving around homosexuality, women’s rights, and transgender people have persisted from the early-modern America until the present day. In looking at some of the current issues, we can make connections to the past and mark ways in which they’ve changed.

The first article by Mariana Valverde is titled, “A New Entity in the History of Sexuality: The Respectable Same-Sex Coup”. This article really stressed that the issues regarding homosexual relationship, or as they are known today, ‘Same-sex couples’. Valverde did not take a necessarily negative stance in her article, but she made a couple of important points about the road to increasing rights and visibility of homosexuality. Her first major point was that when same-sex couples got married during the first wave of legality, the media covered it in a highly white, middle class- friendly manner.

San Francisco Chronicle photo, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle photo, 2004

Valverde argues that the weddings and recent media coverage of gay rights has increasingly de-sexualized it. She juxtaposed a 73-year-old Canadian homosexual activist with the current activists who has been working through the times of illegality with modern what she called Respectable Same-Sex Couples (RSSC) who are currently battling for the legality of their courtship rather than the right to practice their own sexual preferences. What immediately stuck out to me was the change that the gay world has seen over the last hundred and fifty years or so. Upon further reflection, while I will definitely say that the community has seen progress in many ways, that means that new frontiers must be crossed. The gay community has changed in ways that they have permeated mainstream society and are accepted in ways that someone from the mid-twentieth century would not believe; however, what exactly does that mean for the community? If you ask Valverde, she would argue that it means increasing acceptance for the RSSC, but maybe not as much for others, but also the de-sexualization of the community. While the gay community no longer operates as it did nearly a century ago, in special places like the YMCA or bathhouses, but that means losing a bit of their individual community and culture that was built during this time.

We also read two articles about the current transgender community. Instead of reading about the young and beautifully changed Christine Jorgenson, we considered two different groups of the transgender community, the young and the old- who are less likely to become sexualized in the way that Jorgenson was. For my generation, transgender people have become much more visual than in any other time. Similar to the gay community, though, just because your community has reached the mainstream does not mean that the challenges and new frontiers do not remain. In an NPR article, young transgender students talk about navigating the frontier in the school setting. These kids may have begun their transitions by asserting their true gender, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t face challenges that go far beyond bullying (which is a huge challenge on its own). These kids must get their school to recognize them by their names, and not the ones that they were born with. They must get permission and feel comfortable using the bathroom that they choose. Despite transgender children being able to show their true selves in the school setting, they are still pioneers navigating a new frontier.

bathroom-e1354047601170    And what about the opposite end of the spectrum- those who transition during their middle- to older ages. The New York Times published an article in March that dealt with this specific topic. As people transition in their later years, it is more difficult (and definitely more expensive) to “pass” because of the additional body issues that most people generally face in their old age. Aside from the physical issues aside, there are other issues that face people who transition after years of living through the changes of the twentieth century. For example, what ideas about gender does a newly transgendered woman who lived through the Mad Men era of the Fifties and Sixties bring to to the table? Definitely different ideas than someone will bring who was only born in the Nineties.

These people have far more options to live out their lives as their authentic selves than people did even just a decade or two ago. This can undoubtedly be seen as progress; However, similar to gay rights, progress does not mean new challenges in a frontier that is being covered for the first time. Undoubtedly, I think, the lives lived by Thomas/Thomasina, the Fairies of the Bowery, and Christine Jorgenson would look at young transgendered students in elementary school with pride and possibly envy, but these young people are following a path that few have followed and likely have just as many questions as their predecessors did.

Finally, the third reading dealt with sexual violence as experienced at Columbia University (& Barnard College) by women from the Sixties to present-day.  Sexual violence in universities is an extremely hot topic right now that constantly receives media attention- though that has not stopped its high number of cases. Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, began taking a stance against sexual violence at universities after being the victim of such violence. To protest in 2014, she carried her mattress around on the Upper West Side campus to raise awareness and seek justice. Sulkowicz’s story is one of thousands. As the article showed, sexual violence is hardly a new thing at Columbia- or ANY University- and it is interesting to see how it has been handled by women throughout the decades. One women shared her story from the 1960s, at the time when students were fighting to rid of the In Loco Parentis policies of the universities. She was violated by a member of the campus SDS, an activist group which ironically worked for liberal change in the 1960’s. Her response was to just call her abuser her “boyfriend”, because during this time, sexual activity between unmarried people often happened, especially during the dating “steady” stage. The author recounted her own experience in the 1990s, in which she just told herself that “Nothing Happened” as sexual violence was beginning to gain some media attention. The writer did not want to be seen as a victim. Emma Sulkowicz in 2014, on two decades after the author’s experience, took a certain control over the violence committed against her. She took a stand. The previous women who reacted in different, arguably more passive, ways are not any less strong than Sulkowicz. but rather they are a product of their times. In the 1960’s, there was a lot of student activism, but there were still affirmed gender roles in the movements. The goals of students in SDS  would have been tainted if one of their own members carry her mattress around in protest against another.

columbia student

Sulkowicz is a pioneer of a new frontier as well as the other subjects of the articles. This frontier in the area of sexual violence against women is a new one, but the path is hardly old. We’ve have seen this topic from the beginning of history. An early example that we read was Harriett Jacobs’ account of the violence committed against her during her life as a slave. Recall the Bowery g’hals who asserted their own independence by working and earning their own money. Still, even these women who were “protected” by the Bowery b’hoys were often the sexual victims of the b’hoys. Recall the women in the 1970s and 1980s who fought against pornography in the interest of fighting violence against women. Pornography persists, sexual violence persists, but the visibility each gains raises awareness and if nothing else, it provides a voice that tells the public, “Violence against women is NOT okay”. Throughout history, women have been fighting this, whether through the feminist movement or otherwise, and have asserted their agency in ways that their socio-political circumstances have allowed.

What does this mean for the history of sexuality in American history? It is still going. There is always a new frontier. There are always new issues and concerns that arise as others are confronted and solved. Currently, if you just scan the news stories, there are tons that relate to sexuality. In all stories, you can trace these new frontiers to paths that have been followed since the founding of the nation.

Where to find works:

“A New Entity in the History of Sexuality: The Respectable Same-Sex Couple”. Mariana Valverde in Feminist Studies.

Creation of the (opened and rather large) Closet

The making of the gay world is a process that began nearly two centuries ago and has defined and redefined itself despite opposition from various forces. At the turn of the twentieth century, during the height of the Victorian-era, police and anti-vice crusaders tried to reform the ever changing societal changes that had occurred in urban American cities. Following WWII, the government stressed sexual order in a post-war American society was dominated by conformism. During these times, the gay world was under fire as not being ‘normal’ as it presented an alternate lifestyle that was not followed by most Americans. In both cases, the forces fighting against homosexuality inadvertently created the gay world as they forced gays into a ‘closet’ that was certainly not small or isolated.

The second part of Gay New York (Chauncey) focuses on the places in which the gay world took place and focuses it’s majority to the the beginning of the twentieth century prior to World War II. It essentially maps out the gay world of New York City by describing the various places and institutions that became fixtures to this set of people. In many minds, prior to any type of visual gay rights movement, homosexuality was not a united world- it was one of secret and isolation. Chauncey disposes this myth as the book shows that there was a vibrant gay world that had its own institutions, norms, and cultures that was not always separate from heterosexual society. Chauncey shows that this culture flourished in places such as the YMCA, apartment hotels and houses, cafeterias, bath houses, and even on public streets, parks, and beaches.

A Bathhouse
A Bathhouse
A cafeteria with large front windows
A cafeteria with large front windows

During this time, anti-vice crusaders/social purity acitivists (such as Anthony Comstock) sought to reform society specifically in New York through restoring the moral order that they believed had been lost in the industrialization and commercialization of the city. Chauncey argues that their efforts significantly effected the emerging gay world even without focusing on it (Chauncey, 137). For example, the YMCA movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century as a way to give young, unmarried workers from the country an “urban counterpart to the rural family that they left behind” (Chauncey, 155). The New York YMCA, of which Anthony Comstock was a big proponent in forwarding, began to build dormitories in 1896, and according to a sailor cited by Chauncey, by World War I “everyone” knew that the Y was the “headquarters” for gay men (Chauncey 155). In addition, in 1896, the state legislature enacted the Raines Law which closed saloons on Sundays. To keep up profits, the saloons began renting rooms called ‘Raines Law Hotels’. These rooms were frequented by prostitutes as well as gay men, but when the police and anti-vice squads raided them, they focused on the prostitutes. This became one place where gay life was able to thrive. There was plenty of opposition, surveillance, and legal action taken against places where gay life began to thrive, so open public spaces became another place where gay life was able to take shape as it was less regulated than residential or commerical venues (Chauncey, 179). Gay life was active and vibrant throughout New York’s history and Chauncey argues that the culture that flourished allowed gay men to locate and communicate with one another and it, “attests to the resiliency of their world and to the resources their subculture made available to them” (Chauncey, 205). Many of these resources were made available only after others were limited by opposition, but the thriving “gay map” created in New York attests to the agency shown in contexts that were at often times limited by laws and mainstream societal beliefs.

Similar to Comstock and the anti-vice crusaders, the post-war Atomic Age carried its own notions about the ways in which society should act.  During this time, America tried to create an image for itself that was the antithesis of the Communists and sexual order was extremely pervasive into society. In Elaine Tyler May’s article, she mentions a doctor who worried that following an atomic bomb explosion, citizens would erupt in sexual chaos (as if that would be the worst of the country’s problems). In response to the conformist outlook, homosexuals were prevented from jobs in the government, schools, etc. Even Batman and Robin were called out for their supposed sexual perversion.  In his 1953 outing, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham said that the comics contained, “a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin’ (MP, 380).

The dominant culture of America at this time condemned homosexual acitvity of any kind. There was a particular fascination with the former G.I. turned transvestite, Christine Jorgenson in the 1950s. Despite the negative reaction, in his essay Serlin asks the important question of what exactly had been discovered in the outing of Chrstine? Was it that she was actually formerly a man? He asserts that really at this time, the homoerotic imagination of American post-war culture (MP, 393) was actually what endured from the case. With all of the hysteria, one may wonder why this lifestyle was still active. In the early twentieth century, it was not as heavily pervasive across America. In her document on entering the Lesbian community in 1955, Marge McDonald sums it up quite well. She knew that by choosing the gay life she would face some condemnation from society, but believed that the happiness she would endure by living her true life outweighed any of the societal pressure.

Blond beauty, Christine Jorgenson
Blond beauty, Christine Jorgenson

Despite the various opposition that the gay world faces, throughout the early twentieth century, the culture flourished and endured. It found some spaces because it was excluded from others, but above all agency of the people forming the culture allowed it to make those places in society their own.


The Entrance and Responses to Fairies in the New York Social World

Today, most Americans imagine sexuality in binary terms- gay or straight. It is hard for us to imagine a world that did not include these two ways of imagining sexual aspirations, but in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries it was much more complicated than that. In these times, gender played a much bigger role in defining a person’s sexual aspirations and a ‘third gender’ played a major role in the creations of the modern ideas of sexuality, homosexuality, and heterosexuality.

In the late-nineteenth century a same-sex subculture developed in urban areas and became increasingly visible. Following industrialization and commercialization, many Americans lived in urban areas. These urban areas included a very visible working class that had their own neighborhoods, cultures, traditions, and norms. Most members of the urban working class lived in tenements or small apartments that allotted them little privacy. In addition, they needed somewhere to go after the working day with space to move about and socialize. The perfect place for this was the saloons. A good case study for this is the Bowery neighborhood of New York City. By the end of the 1800s, the Bowery was slum area that had rampant prostitution. In addition, many bars catering to gays and lesbians popped up in the city. In these such places (for example, The Slide) a very present gay subculture appeared. A major characteristic of these such places was the presence of ‘inverts’/’fairies’- what we could consider today as drag queens. Many gay men entered the scene by dressing as women and asserted that they were truly women born with male anatomical parts. These men wore women’s clothes, powdered their faces, and engaged in sexual activity with men.

drag queen

The fairies represented a ‘third gender’ of sorts that was fully acknowledged in the working class neighborhoods. The fairies were neither male or female, but rather a combination of both. While they were born males, they asserted that they were women in every other sense; They used higher-pitched voices, dressed like women, acted like women, and were attracted to men. Essentially, through the emergence of the fairy, the gay scene started to carve out a social life. The fairies were ever present in the many resort saloons in the working class neighborhoods of urban areas. They provided for entertainment by dancing and socializing, and received a commission on the drinks purchased on a given night. One aspect of this social life were the largely-attended Drag Balls. Hundreds of people attended these balls and the guest couples included couples of women and couple of men. In MP, Dr. La Forest Potter described a such drag ball and mentions that there is, “the greatest possible tolerance shown for almost anything- short of murder…” (MP, 346). At the drag balls, men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and there was a general sense of anything goes. The high level of tolerance allowed for a real flourishing of culture in these urban areas.

Drag Ball in the news (c.1950)
Drag Ball in the news (c.1950)

While tolerance was a key feature in the drag balls, it was not necessarily the case for the fairies within most of mainstream society. A fairy could rarely dress in their feminine outfits in public. If they did, they ran the risk of being arrested or beaten up. The fairies were easy targets for gangs who controlled the streets in the working class neighborhoods. In addition, many men would have sexual encounters with the fairies and then beat them up or rob them afterward as a sign of distance and dominance. The very fact that straight men engaged in sexual relations with fairies is a point of interest in the subculture. At this time in history, your gender superseded your sexual desires. This meant that straight men could have sexual encounters with fairies, whom they regarded as feminine, as long as they played the male role and were the ones who penetrated. This all added to the idea of fairies as a “third sex”, and the men did not see themselves as having sex with another man. In addition, many fairies were likened to female prostitutes, both in the way that they approached men for sex (sometimes they were paid) and in their actions (ex. oral sex). Chauncey regards the relations between men and fairies as a, “mixture of tolerance, desire, and contempt…” (60) all of which mixed in with the mainstream culture and subcultures of the working class.

If all of this was occurring in the working class, what was the mindset of the middle class? In the class structure, often when one culture is carved out, another culture must define itself by contradicting it. In this way, middle class men defined themselves as manly and family oriented. That is not to say that working class men did not- the sailors, construction workers, etc. tended to protrude very manly characteristics- but middle class men tended to distance themselves from the traditions of the working class in many ways. They did however go downtown for rendezvous with fairies, but it occurred in the context of a ‘double life’. As for middle class women, ‘slumming’ was essentially a right of passage as described in Chauncey. Women would often go downtown to resorts in the Bowery or Tenderloin for a night to enjoy what MP calls “encounters with the sexual other” (337).


The emergence of an active gay (sub)culture in the working urban districts in the late nineteenth century changes the typical assumption about the emergence of homosexuality. Prior to this cultures rise, men and women were in separate spheres and the determinant factor in defining a person was gender. Eventually, the sexual identity, whether it be homo or hetero would supersede gender in the definition of a person’s sexuality. It reminds us that if the idea of homosexuality was ‘invented’ as a historical phenomenon, so too was heterosexuality. In the context of a world ever changing, it is important to remember that that historical phenomenon is still in progress.


MP, Chapter 10 and Chauncey’s Gay New York (Part 1)

Beneficiaries of Public Sexuality in the post-Civil War American North and South

In the late nineteenth century, there was a great debate surrounding the place of sexuality. In the North, “Free Love” warriors like Victoria Woodhull fought for open discussion of sexuality against anti-vice advocates like Anthony Comstock. In the South, sexuality was brought into the public sphere for a different reason: racial oppression. In both geographic areas, we see the argument for or resistance from sexuality in the public sphere as seeking to benefit some demographic of society. For the Free Lovers, public sexuality meant open discussion of health and freedom from the passionlessness public script and confines of marriage. For white supremacists, public sexuality was used as a way to continuously assert dominance over blacks. In all cases, it is important to move past supposed moral motives and consider who the real beneficiaries are when sexuality enters the public sphere.

In the Northern states, the question of public sexuality was based mainly on the language used in the public, whether it was spoken, in a book or newspaper ad, or even in a letter sent through the mail. Many ads featured cures for sexually transmitted diseases, ‘spicy photos’ of pretty French girls, and even for doctors who could issue drugs to induce a miscarriage. These ads would be seen as racy- even in our time- and were highly controversial. In 1873, Congress passed the Postal Act, which gave anti-vice crusaders a victory and infuriated Free Love advocates. Anthony Comstock, member of the New York Society of the Suppression of Vice, vehemently opposed of anything that could be seen as sexual in the public sphere. He believed that this ‘evil’ corrupts children and threatens society. He argued that “there is no greater force at work in the community more insidious, more constant in demands, or more powerful andfar-reaching than lust. It is the companion of all other crimes” (MP, 244).

comstock act

It is possible that Comstock was truly crusading for the sake of his community. On the other hand, there were members of the community who very much disagreed with Comstock. When one part of society gets something, another part of society often loses something. In this case, Victoria C. Woodhull argued that it was women who were losing from the suppression of public sexuality. Woodhull believed that sexual matters were a place for open discussion, and to suppress them only meant to perpetuate the chains of hypocrisy that she believed were found in Victorian society and marriage in particular. Woodhull speaks a lot about ‘freedom’ in her 1973 speech, ‘The Scare-Crows of Sexual Slavery’. She believed that freedom meant that, “each and every individual has the right in his or her own proper person to make such use of any or all of his powers and capacities as he or she may elect to do” (MP, 245). Comstock and Woodhull each represent a section of Northern society that had something to gain and something to lose in the battle of public sexuality and while on the surface their intention may come across as moral, their fights had prizes to be won or lost by their demographic.

In the South, there also existed a battle along gender lines in the fight for public sexuality, but it was more than anything affected by a person’s race. Following the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed groups in every state and enacted terrorism to the freed blacks. These blacks sought to use their new notions of agency in their lives. For men, this meant new economic and political gains. For women, it meant finally uses her material and sexual resources to benefit her own family (Dowd-Hall). In the past times of slavery, sexual relations between men and women of mixed colors occurred fairly frequently. Typically, it was a white plantation owner asserting dominance and control over a black slave. More infrequently, but present, were relations between a black man and a white woman. Following the Civil War, the entirely system changed during the Reconstruction-era. When Reconstruction began to crumble, white found new ways to assert dominance over blacks. Thus began an obsession with ‘protecting’ the white women from the black males. In the Ku Klux Klan’s charter, women are mentioned as “special objects of our regard and protection” (Hodes). This statement went for white women only and white men often did rape and assault black women. The mindset of white and specifically the Klan was that sexual liaisons between a black man and a white woman were linked to black men’s political and economic independence (Hodes). To suppress this, white supremacists consistently and systematically terrorized, assaulted, and lynched blacks. Lynching was tolerated because the crime was always claimed to be the rape of a white woman. This claim was generally false in the vast majority of the cases. Their crimes were published in newspapers and mobs would get the person that was to be lynched and do it in a public spectacle. This public assertions of sexuality and dominance had lasting consequences in the South. In this case, public sexuality was to the benefit of the whites, specifically the white men in the South. For the South, they could use public notions of sexuality to perpetuate their dominance on a race that they were dedicated to putting down.


In each of these examples, the use of public sexuality is debated. Each has its beneficiaries and its losers. More importantly to consider is how public sexuality is used throughout time to control certain elements in society. Even today, we still debate the use of sexuality in the public and it poses a question: who today benefits from an open public discourse about sexuality and who does not?

Not Just Passionlessness- Alternate Views of Sexuality in Victorian America

The dominant view of sexuality in Victorian America tends to be one that lacks passion, seeks restraint, and chastises those who can not control their sexual habits (or other aspects of their life for that matter). While this may be most common association of sexuality at this time, a deeper look into the historiography of nineteenth century sexual scripts provides for an alternate view. The Bowery was not the only place that exhibited alternative sexual norms, passion and recluse was occurring all over America from the antebellum South, to the middle-class North, and most notably in the Wild Western Frontiers.

Karen Lystra quotes Queen Victoria’s wedding night advice, “Lie still and think of the Empire” in her essay in Major Problems (MP, 229), to illustrate the sense of duty and lack of passion that was to take place when during intercourse. The dominant public image was that women were pure and sex was only to occur for the sake of procreation. A look into primary source material shows that this was not exactly the case. Sex was supposed to occur only within marriage, and most nineteenth century courtships restrained from crossing the line until marriage, but that did not necessarily mean that all relationships lacked passion. For example, Lystra mentions that middle to upper middle class couples often did not undertake physical consummation until marriage; however during unchaperoned courtship they would, “forgo what their own culture defined as concomitant physical expression” (MP, 235) (meaning- just don’t cross the line). Primary sources tend to suggest that during the nineteenth century sex became linked to the sentiment of love- especially for women. While women were supposed to be pure by nature, Lystra asserts that, “Victorians joined the sexual and spiritual or moral in the concept of true love” (MP, 230). In 1865, a women wrote to her ‘Dear Soldier Boy’ and included many times the word love. She wrote to her lover,

“I love you more and more each day of my life [.] oh! I feel so often that if I could fly, how often would I go to you[,] how often I feel almost wild when I get to thinking of you. Oh! could any one love more dearly and truly?” (MP, 193).

Indeed many women who felt like they were in love did not just “lie still and think of the empire”, many actually enjoyed having sex with their husbands or lovers. This women was not married to her soldier boy, but from her letter it was obvious that they has engaged in sexual intercourse before. For those who were married, both men and women sometimes expressed genuine interest in pleasing the other (MP, 229). It is apparent that passionlessness was the result of restraint and not a full expression of one’s identity. Lystra sums up the private lives of Victorian couples by explaining that, “Properly sanctioned by love, sexual expressins were read as symbolic communications of one’s real and truest self” making it clear that enjoying sexual intercourse was fine for those married couples who believed that they shared a true love.

Love emphasized in the film "Gone With the Wind" set in the 19th Century South.
Love emphasized in the film “Gone With the Wind” set in the 19th Century South.

One final case to investigate is where the Western frontiers fit into the nineteenth century sexual ideals. Albert Hurtado writes about sexuality in California mining towns in his book Intimate Frontiers, and asserts that, “California, like other faraway and exotic lands, posed a challenge to the bourgeois values that dominated middle-class thinking in the United States” (Hurtado, 75). Of course, we remember the (Wild) West in the nineteenth century as a land of rowdy men, crowded saloons, and busy bordello houses, but where did the average person fit into that spectrum? In any community, there are extremes (think modern-day Las Vegas), but that doesn’t mean that the majority of the community does not consist of average people who fit somewhere in the middle of the conservative to hedonist spectrums.

Sexualized representation of Wild West saloon girls (notice only one minority represented).
Sexualized representation of Wild West saloon girls (notice only one minority represented).

The reality is more complicated than the wild reputation that the West invokes. In most age groups, men doubled women- if not more than that- and while many men sought to find a wife that they deemed as respectable, it was not always that easy. Take the story of William, the only son of the middle-class Bullard family: he looked for a wife for over a decade before finally marrying on someone who in the beginning of his search he would not have settled for. Despite the its reputation, most new California settlers brought with them their Eastern ideals about sex and marriage. That doesn’t mean that these ideals were all about passinlessness. For example, take the story of missionary Sheldon who was sent to California to Christianize the bawdy white men. He was not able to find a woman in California who he deemed suitable, so he sent for a wife from back East. It is interesting to note that seven months after their marriage, their first child was born early. This invokes a thought that maybe even our good Christian minister was not completely adhering to the ideal of restraining from sex before marriage.

An investigation into some alternate views of Victorian sexuality certainly complicates the dominant Victorian ideal of passionlessness. As in any society, there is a public image and a private reality. For those in the nineteenth century, private passion could coincide with purity if love was involved. Private actions often diverge strongly from public ideals in any society and before we think of the nineteenth century as one big unsatisfied graham cracker, it’s important to consider lives behind the closed doors of the Victorian houses and frontier cabins.

“Remember the Ladies”

In 1776, Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband to, “remember the ladies” in an effort to eradicate the unlimited power that husbands had over their wives. As the Nineteenth Century began, women had very few rights and little power. Society in the Nineteenth Century on through Jacksonian America continued to be male-dominated politically, economically, and especially sexually. During the course of the century, women had to navigate their often limited social lives in ways that began to form a type of identity, but also ways that were a bit contradictory.

One important way in which woman began to challenge traditional roles was through religion. From the Seventeenth Century on, women began to become a majority in Protestant churches and by the Nineteenth Century, it became a part of their perceived human characteristics. Formally, women were considered to be sexual or carnal, but this belief became replaced with a view that women were moral and virtuous. This change occurred at the same time as the Second Great Awakening, a time when religious, Evangelical fervor was at an all time high in America from the cities to the frontiers.

2nd Great Awakening

According to Nancy E. Scott in her article, “Passionlessness” in MP, “By the mid-Nineteenth Century, ‘Christian’ values and virtues and ‘female’ values and virtues were almost identical” (MP, 139). Scott presents a version of a Nineteenth Century female ideology called passionlessness that implies that women lacked sexual aggressiveness.

In women’s exchange for the stereotype of being the more moral and virtuous of the genders, they gained a sense of preservation and even some social advancement (MP, 141). Their new role came as the rest of American society was changing as well. From the 1830’s to 1860’s many advances occurred in political democracy, citizens economic, social, and geographical mobility increased, and a new phenomenon occurred: pursuit of moral reform. At this point in history, change was considered good and nothing was impossible- whether it was the conquest of a continent, the reform of a society, or the eternal salvation of mankind (Carol Smith-Rosenberg, 564). In this way, women used their reputation as the moral beings to attempt to reform society in many ways through reform movements. The moral reform movement was an organization of women who sought to transform society by reforming sexual habits and curbing the licentious actions of men. In May 1834, the New York Moral Reform Society was born an took on a strict program of reforming behavior though exposure and ostracism, lobbying, and education. They had their own weekly paper, The Advocate of Moral Reform, which had over 16,000 subscribers at its height. The paper notoriously called out men who were rumored to be engaging in ‘immoral’ sexual activity, and sought to reform prostitutes as well.

Moral Reform

The society took on a reputation for being extremely militant toward the reform of male behavior. The women believed that they had moral superiority which granted them both the right and ability to call for these changes (Rosenberg, 578). This was one of the first times that women banded together to forge their own path- one that was followed by women seeking the right to vote, temperance, and many other issues as well regarding women.

Of course, those moral reformers were middle-class women who were typically confined to the home, but they were not the only type of women fighting to forge their own path in the changing society. The 1830’s also saw the emergence of a working class culture between men and women that changed their relations from previous generations. Working class culture was different than men and women working together in a place like a farm because of the new introduction of the commercial culture that wages promoted. In MP, Christine Stansell identifies “the Bowery” in New York as one of the first places that this working class culture of men and women became prominent. The Bowery is in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, the Bowery “B’hoys” and the Bowery “G’hals” interacted in ways not yet seen in American history. While both were working for wages, the B’hoys were very paternalistic over their G’hals. They saw them as ‘their women’ and refused to let outsiders in. While there may seem like there were be a sense of equality among the working B’hoys and G’hals, that was wasn’t necessarily the case. The G’hals were theirs to protect from outsiders, but the B’hoys continued to prey on them in the dance halls and oyster houses. In addition, Stansell points out that the commercial culture often led to sex being a type of commercial courtship. It led to the assumption that women, in this case the G’hals owed the B’hoys sexual favors in return for generosity (Stansell, 131).

All of this together makes it obvious that the sexual culture of the Nineteenth Century was complicated. While women finally found a new role in Republican motherhood and the promotion of pious vales, they also still have to navigate their way through a society that was increasingly changing and rarely changing in their favor.

Information gathered from:

“Male License and Working-Class Women’s Sexuality.” Stansell, Christine. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

“Passionlessness.” Scott, Nancy F. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

Smith-Rosenberg, Caroll. “Beauty and the Beast, and the Militant Woman. “

Images in the order in which they appear:


Sexuality in the Colonies Expressed in Actions

Today in modern America, we understand sexuality as one’s identity that is expressed in orientation and preference. It is difficult to think of the term as something different, but in fact it has evolved very much over time. According to the piece by Richard Godbeer in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, “Sex acquires meaning in many cultures only as a function of political, economic, social, and religious ideologies” (MP, 93). In the Colonial America, sexuality was defined in terms of action rather than identity. During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, men were often viewed as “carnal, sensual, and devilish” (Ulrich, 97). Despite these views, men were expected not to act on this. It was the action that was important to sexuality, not any kind of preference or orientation. Colonial Laws, especially in the Puritan colonies, often were derived from biblical laws. The Massachusetts Colony’s Laws on Sexual Offenses from 1641-1660 has laws that came straight from the book of Leviticus. For example, 

If any man Lyeth with man-kinde as he lieth with a woman both of them have committed abomination, they both shall surely be put to death….

-Leviticus 20.13 (MP, 71).

The Puritan society sought to keep strict control over the colonists. A person’s private life was not private in the eyes of the court. One reason was the tight-knit communities and the small homes in which they lived. As in many other circumstances, small communities produce gossip and judgement. If someone was known to have committed a sexual offense, such as adultery or sodomy, it became the community’s business and was often brought to trial. The Puritans prided their colony on being one dedicated to God and actions that threatened that threatened the community as a whole (See William Bradford’s “Wickedness Breaking Forth”).

With such strict rules regarding sexuality that had such severe punishments, one would think that the colonists always followed the rules. This was obviously not the case. Not every Puritan was exactly “pure” and not every religious colonist stuck by strict sexual guidelines. For example, the case of Nicholas Sension highlights sexuality as understood only through actions and not identity. Sension was an important community member who often came on to other colonist males. The community tried to handle this through informal channels and private confrontations. After a few decades, Sension was eventually brought to trial for the crime of sodomy. While there were many instances of Sension coming on to other men, the court was only able to prove action in one occurrence (two were required for a guilty verdict). Another instance of a lack of sexual identity in colonial discourse is the case of Thomas/Thomastine Hall. Hall was a colonial who was the subject of a long debated controversy in the Virginia colony. He asserted that he was both male and female. This was not something that officials or the midwives could comprehend, at least in legal terms. Instead, the courts focused on Thomas(ine)’s anatomy and actions.


Colonial America is often thought to be a place of religious purity, but it was much more complicated than that. Victorian America was probably more internally moralistic than than Colonial America. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English colonies, your actions defined your sexuality- not your orientation or desires.

“Sodomy in Colonial New England”. Godbeer, Richard. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

“Massachusetts Colony’s Laws on Sexual Offesnes, 1641-1660”. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

“The Serpent Beguiled Me”. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Image of “Thomas(ine):

Sexual Violence as a Tool in the Conquest of California

Spanish missionaries working in California
Spanish missionaries working in California

Beginning in the Eighteenth Century, Spain set their sights on the conquest of Western territory in the Americas. They created missions in places that would later become the areas of California and Texas. The principle objective of these missions, according to Antonia I. Castaneda’s essay in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, was “converting Amerindians into loyal Catholic subjects who would repel invading European forces from these shores” (MP 49). Conversions were somewhat successful on the missions, however the majority of the new converts were children rather than adults. One reason that adults were less likely to convert to Christianity was the rampant nature of sexual assault against Amerindian women by Spanish soldiers. The phenomenon was not isolated to one specific mission or set of soldiers, it happened everywhere. Castaneda points out in MP that “the founding of each new mission and presidio brought new reports of sexual violence” (MP 47).

The sexual assaults were particularly troubling for the priests and missionaries because it went against all of the Catholic values that they were attempting to ‘teach’ the Amerindians. A document written by Father Luis Jayme in 1772 speaks at length on the troubling effects of the sexual abuse in California. He believes that more progress would be made if the soldiers “set a good example” (MP 36) and stopped violence against women specifically and the villages in general. He offers two cases, of which he says were two of many, of the effects of sexual assault in the missions. In the first case, he speaks of a Christian convert Amerindian who became pregnant after an assault from a Spanish soldier. She gave birth to the baby and killed in out of shame (MP 37). In the other, soldiers entered a village and demanded pears and pots from women. When they refused to give the pots, the soldiers repeatedly assaulted them (MP 38). Father Luis Jayme ends asking his Reverence to “do everything possible.. so that this conquest will not be lost or retarded because of the bad example by these soldiers” (MP 38). Father Luis Jayme recognized how detrimental the sexual assaults were to the mission of converting the Amerindians. The soldiers lost all credibility with the natives and these normal peaceful and typically non-violent Amerindians (MP 48) often would counterattack the soldiers- for which the soldiers would issue attacks as well. The Spanish conquest that had the guise of converting the Amerindians into Christians essentially turned their communities upside down.

native american-california-indian-baptism-1700s-san-deigo-junipero-serra

While the sexual violence was denounced by missionary members, it can be argued that the sexual violence was more than just bad behavior by the soldiers. Rather, the sexual violence was used as a control mechanism that aided the conquest in controlling the native populations. Castaneda points out that sexual assault is an act of domination and power in Western civilization (MP 53) and as such the soldiers used it as an act of war against a population it was seeking to conquer. The Amerindians were viewed as the lesser population by the Europeans and the assault was a product of this racist ideology. Castaneda sums up the practice by asserting that, “under conditions of war and conquest, rape is a form of national terrorism, subjugation, and humiliation, wherein the sexual violation of women represents both physical domination of women and the symbolic castration of the men of the conquered group” (MP 53). This point of view contrasts that of the missionaries and points to the slightly hypocritical nature of colonial missions. While the priests like Father Luis Jayme see the assaults as expressions of bad behavior, the soldier view it as an act of dominance. In the second story by Father Luis Jayme, the soldiers assaulted the women because they refused to give them pots. The disrespect of the native women provided for Spanish dominance in California and in other areas of colonial enterprise in Eighteenth century North America and onward.


“Father Luis Jayme Attacks Sexual Abuse of Indigenous Women, 1772.” Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

Castaneda, Antonia I. “Sexual Violence in the Spanish Conquest of California.” Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

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