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): http://thecorpsedebutante.tumblr.com/post/5533315089/thomas-or-thomasine-hall