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.