Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America
Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent some time discussing the concept of power and how that informs our understanding of gender, women’s studies, and ideas of masculinity. I remember during one of the seminar discussions that we talked about the “civic death” and the situation by which women had little “control” over their lives; men being dominate public figures in society. This makes you think of the various private moments that women held in their lives; not just in the home, but in moments away from men who were traditionally thought as the bearers of sexual gratification which “signified a women’s maturity” (1).
As we learned last week, we notice that there is a difference in what “public” really means; not just a geographical space but a void in which ideals and expectations are controlled and bolstered through the lens of gender. This week is no different than the others. This book is more than an investigation into masturbation during the nineteenth century U.S. north, but broadly an examination of the politics of sex, gender, power, and how personal gratification mixes.
“Public space,” in the context of April R. Haynes’s Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth Century America, shows us that men attempted to control women’s behaviors and sexual ideas through gendered power and control. Sexual thoughts, reciprocated through masturbation, were often not only discouraged but looked down on by civil society. The power dynamics between men and women related to the superiority of men: such interpretation suggests “why would women need to self-please themselves when they have men to do that job?” As seen on page 8, Haynes suggests that “patriarchs and libertines considered male sexuality essentially active (either questing or controlled) and female sexuality passive (either receptive or obedient).” Power dynamics, concerning sex, pleasure, and the politics which surrounded that topic, heavily swayed towards men during the period or at least those who argued against the uncivil act of the female “solitary vice.”
One of the essential parts of this book is the process by which women seek political rights through the discussions of sexual independence. Though, during the Antebellum period, female reforms sought to prohibit masturbation. These women did so as “they sought to challenge the sexual relations that structures patriarchy in their own time and envision what sexual autonomy for women might look like in practice” (3). One of the other significant points of conversation in this book is how African American women interacted with discussions centered on morality and female sexual autonomy (55, 162).
Some of the big questions I hope we can discuss during our class is how does power play a role in this book, and to what extent did women’s agency demonstrate a way to contest that power? How did women reinforce or protest debates on sexuality, in particular the private moments of masturbation? How does “public space” interact with Haynes’s work? How does race play a role in this study of gender and power? And, in comparison to Revolutionary Backlash, do we see any similarities or differences in looking at women using politics to push change?