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EDITED TO ADD:
So many people are coming to this one on Google that I thought I’d add some citations in case they are moved to go read more about this subject.
Lots of historians write about sex. Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America
is as good as any place to start (and better than most). He also has written a number of shorter articles on non-procreative sex that you can find in the William and Mary Quarterly. Merrill Smith’s Sex and Sexuality in Early America — a collection of articles, good for a short sampling — is also good, though it doesn’t aim to be a narrative history but rather a bunch of case studies. I also think highly of the work of Sharon Block, whose book
Rape and Sexual Power in Early America is really terrific. Block and Kathleen Brown edited an entire volume of William and Mary Quarterly in January 2003 and the authors of those articles are now coming out with great and relevant books. You might also want to look for anything by Martha Hodes, Jennifer Spears, or Kirsten Fischer — excellent authors with excellent books and articles that concern themselves with how sexual and racial hierarchy is built up together in imperial settings like colonial America and the early US South. Finally, I’d be amiss if I let you get away without a mention of Clare Lyons book about sex in colonial Philadelpia, titled
Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1780-1830. The premarital pregnancy stuff I talk about is condensed from a classic in the field by Daniel Scott Smith and Michael Hindus, “Premarital Pregnancy in America, 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation,” _Journal of Interdisciplinary History_ 5 (1974-5). The general text in the field that covers a lot of ground, but in my mind is interpretively sort of out of date, is John d’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Likewise, while I like Stephanie Coontz, _The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600-1900, it was written twenty years ago and some of what she wrote then has been modified by the findings of the more recent works listed above. Hope this helps.
This one is for Nick, who appears to be incapable of asking easy questions. (That is, of course, a good thing. Any other historian who wants to jump in on this, feel free…I haven’t even touched on the whole trans-Atlantic dimension of this…)
“I have a very curious nature, and I have a nagging history question today, a question about women in the revolutionary era. Why were there way more prostitutes in colonial America than today? From everything I’ve read, they were ubiquitous back then (like in some towns, the vast majority of women). Are we actually way more puritanical now than we were then?”
First, prostitutes were never the vast majority of women in colonial America. Women is a pretty big category, encompassing married, widowed, single women — black, white, Indian women — rich and poor and middling women. If we restrict ourselves to white women (just temporarily), the vast majority of white women followed the standard marriage and kids route, then as now. Most black women did not own themselves and thus could not sell themselves. And Indian women’s use of sexual exchange was really different in its meaning (depending on who and when you’re talking about) than Anglo prostitution. Also, the total colonial population was a tiny fraction of today’s mainland US population, so as a matter of numbers, it would be very unlikely that there are more prostitutes then than now. So, with that misconception cleared up, let’s talk about sex in colonial America…
Yes, strange as it may seem, American society is much more sexually uptight than it was in the 18th century, the pornification of everything notwithstanding. Colonial Americans were a sexually open bunch — they cracked dirty jokes, they played sexual pranks, they sang outrageously ribald songs, they drew scandalous cartoons, and they masturbated in the churchyard when they thought the sermon was boring. They spied on each other through the cracks in the cabin walls, they had sex in haylofts, and they told everybody they knew when they got laid. There was no expectation of privacy. Even the Puritans, who are usually thought of as the world’s greatest prudes, believed that sex was a positive good within marriage and that sexual satisfaction was pleasing in the eyes of God. So this was a lusty bunch of folks, well-lubricated with alcohol, cider, and small beer…
There. There’s one straightforward answer. Now, about prostitution…
The motives for regulating sexual behavior were different from colony to colony, so it’s hard to speak generally about sexual policing. Some colonies spent a lot of energy policing interracial sex — trying to keep the line bright between owners and the owned. Other colonies were far more concerned about offenses to social order and supporting the patriarchal household head’s right to control the bodies and labor of his dependents. All colonies and localities cared about sexual relationships in which live birth resulted, as they wanted fathers to acknowledge paternity and support the infant/mother pair until the child was old enough to be weaned and be bound out (OR marry, if possible) — the motive there is to avoid putting a mother/child on the pauper rolls, which was a public charge. Ownership of one’s body and the right to sell one’s labor (including sexual labor) is a property issue that is connected with a lot of other things, including race, the law of coverture, and the changing nature of scientific inquiry. So it’s a really complicated thing to try to break out one small piece of the non-marital sex puzzle when maybe it would be easier to understand if we approached it more holistically. Stick with me and you’ll learn something, though we’re not going to take the HOV lane.
Generally speaking, colonial Americans divided sexual acts into procreative and nonprocreative activity. They were always more down on nonprocreative sex. Beastiality was always out — there was still an imprecise understanding of reproduction and a fear of the creation of “abominable” half-human monsters, as well as the violation of someone else’s chattel (a cow, horse, sheep, or dog that didn’t belong to the penetrator). Repeated acts of sodomy that became public knowledge, violated other social boundaries (like when an elite man buggered an unwilling servant boy and the boy’s parents got into the act), or betokened an ongoing “unnatural” partnership (two men living together and not motivating themselves to find wives) would be punished, but not nearly as frequently or as harshly as you might think. Tribadic activity or female “sporting” is rarely mentioned in colonial court records and was always given the stinkeye when it came to public notice. Public masturbation — especially in the churchlot, the courthouse steps, or other places where it was meant to give offense to the dignity of the activities that occurred in that location — was out. Transgendered performance — especially men wearing women’s clothing, but even to a lesser extent women passing for men — violated social order by pretending to be something that you weren’t. (But there are those that argue that you’d have been in similar trouble for counterfeiting a cross-class appearance…)
So, let’s think about procreative (heterosexual, penetrative, penis in or near vagina) sex. Sex between married people, of course, was presumed good and sexual capacity was considered vital to being legally married. If a man contracted marriage but could not achieve or maintain an erection, for example, that was cause for a separation in Massachusetts Bay Colony. And if a woman was barren, that was not necessarily “her fault” — it could indicate that her husband was a bad lover, as it was commonly believed that women needed to climax to “catch” a baby.
Premarital sex, though…that’s a can of worms. There’s a lot of different ideas about women and premarital sex in colonial America, depending on where one was geographically, one’s social class and race, what’s one’s relationship was to one’s partner, etc. According to one early study of sexuality in New England, it was not all that uncommon for couples to be expecting babies when they married — premarital sex between partners who had declared their intention to marry, while not exactly embraced by society, was also not stigmatized. That’s what happened when bundling got a little hot and heavy. In southern colonies, however, free white girls’ sexual “purity” was a badge of white male honor in a slaveholding society, with sexual activity heavily stigmatized and associated with the lower sort and/or indentured servitude. (The enduring association is found, for example, in the word “slut” — which is another word for a dirty kitchen menial.) Sexual access to enslaved women was presumed a part of a master’s ownership of their bodies. The strong presumption of coercion makes a consideration of sex between white indentured serving women or enslaved black women and their masters something different than prostitution.
So, why does it seem like there’s so many whores in colonial America? I’ve got some ideas.
1) Social conditions. Endemic warfare in the 18th c created displaced refugees (mostly women and kids) who contributed to urban overcrowding (people are living 9-12 persons per room). The economy tanked in mid-century and the gap between rich and poor got much wider, especially in coastal cities. These port towns had a lot of women without any regular source of income (as their husbands might be sailors in the China trade, gone for two years at a time). And there weren’t a whole lot of jobs for women outside of services related to one’s domestic skills — laundry, keeping boarders, baking bread, making beer, sewing buttons, upholstering or tending bar or maybe offering a dame’s school. So, lacking other means of keeping themselves alive and generating extra income, women might find what we’d now call a sugar daddy to help pay the bills. Or a woman might honestly not know if her husband was alive or coming back — self-divorce being common — and “take up” with another man. Or she might sell a bit on the side, to make rent, without any intention of pursuing sex as a trade. None of these things would have been considered particularly whorish at the time. Our standards have changed and we’d be inclined to categorize all of these behaviors as prostitution.
2. Young women could be accused of bawdry (gossip and slander being major sports in colonial America) without a shred of evidence and slurs against sexual chastity were common — as they both shamed the girl and they shamed the father, who was not exercising appropriate patriarchal control over his daughter’s body. Many girls were called whores (by other women, mostly) or accused of being “poxy” or “crusted” (yeah…euuuuuuuuww….the affidavits on these things are graphic), but the charges mostly were groundless.
3. According to a landmark study by Sharon Block, elite men often could manipulate the appearance of willingness (or at least resigned consent) that transformed what we would now consider rape into something less than a prosecutable offense. In a society where sex-talk was frequent and rape carried a capital punishment, male jurors were reluctant to kill a man for fucking unless there was some sort of exceptional inappropriateness (like targeting and gravely injuring a very young girl). So many of our records imply, on their face, that women were selling sex when — if you look closer at the social contexts within which these events happen — the sex was forcibly taken and then some money offered as a belated extra-legal reparation (which then might have been taken by the woman who was making the best of a bad situation).
4. Much of our information about sex comes through court records. So historians write about what they can find in primary documents. The emphasis on legally transgressive sex reflects source bias rather than some sort of numerical predominance of sex-for-hire.
Does any of this help? Ask me follow-up questions and I’ll clarify.
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