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This book is very well researched and well-written. Academics and non-academics alike will find it easy to read, theories are set out and backed up with research and facts, and many of the stranger mores associated with the 19th century explained. It makes an interesting study for anyone who has ever wondered how and why Americans came to be so schizophrenic (using sexual images to sell everything from cars and copy machine toner to chocolate, yet there was a huge fuss a few years ago about a billboard that showed a woman nursing a baby) about sex during the 20th century because it shows that Americans were equally conflicted about sex during the 19th century, and had not resolved those issues. Highly recommended.
The evangelical Christian movement sweeping across the country in the first half of the nineteenth century seized upon such worries about masturbators and lustful women, and "sinful lust became a chief way of comprehending sexual desire." The American Tract Society was particularly vehement on such issues, and was aghast at the scientific understanding of sexual function that was beginning at the time. Especially important was the protection of female virginity, and fear of pregnancy was a vital shield of the nation's maidenheads. Physiological explanations of birth control were seen as a special danger; unimpeded by fear of impregnation, there was no telling what the women would get up to. Tractarians saw the freethinkers who promoted sexual knowledge as blasphemers. Nothing shocked them more than the non-religious (and it was generally the freethinkers who promoted the spread of physiological ideas) insisting that women had similar sexual desires and need for satisfaction as men, or that birth control would promote happiness, health, and economic freedom. It is surprising that the Young Men's Christian Association looms large in these pages. The YMCA had as a goal the promotion of evangelical religion, and during the Civil War, it was worried about Union soldiers, displaced from home, and in 1865 the YMCA was able to advocate for a post office bill that would forbid mailing erotic prints and books, the first time the federal government tried to regulate moral content of mailed material. The anti-sex activities of the YMCA were linked to the famous and foolish reformer, Anthony Comstock, whose censorious aims even kept birth control information out of medical texts.
Horowitz has summarized four "frameworks" out of the confusing discourse about sex during the period. The Vernacular Tradition consists of sexual information (and misinformation) passed generally by word of mouth. Evangelical Christianity hated lust and equated most sexual activities with sin. Reform Physiology looked to the science of the body (often composed of wildly inaccurate assertions) to promote sexual freedom, and sometimes sexual restraint. And then there were Utopians, who thought sex was the central part of human existence and should be untouched by the government. These four voices, in the printed works and journals of the time, often overlapped and swamped each other with rhetoric. The huge number of philosophies and personalities which played a role in the debate, and made a foundation for our current sexual ideas, are brilliantly distilled into this large, well-referenced book, which is an entertaining academic tome without ever being fusty or tedious.
The pictures in the book are wonderful. One in particular of the aftermath of a snowball fight at Princeton in the 19th century opened up some interested dialog among my colleagues regarding the nature of violence on college campuses. I highly recommend this book.