From bawdy talk to evangelical sermons, and from celebrations of free love to prosecutions for obscenity, nineteenth-century America encompassed a far broader range of sexual attitudes and ideas than the Victorian stereotype would have us believe. In Rereading Sex, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz lets us listen to the national conversation about sex in the nineteenth century and hear voices that resonate in our own time.
Probing court records, pamphlets, and “sporting men’s” magazines, Horowitz shows us a many-voiced America in which an earthy acceptance of desire and sexual expression collided with prohibitions broadcast from the pulpit. We encounter fascinating reformers like Victoria Woodhull, who advocated free love and became the first woman to run for president; faddists like Sylvester Graham, who obsessed about the dangers of masturbation; and moral crusaders like Anthony Comstock, who succeeded in banning sexual subject matter from the mails. We also see how newspapers like the Sunday Flash treated prostitutes like celebrities and how the National Police Gazette found a legal way to write about explicity about sex through crime reports that read like gossip columns. Employing an encyclopedic knowledge artfully rendered, Horowitz brings to the fore a wide spectrum of attitudes and a debate echoed in the culture wars of today.
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor in American Studies at Smith College, is the author of numerous works including The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas (1994), Campus Life (1987), Alma Mater (1984), and Culture and the City (1976). She is the recipient of grants and fellowships… More about Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
“Superb. . . . Full of fresh material, shrewd analysis and sound judgment… Horowitz’s enthusiasm and sense of fun are infectious.” —Los Angeles Times
“A fine new study of the debates over sexual knowledge in 19th century America. . . . Horowitz is a rigorous and supple thinker on inflammatory issues.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Completely fascinating. . . . Highly entertaining and accessible.” —The Women’s Review of Books
“A highly readable book that maintains high standards of scholarship and integrity.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Impressive and compelling . . . an intricate tapestry of nineteenth-century American sexual culture that fully reveals the power and complexity of sexuality and its profound impact on every facet of life.”—Booklist (starred review)
“In letting us eavesdrop on 19th-century discussions of sex, Horowitz demonstrates that while the language has certainly changed, many of the arguments have not.” —Providence Journal
“In Helen Horowitz’s wide-ranging account of the culture wars of the nineteenth century, anxieties that we live with today—about pornography, contraception, abortion, and free expression—turn out to have surprising histories.” —Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies
“Entertaining. . . . The huge number of philosophies and personalities that played a role in the debate, and made a foundation for our current sexual ideas, are brilliant distilled.” —The Lafayette Times
“Moves us beyond the old binary of Victorian lights and shadows, of prudery versus passion, to show the interwoven complexity of our first national conversation about sex.” —Patricia Cline Cohen, author of The Murder of Helen Jewett
Merle Curti AwardWINNER 2003
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz on REREADING SEX
Rereading Sexputs the 1873 Comstock Law in the context of the nineteenth century’s quarrel about sex. At one level it tells a national story about sexual knowledge, based on materials about sex published between 1820 and 1880. In a complex conversation about the body, reproduction, and desire, four voices emerged: American vernacular sexual culture; evangelical Christianity; moral physiology reimaging the body, nerves, health, and the relation of mind and body; and a new sensibility placing sex at the center of life. Rereading the texts that animated this conversation demands reimagining sexuality in nineteenth-century America.
At another level, Rereading Sextells a New York story. As the leading cultural center of the nation, it was the location of those who produced and distributed both erotica and works about reproduction and sexuality. New York was also a center of reform agitation about sexual questions. It had the courts that established the central traditions of legal practice dealing with obscene libel. Perhaps most tellingly, it had the critical social forces to battle what was perceived as obscenity. The Young Men’s Christian Association of New York came into being in the 1850s to offer young male clerks moral alternatives to the culture of sporting life. Confronting printed erotica, it turned to suppression. These efforts were successful after the Civil War in getting federal and state legislation to curb not only commercial erotica, but books on sexuality and sexual reform. Anthony Comstock became empowered to enforce the law as a federal agent of the U.S. Post Office.
In 1879 the constitutionality the law was affirmed, but a community of dissenters emerged, committed to keeping free speech alive in an era of suppression. What began as a New York struggle became a national battle over sexual knowledge and suppression that still resonates in our own time. American culture remains profoundly divided over questions of morality and its relation to government. At the dawn of the twenty-first century each day’s news presents reports of contemporary clashes over medical research, abortion, pornography, teenage sex education, and censorship of the Internet. New technology and new sources of sexual knowledge bring new threats to freedom of expression. As we read sex in our own times, echoes of America’s nineteeth century battles over sexual knowledge and suppression, one of our first culture wars, still reverberate in our ears.