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Behind Closed Doors

REREADING SEX: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America, By Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alfred A. Knopf: 528 pp., $30

September 08, 2002|MERLE RUBIN | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Reading about sex, seeing it in movies, talking about it on television and other public milieus, has become commonplace. Even the once-verboten topics of prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, rape, incest, and child abuse have become objects of talk-show chatter. But mention a harmless activity practiced by most girls and women and almost every man and boy, and you just might suffer the fate of former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, fired from her job by a president who might himself have benefited from her sage advice. Indeed, apart from the yeoman service performed on its behalf by "Portnoy's Complaint," masturbation has been the proverbial orphan child. It's been condemned as wicked and sinful by the anti-sex crowd but with none of the risque glamour associated with fornication, adultery or homosexuality. Strangely, too, it has fared almost as badly among the pro-sex crowd who are inclined to view it as the sorry fate of sexual wallflowers.

Understanding why a country, so awash in pornography and so tolerant of sexual freedom, could react so hysterically to Elders' mild comment was one of the motives animating Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz's research into sexual attitudes in 19th century America. A professor of American studies at Smith College, Horowitz had written a book about the formidable feminist (and lesbian) M. Carey Thomas, the guiding power behind the founding of Bryn Mawr College. Here again, the question arose: What did 19th century Americans think about sex?

But because there seemed to be a considerable gap between what people actually knew and what they said--or were permitted to say--in print, Horowitz's quest to understand American sexual attitudes grew into a study, not only of sexual knowledge but also of the forces that sought to suppress the "public conversation" about sex.

Once a relatively minor sin, "seldom mentioned even in sermons," sometime in the 1830s masturbation was suddenly perceived as one of the greatest dangers facing American youth. This, Horowitz finds, was largely the work not of religious maniacs but of so-called reform physiologists, whose quasi-scientific theories of the body linked this clearly unproductive (or un-reproductive) use of the sex organs to all kinds of illnesses, physical, mental and moral. A respected Connecticut doctor in charge of a lunatic asylum noted, for example, a shocking prevalence of the practice among the inmates. This, in turn, led him to conclude that in all probability, it was their penchant for "self-pollution" that had reduced these hapless souls to lunacy in the first place. Soon pamphlets and books proliferated, warning against the dangers. Case histories were told of promising young boys and girls from good families who fell victim to this habit and became listless, irrational, or even violent. Parents were warned to watch for telltale signs: a lad who read novels in bed at night or preferred lolling about indoors to "normal, healthy" athletic activities was very likely to fall victim to "the solitary vice."

Some of alarmists saw books as a major culprit: "Every library ... every classic, every print-shop, has something, prose, poetry, or picture, which can be perverted ... to the base use of exciting passion," warned one. Quite apart from the classics, there was plenty of explicit material available, some of it written to educate, but some of it intentionally pornographic, written to turn a quick dollar. Sadly, those who took it upon themselves to demand censorship seldom bothered to draw any distinctions. Beginning in 1865, with the passage of the first national censorship law, America's lively, contentious conversation about sex suffered a serious setback.

Investigating a host of primary sources--court records, newspaper articles, the writings of reformers, popularizing physicians, sex educators, evangelists and utopian idealists--Horowitz discerns among the vast welter of voices four primary "frameworks," as she calls them. First is the vernacular tradition: the set of conceptions (and misconceptions) embedded in oral culture, passed down from generation to generation, and sideways among peers. The second framework, evangelical Christianity, was essentially distrustful of the flesh and sought to counter what it considered sexual excess. The third framework--"reform physiology"--sought a new scientifically based understanding of the human body. Though some reform physiologists were proponents of greater sexual freedom, many, such as dietary reformer Sylvester Graham, preached a health regimen that included sexual restraint. All, however, believed in publicizing their findings and theories to inform people. In the fourth framework were those who placed sex at the very core of being, exponents of free love like Victoria Woodhull and Ezra Heywood, who felt the state had no business regulating the sacred passions of the human heart.

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