- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

With this book Richard Godbeer has married explicit sex to social history. Colonial history will never quite be the same. "Sexual Revolution in Early America" is the most thorough compendium of sexual incidents, attitudes, laws, and literature in British America before 1800. Mr. Godbeer's book builds on a growing body of scholarship, but he has contributed substantial amounts of his own research as well. The result is the first account to try and make sense of patterns of sexual practice, prejudice, and prosecution everywhere from Maine to the West Indies, from the first settlements in the 17th century to 1800. This work will be the central reference point for our understanding of sexuality in early America for many years to come.
The book has much to offer both the casual and the thoughtful reader. If you want to see sailors and women carousing in Boston, it's here. If you want evidence of interracial sex, it's here. In this book the author says just about all that can be said about homosexual relations in the colonies, carefully employing the few scattered pieces of evidence to set them within their proper context (which is significantly different from what it is now).
Court cases, diaries, sermons and more provide plenty of material to prove that sex was something that preoccupied Americans in the colonial period about as much as it does now.
Mr. Godbeer does us a great favor by emphasizing how unsexy sex was. Or, rather, he shows that sex was often about much more than mere gratification or even reproduction. Instead, it was often about power relations and social connections.
Young men working as servants found themselves exposed to something like the treatment that many female servants and slaves encountered. Because the men who preyed on them were of considerable standing within their communities, their activities could often go on for years without serious ramifications. As with everything else in early American society, it was the poor and powerless who were most likely to suffer for their human failings. Those more wealthy and powerful had more opportunities to redeem themselves if and when they were called to account.
Running throughout Mr. Godbeer's book is a continuous struggle between secular and religious authorities, who sought to regulate sexual behavior, and the people, who had their own ideas about what was and was not permissible. Mr. Godbeer is attentive enough to realize that when ministers denounce the scandalous and licentious manners of colonists, they are often expressing frustration with popular attitudes toward sexual relationships, which tended to be (of necessity often) more flexible than those of the authorities.
Yet, though they may have been willing to tolerate more than the authorities, they did have their own ideas about what was and was not proper. Much of the everyday policing of sexuality was done by commoners themselves as they espied their neighbors in elicit acts, gossiped about, threatened, or bargained with those who went too far.
Though this is a book about sex, it is a serious academic study. There are scandals and outrageous deeds, but there is real food for thought as well. We see how sexual practices and attitudes varied over time and space. The possibilities and problems of sexual encounters shifted significantly depending on a series of not terribly sexy factors like economy, demography, and settlement patterns. Attitudes toward race, for example, can be seen to vary from one colony to another. Interracial sex happened wherever slavery existed. In fact the desire to rape one's slave women seems to have been an almost irrepressible aspect of the slave system for male European masters.
But it was not equally acknowledged or tolerated everywhere. The larger the enslaved African population, the fewer European women, and the greater the dependence of the Europeans on the Africans, the more open and tolerant Europeans were towards sexual relations with Africans.
Likewise, sexual relations between Europeans and Native Americans varied considerably depending upon the context. In his discussion of colonial attitudes towards Native Americans, Mr. Godbeer indicates that for "all their condescension toward native inhabitants, colonists were far from confident that they would emerge culturally ascendant from a 'nuptial bed' in which they united with Indian lovers."
Male traders deep in Amerindian lands often needed a native female companion for the social and political connections she would supply. But the European men could not just pick and choose at will. As long as Amerindian societies held some political autonomy, they regulated their sexual contact with Europeans as carefully as Europeans did with them.
This was one of the great agonies of slavery. African men could not protect African women from European men. But European men brutally protected European women from African men. That there is evidence for relations being more open and fluid in the 17th century only makes the transition to the system of full-blown slavery in the 18th century all the more cruel.
There is a wealth of material in this book that can challenge any broad generalization one might want to make. For example, Mr. Godbeer shows that some masters clearly developed real and affectionate relationships with some of their sexual partners, be they slaves or servants, and sometimes (if they were women) married them and granted them a degree of social legitimacy they otherwise could not have attained on their own.
We also come away from the book with certain preconceptions challenged. Puritan New England, for example, reveals itself to be a place that was not at all prudish. On the contrary, physical affection, flirtation, and frank and positive discussions of sexuality abounded. This may have been in part facilitated by the close scrutiny of kin and community that provides so much of the material for colonial court records. As Mr. Godbeer notes, "one person's 'harmless kiss' was another's 'wanton dalliance,'" and many a colonist fell afoul of this ambiguous distinction.
After the Revolution, society became freer (for whites), the economy more capitalistic, and individuals found themselves with a greater capacity to choose their sexual partners than ever before. At the same time, unless they were well off, they lacked the old communal support networks that had helped sustain stable relationships even as they harshly punished sexual transgressions in the colonial period.
With individual choice came individual responsibility. In an excellent discussion of changing attitudes towards women, Mr. Godbeer shows how old stereotypes of women's voracious sexual appetites were revised. Now women were repositories of virtue, sexual and political. Their sexuality, properly exercised, could make men honest citizens and patriots. On the other hand, if women failed to live up to these new expectations, the fault was all theirs.
Times and circumstances have changed, but Mr. Godbeer ends with a return to his theme of how Americans have always had to negotiate between ideals of sexual behavior and the changing realities of sexual practice. This, it seems, is the one great lesson his book has to offer all of us.

Evan Haefeli is a lecturer in the department of history at Princeton University. He is completing a book, with Kevin Sweeney, a professor at Amherst College, on the 1704 French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Mass.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide