Monday, August 27, 2012

Lust in the One-Room House: Sex in Colonial America

Many Americans seem to regard the 21st century as a time of liberally minded sexual enlightenment.  However, were they to live through the colonial era, a time in which people were often high on hemp and the taverns outnumber churches, they might have a different opinion of both the past and the present.  In fact, they too might agree with Michel Foucault, who argued against the Repressive Hypothesis of Sexuality.  In essence, Foucault claimed that the history of sexuality was not one of repression to liberation.  He argued that the idea that sexuality was repressed in Western society for much of the 17th-20th centuries is a mere illusion.  
The sex lives of ordinary colonial Americans are a testament to Foucault’s claims.  A fellow historian once wrote in their blog; "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…”[i]
     While there were sources of regulation in colonial America which were intended to prevent the spread of sexuality outside of marriage, many of these failed.  The church was a place where the preacher exhorted their congregation to practice pious behaviors that would please the lord.  Jonathan Edwards was famous for his fire and brimstone sermons that threatened,  "There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God....They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God's using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins"
One might presume that such fiery and theatrical sermons would frighten anyone away from indulging in sex outside of the confines of marriage.  

Yet it is an absolute fallacy to assume that all early Americans were both Christian and churchgoers.  It seems that the Puritans take up too large a place in the cultural memory of contemporary Americans.  Certainly the good people of New England who lived in close knit communities found church attendance incredibly important.  But those who lived in the southern colonies of the Chesapeake would have found attending church troublesome.  Many lived miles apart from each other on isolated farms.  In fact, in many places outside of New England, preachers traveled on a yearly circuit.  They may only have been in a particular village for a few weeks a year.  European visitors traveling through North Carolina in the colonial era complained of the backwoods folks who believed in common-law marriages, in which they simply proclaimed themselves married and began living together.  While such a union may have violated colonial laws, which were based on English Common Law, they were often accepted by the community and tolerated by the governing officials due to the scarcity of clergy in remote areas.

      Within marriage, sex was considered incredibly important in bonding together husband and wife.  Midwifery manuals such as “Aristotle's Masterpiece” taught that both man and woman must orgasm in order to conceive a child.  Thus, prior to the discovery of the role of the sperm and egg in conception in the late 18th century, the sexual pleasure of both partners was greatly encouraged.  But how exactly did colonists do the deed when many of the earliest Americans lived in one room houses?  
According to the diaries of colonial Americans, it was not uncommon for children to sleep in the same bed in which their parents were quietly copulating.  Such an act in today’s world might solicit a call to Child Protective Services, but in the Colonial era, limited space meant that families had to make-do with what they had.  With the inability of colonial courtrooms and church houses to truly regulate sexuality, it was certainly not limited to marriage.  While rates of prenuptial pregnancy were relatively low prior to 1750 (roughly 10% of all couples were pregnant upon marriage) this number skyrocketed to 30% in the second half of the 18th century.  What could be the cause of such a jump in bastardy rates?  The practice of bundling was perhaps to blame.  If you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” then you have seen an excellent example of bundling between the character played by Heath Ledger and his fiancĂ©.  In the latter half of the century, parents let their children share a bed with their betrothed as long as they were either sewn into sleeping bag type devices or had a bundling board between them.  In some cases, if a daughter’s betrothed was visiting from afar, parents even shared a bed with the younger couple.  Despite the fact that such couples faced fines and the possibility of both a whipping and excommunication from church, it clearly wasn’t unusual for the young couple to slip through their restraints and have carnal knowledge of one another.
Because bastardy rates continued to rise in the last half of the 18th century, regulations were put in place to keep single mothers from ending up on communal welfare and also to keep them from committing infanticide.  If a woman refused to admit who had fathered her bastard child, a process known as “12 Angry Women” was begun.  It was believed that during the pains of labor a woman could not lie.  Thus, the single mother would be surrounded by 12 midwives and female community members and questioned about her ‘baby daddy’.  Some gave in due to the sheer stress of the situation, and when they did, lawmakers held the man they cited as responsible for the upbringing of the baby.  In some cases, they even forced the couple to marry.  In addition to these issues, colonial officials experienced an increase in mothers committing infanticide, or killing their infants upon birth.  Many of these cases involved young single women who had been “seduced” or voluntarily joined into an affair with a married man.  They might choose to simply stop breastfeeding the child or even to kill him immediately after birth in an attempt to hide their pregnancy altogether.  Because of this, lawmakers enacted bastardy laws that stated if any bastard child was found dead, the mother was presumed guilty of infanticide, unless of course she had a witness.  Thus, single pregnant mothers were increasingly encouraged to seek out the counsel of midwives, rather than going off into the woods for a silent, painful, and dangerous secret childbirth.
Even more troubling to colonial lawmakers and moralists were those sexual deviants who were not betrothed to their partners.  In the case of sixteen year old Thomas Granger, the partner wasn’t even human!  Colonial buggery laws were very strict, as most people believed that copulation with an animal might produce a monstrously half-human, half-animal offspring.  In the case of Thomas Granger who admitted to having had sex with a turkey, a mare, a cow, two calves, two goats, and many sheep, the animals were first lined up in front of him and then shot.  Thomas was then hanged in September of 1642; the first man in the New World to be punished thusly for copulation with animals.   

Other sex crimes included adultery, the punishment for which might include death in the harshest cases, fines, whipping, wearing of the letters AD on an outfit or branding of the forehead!  Can you imagine if all the adulterers of contemporary society were either jailed and fined or put to death for their indiscretion?  I would imagine that the population would drop precipitously.
In discussing sexual “deviancy” in colonial America, many of my students have asked about the role that homosexuality played.  I could certainly devote an entire blog entry to the history of the concept of sexual identity, and homosexuality in particular.  But to put it shortly, the concept of sexual identity did not exist during this time.  Were a man to be caught in a sodomitical act, they would simply have been punished for sodomy.  As with any other sexual crime in the colonial era, were they to accept their punishment and apologize to the community and church, they would have been welcomed back.  Women, who clearly could not be arrested for sodomy due to their lack of ability to penetrate, might be arrested for “women’s acts against nature” if caught in a sexual relationship with another woman.  But they too were simply punished for their sexual misconduct, rather than being labeled with a particular sexual identity.  It really wasn’t until the 19th century that doctors would bring about the stigmatization of homosexual identity. 
The final act of sexual deviancy that I’m going to look at is one that I find the most controversial; rape.  In early America, the act of raping a woman who was under the age of 10, engaged, or married could garner the death penalty for the rapist.  To be found guilty of rape required a woman or even a girl as young as 8 to provide witnesses that she had not consented to the sex.  But what about unmarried women over the age of 10?  To put it bluntly, under the laws of coverture, these women were not protected.  In the colonial mindset, a rapist harmed the property that belonged to a father of a young girl, a fiancĂ©, or a husband.  Any married woman was considered a feme covert, and her legal identity was subsumed by that of their husband.  Thus, the rapist had to make amends to that particular man financially.  Yet a feme sole, any women who never married or was widowed, was not protected by the law.  They had very little recourse to redress the grievance of having been raped.  In many ways this seems like an attempt by law makers to scare women into submission and acceptance of patriarchal institutions of power.  Whatever the cause, rape was a devastating event in a woman’s life, not simply for its terrifying psychological damage, but also for the damage to a woman’s reputation.
Given the amount of sex that was being had in colonial America, it’s not particularly surprising that women often gave birth to 10 or more children, and remained pregnant from the time they were married (around 18-20 years of age) until they reached menopause.  This is equally unsurprising when you consider the fact that until the 19th century contraception was limited to postponing breastfeeding, coitus interruptus (the pull out method), vaginal sponges, lemon wedges, laxatives and a few other risky birth control methods.  The strain this put on the female body must have been incredible.  
For further information on sexuality in early America consider the following sources:
  • Richard Godbeer “The Sexual Revolution in Early America"
  • Sharon Block “Rape and Sexual Power in Early America"
  • John D’ Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman “Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America"
  • Jonathan Katz “The Invention of Heterosexuality" 
  • Thomas A. Foster “Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America” and his “Sex and the 18th Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America” 
  • Clare A. Lyons  “Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1780-1830 
  •  Stephanie Koontz “The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1600-1900"



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  2. Sir, I can't understand your comment. Also, I'm not entirely sure it's appropriate for an academic blog!

  3. you mention that rape of women under 10 carried a death penalty. does that imply that the rape of boys did not carry a death penalty?

  4. Hi Josiah. This is an interesting question and the answer can be found in the sodomy laws of the colonial era. The sodomy laws of the era were incredibly harsh, as they called for death in many forms. This would have been the punishment for both two consenting adults and the rape of a male child. I once read an interesting case from the 1780's in which a slave boy of 10 was raped by an older slave man. The magistrates responded by saying that "a person with whom sodomy has been comitted deserved to be put to death". Sodomy was viewed as a crime that destroyed the very fabric of the community. Yet it was often ignored based upon a person's race and class. There were also legal loopholes. In that particular case, the young boy claimed that he had engaged in consensual sex. In today's world anyone under a particular age can not be viewed as having consented to sex. However, the colonial courts granted a certain amount of independence to children, and if rape victims claimed that they had in fact voluntarily joined in the sex act, their attacker was usually let off the hook. You may also enjoy reading the transcript of a man named Nicholas Sension for a more detailed look at the way in which the public reaction to sodomy actually differed from the prescribed legal recourse.;_Connecticut,_May_22,_1677

  5. This article is very interesting! When good friends have sex it could complicate or terminate a relationship. If the two friends truly love each other it is worth trying.

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  6. Fascinating article. I find it difficult to imagine people of that era "masturbat[ing] in the churchyard when they thought the sermon was boring" and telling "everybody they knew when they got laid." I guess humans really don't change very much over time. History just got much more interesting to me!

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