Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth Century America New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. $30.00. 514pp. Ill. ISBN 0-375-40192-1
In this study, Horowitz sets out to explore the deeper historical roots of the current conflicting messages about sexual knowledge in the USA: on the one hand ‘forces in the society [that] insist on the suppression of straight talk about sex in the public arena’ and the concurrent existence of a ‘popular culture... rife with sexually explicit lyrics and films’ (p.3).
One might perhaps be a little hesitant to accept Horowitz’s opening claim that ‘Victorian sexuality’ has been inadequately represented in previous historical investigations and that it has remained locked in ‘an easily comprehended conflict between expression and restraint’ (p. 4). This is certainly not the case for the study of Victorian sexuality in the Queen’s own homeland, but it is clear that the situation has been somewhat different in the USA, where the much more vigorous agenda of ‘Comstockery’ in government suppression of the dissemination of sexual knowledge (Horowitz suggests) has actually distorted the historical record through its censorship activities to such an extent as to engender simplistic notions of ‘Victorian repression’ through its elimination or obscuring of contradictory discourses.
Rather than there being a simple dichotomy or struggle between expression and repression, Horowitz posits a model of four different voices or frameworks talking about sex and interacting in a complex dialogue in the nineteenth century US. Hardest perhaps to locate and reconstruct in any kind of detail is the largely oral tradition of vernacular sexual culture, rooted in understandings of the body still based in the humoral system. This considered sex and desire as vital elements within human life for both sexes (even though there were distinct gendered knowledges within this framework), and was associated with an enjoyment of bawdy humour. Although increasingly preached against and contested by new beliefs about the body, this culture remained for many a common underlying wisdom. Horowitz draws attention to the way in which this may have remained an almost inarticulate bedrock for individuals influenced by differing frameworks of understanding.
However, it is arguable that this particular construction of sexuality is represented as a more consistent framework and and less contradictory than it may have been in practice. In the light of the strong regional variations of sexual culture founded in the differing original customs and belief of various groups of immigrants, suggested by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman in their pioneering study Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (first published in 1988), is it sufficient to invoke one traditional vernacular tradition, rather than several?
Acceptance of the body and sexuality was increasingly contested, from the early nineteenth century, by the growing voice of an Evangelical Christianity profoundly uneasy about the flesh and suspicious of the anarchic forces of sexual desire and pleasure. Again, was this model entirely monolithic, or might it have included, at least in some versions, the legitimacy of sexual pleasure within Christian marriage advanced by certain seventeenth-century puritans? Horowitz does indeed indicate the development of Christian recensions of the new ‘reform physiology’ which evolved in the early nineteenth century.
‘Reform physiology’ initially emerged as counter-voices to a religiously-motivated suspicion of the flesh were empowered, by the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and nature, to make a new, rather than traditional, case for the virtues of the open discussion of sexual matters. Horowitz makes it clear that new understandings of the body could have very diverse outcomes in how they were interpreted, whether they were taken to inscribe the necessity for a regimen of bodily restraint or to legitimate an agenda of erotic pleasure and interpersonal sympathies which might transcend existing social institutions such as marriage. But even the more austere views based in changing beliefs about bodily functioning brought about an increase in the discussion of issues around sexuality, writing and talking about them, if only in order that individuals should be advised of the correct management of the sexual body. An element which tended to unite the extreme poles of this school was the demonization of masturbation: even the most radical did not endeavour to reclaim solitary sex.
Horowitz suggests that there was a fourth group participating in this conversation, which ‘combined visionary and radical politics with notions of sexual liberty and freedom of expression’, though this element could possibly be seen as just the most extreme wing of the freethinking version of reform physiology.
Horowitz discusses the male urban ‘sporting culture’ of New York in some detail. This was clearly a new sexual culture not coterminous with traditional vernacular sexual cultures, which often had their own forms of community policing of the transgression of accepted norms, even though it owed something to traditional mores in its assumptions about male sexuality. However, it was evolving in circumstances where pre-existing community controls no longer functioned. Did it draw on a pre-existing, if less democratized, libertine culture? Horowitiz does not explicitly relate this strongly male-biassed phenomenon to that strand of sexual belief in the British context which Michael Mason defined, in The Making of Victorian Sexuality, as ‘classic moralism’. Mason described this as a matter of tacit assumptions among elite males about the necessity of provision for men’s sexual requirements alongside the need to maintain a certain amount of public order and discretion. As a discourse it was seldom fully articulated and thus cannot, perhaps, be said to have been part of a conversation about sex. However, it was often an influential factor in policy-making and the operation of the legal system. While the American version was probably not identical to that operating in Britain, it seems probable that some such set of understandings was present and affecting developments.
Rereading Sex covers a number of diverse aspects of the complex conversations going on. Among the many topics dealt with are the trade in erotica, the development of the operation of the laws of obscene libel based in, though not slavishly following, English common law, birth control, abortion, the ‘sporting culture’ of New York and the counter-attacks of moral reformers, the rise of sensationalist journalism. There are also accounts of numerous individuals who participated in these dialogues: journalists, judges, Malthusians, health-reformers, abortionists, radicals, and social purity campaigners. It present a rich and complex picture of a time when new ideas and new forms of social attitudes and behaviour were being forged.
While there is much of great interest and value in this book, a number of outstanding questions remain. Is the entire account rather too New York-centric? Certainly a case can be made that New York was the crucible for evolving modernity and radical shifts from traditional modes of behaviour, but was it simply where the loudest voices in the conversation were talking? And indeed, how entirely representative was it, even of cites of the north-eastern seaboard? In Imperilled Innocents, Nicola Beisel demonstrated that the response to Comstock and the extent to which his agenda of moral reform was taken up varied substantially in different cities.
There are issues of class and culture which might have been addressed. Who were the groups to whom particular constructions of sexuality appealed? What other purposes were particular positions on questions of sexual restraint or sexual freedom serving? Beisel, for example, made a rather convincing case for status anxiety, at a time when the economy no longer seemed so expansive and downward mobility of later generations was a distinct possibility, as being a significant motivating factor for the amount of support gained by concerns over moral dangers to the young voiced by Comstock. What part did anxieties around different ethnicities and immigration play?
While there were significant female voices participating in the conversation, such as Mary Gove Nicols or Victoria Woodhull, issues of masculinity in a modernising society seem to have been played a central role in these conversations. A number of questions around conflicting models of masculinity, differing (and possibly class-inflected?) ideas as to what constituted appropriate manly behaviour, and certainly generational changes as to what it meant to be a man, are raised but not answered. It is notable that the moral forward movement in late nineteenth century America, unlike the social purity movement in Britain, was driven by relatively elite men, rather than being an insurgent critique of patriarchal institutions from below by those excluded from, or only recently admitted to, participation in the political process.
There is much to recommend this book, which brings together a vast amount of research in a range of fields, but it does leave these various outstanding questions. Nonetheless, it succeeds in demonstrating that the label of ‘traditionally American’ can be claimed on behalf of exceedingly diverse agendas, and that freethinking radical dissent is as all-American as interventionist moralism.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London