Sex and the 1800s


19thC courtship and marriage - sexuality more closely linked to love, less closely tied to reproduction.

Gender assumptions linking women to quality of innate purity.

19thC shifting sexual control from traditional outside community pressures (church, family) to self-control - building individual character. 

Middle-class men - succeed through self-improvement. 

Dr. John Cowan, "Especially should the continent man exercise and train his will power, for this not only enables him to lead a continent life, but it as surely guides to success in all business undertakings."

Sexual advice literature - written by both doctors and lay people, male and female.  William Alcott, Young Man's Guide (1833), Russell Trail, Sexual Physiology, Alice Stockham, A Book for Every Woman.

Health reform movement 1830s quest for both physical & spiritual perfection.

body as closed energy system,

Benjamin Rush early 1800s: the sexual appetite, "when excessive, becomes a disease of both the body and mind."

For men, warnings that masturbation led to disease & insanity.  Health reformer Sylvester Graham 1830s

John Kellogg - Battle Creek Sanitarium.

while "the solitary indulgence" led to disease, marital relations were "the essential element of human happiness and progress." 

Dr. Andrew Ingersoll encouraged married couples to "yield" to complete sexual enjoyment.

1882: "The sexual relationship is among the most important uses of married life; it vivifies the affection for each other, as nothing else in the world can, and is a powerful reminder of their mutual obligation to each other and to the community in which they live."

early 1800s- idea that women had fewer sexual desires than men.  British doctor William Acton, "The majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind. Love of home, of children, and of domestic duties are the only passions they feel."

Eliza Duffey What Women Should Know (1873): "the passions of men are much stronger and more easily inflamed" than those of women. "the purity of women is the everlasting barrier against which the tides of man's sensual nature surge." 

Ideal of sexually pure womanhood.

"Even as woman is supremely virtuous," she became "when once fallen, the vilest of her sex."

warnings against masturbation - advise parents to channel daughters' thoughts away from "vicious habits" such as touching genitals or reading romantic novels.

For women, purity way of elevating women's spiritual place; also useful tool to refuse unwanted sex.

Advice literature told men to cultivate wives' pleasure. Elizabeth Blackwell - "the immense power of sexual attraction felt by women" and that as long as not hurt by too frequent pregnancies, "increasing physical satisfaction attaches to the ultimate physical expression of love."

Control sometimes meant resisting sexual desire; other times meant managing sexuality. Important result - when men & women taking charge of sexual decision-making, opened up way to take charge over reproductive decision-making.

1800s, marriage increasingly romantic, especially among middle-class.  Expectations new levels of personal intimacy, romantic novels.

Married men & women talk about pleasures of sex in letters, diaries.

for others, sexuality source of marital stress.

19thC marriage still unequal in economic & legal terms.

19thC divorce cases - men complained when not sexually gratified in marriage, women complained of husbands who compelled them to have too-frequent sex.

Virginia man won custody of children when wife "denied him access to her bed."

NJ woman complained of husband's insistence on sex; he told court he could not control himself - appeals court accepted doctors' testimony that "a large proportion of married women assent [to intercourse] under exactly those conditions of ill health."

men & women still different ideas about sexuality. 

Double standard persisted, recognizing men's "natural" lust. Prostitution as safety value,

early 1800s Philadelphia, prostitution itself not a crime.

laws against it often not really enforced. 

women's adultery costly - divorce, social ostracism & loss of custody.  1843, Louisiana Supreme court gave child custody to husband of adulterous wife, though he had abused her & murdered her lover. 

both men & women increasingly conscious of sexuality as personal choice - not under community regulation.

Sexual desires linked to romantic ideal of marriage.

Gender still made a difference, though - separate spheres, double standard, emphasis on female purity, fear of pregnancy still made transformation of sexuality more problematic for women than for men.


Sexual politics:

early 1800s, "cult of true womanhood, cult of domesticity," doctrine of "separate spheres"

As man's business world and employment became more stressful, writers idealized home as refuge - woman's responsibility to keep home sacred, keep men moral.

Sarah Josepha Hale, Godey's Lady's Book 1830s, "our men are sufficiently money-making; let us keep our women and children free from the contagion as long as possible."


1820s-1840s "Age of associations" - voluntary groups of new middle class.

Safe new middle ground for women - halfway btwn public life of formal politics & private sphere of home.

1820s mass religious revival - Second Great Awakening. Evangelical reform generated enormous energy - led to reform movements.

temperance, nat'l campaign against the production, sale & consumption of alcohol.

American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, 1826.

1851 Maine prohibit sale of alcohol.

1834 New York Female Moral Reform Society - to eliminate prostitution, promiscuity & all other forms of immorality.

Syphilis; ideal of female chastity.

prostitutes as victims - goal of protecting "working girls" & protecting homes & families from the "predatory nature of the American male, reckless & drenched in sin."

"pious harassment"

safe houses

Within ten years, 400 chapters all over New England.

Criticized "the tyranny exercised in the home department, where lordly man... rules his trembling subjects with a rod of iron, conscious of entire impunity and exalting in his fancied superiority."


Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927).

First woman to run for president, first woman to address committee of US Congress, first woman stockbroker, published one of NY's most provocative newspapers, nationally famous lecturer. Victoria Claflin  - with sister Tennie, began career as clairvoyant & spiritualist healers.

1868 meet 73-year-old rail magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt,

1869 Victoria involved with women's suffrage movement,

1869 Victoria made fortune in Wall Street speculation

1870 letter to New York Herald claiming to speak for women, "the only unrepresented class in the republic.... While others of my sex... devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence; while others argued the equality of woman with man, I proved it by successfully engaging in business..... I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised women of the country, and... announce myself as a candidate for the Presidency."

1870 newspaper Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly.

1870 Woodhull moved to Washington, set herself up as a lobbyist, first woman to address committee of US Congress. "Women constitute a majority of this country - they hold vast portions of the nation's wealth and pay a proportionate share of the taxes.  They are entrusted with the most vital responsibilities of society; they bear, rear and educate men... yet they are debarred from uttering any opinion by public vote.... The American nation in its march onward... cannot publicly choke the intellectual and political activity of half of its citizens."

toured East Coast giving speeches;

publicly advocated free love, believed sex should result from mutual attraction, not forced obligation - condemned marriage laws which gave man ownership of wife's body, property & children. Victoria claimed women should have same sexual freedom as men, right to control own bodies, right to say no. 

Condemned double standard which admired "sporting gentlemen" who paraded mistresses in public, but which destroyed women with slightest hint of unpleasant gossip.

"Who ever heard of even a single instance of a man being thrown out of society because he contributed to... houses of ill fame?... Why should a man be... recognized as undefiled, even when his whole body is corrupted by the damnable virus of the lowest and most hellish debauchery, when at the same time a woman is utterly proscribed on even the wretchedly flimsy evidence of hearsay?"

believed women's rights started in bedroom rather than voting booth - crime, poverty, alcoholism, & disease all result of bad marriages, wanted to see basic change which gave women right to escape bad marriage & start over to get happiness & security for selves.

"I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere."

cartoonist called her "Mrs. Satan."

1872 huge scandal involving Henry Ward Beecher - gossip linking Beecher to woman in his church, Elizabeth Tilton.  1872 Woodhull newspaper condemns Beecher for taking mistresses from his congregation while denying sexual freedom for others, talking about hypocrisy & wrongs of sexual double standard.

"I propose... aggressive moral warfare on the social question.... I intend that this article shall burst like a bombshell"

Victoria arrested on charge of sending obscene material thru mail (Comstock law).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony drew parallels between prostitution & marriage - said both institutions led women to engage in sex in return for security. Stanton called for more liberal divorce laws & Anthony urged women to develop means of self-support. Didn't deny female sexual pleasure.


moral reformers - "sexual purity".

Civil War, Union army worried about venereal disease - system for medical inspection of prostitutes

Dr. J. Marion Sims, prominent gynecologist & AMA president, recommended that regulated prostitution become postwar norm in US cities.

1870 St Louis

Middle-class women & Protestant clergymen 100,000 signatures on petition, end experiment 1874.

1874 Women's Christian Temperance Union - "social purity." Small-town Midwestern women originated organization, grew to be largest women's organization in 19thC US.

crusade for "home protection"

Committee for Work with Fallen Women - Social Purity division.  White Ribbon campaign for men's sexual purity;

White Cross crusade, education campaign.

Told mothers, "Show your sons & daughters the sanctities and the terrors of this awful power of sex, its capacities to bless or curse its owner."

1890s, social purity movement - suffragists, temperance workers, clergy, doctors.