A history of American sexuality
A history of American sexuality
There is little to dispute the notion that rebellious movements only originate as a need, not as a result of human nature. It would indeed be appropriate to view the various cultures of resistance that have developed over the ages in light of this ideology; every era saw a different need and hence developed and shaped itself through their individual’s sexual meaning (D’emilio and Freedman 228). They embody a change in attitude of youngsters regarding suppressed sexual inclinations considered inappropriate by the general public or believed to be counterproductive.
Stemming from as early as the 17th century, the progress of freedom of sexuality has mostly been a mosaic, finding roots in differences of race gender and class. However, recent times have allowed that progress to be catalogued in discernable text which can be reviewed to gain insight into the perception of sexuality as has been generally associated with the past; historians such as Jeffrey Weeks, D’emilio and Freedman provide some valuable control points to make those judgments.
First era: 1600 to 1780 The institution of marriage, the historical perspective of which was recently been subjected to criticism, has been under scrutiny lately simply because historical data does not correspond with the stereotypes of a traditional marriage (Coontz 13). In simple words, people who believed that the sanctity of marriage centuries ago was protected because of love between partners have lately been disproven.
From 1600 to 1780, marriage was vastly regarded as a tool designed squarely as a reproductive mechanism and for the promotion of labor sources, increasing the family ties and the creation of a new generation (D’emilio and Freedman 14). Since work was primarily agricultural back in those days, there was a need to increase labor within the family which was directly reflected in sexuality being confined to the institution of marriage, which in turn was designated for procreation (D’emilio and Freedman 16-17). Such was the kinship and family system.
During this era, there was a distinct lack of the element of love and social stigma prohibited acts of premarital intercourse and even falling in love as a pretext for marriage. Amongst the general society though, there were mixed thoughts within Protestants and Native American Indians (D’emilio and Freedman 108). They formulated resistant sexualities to the norms. While the Protestants encouraged sexual pleasures within the marriage and allowed public, though limited, displays of affection, anything outside this institution was invalidated and scorned upon (D’emilio and Freedman 4).
There are evidences of regulation in the many punishments awarded to those who breached these standardized concepts of sexualities, and acts of adultery, premarital intercourse, homosexuality, and fornication were considered crimes, commission of which not only resulted in penalties but drew contempt at the hands of the public at large. These were very evidently governed by legal implications, enforced not only by the church (D’emilio and Freedman 51) but also the state and society in unison. Such sexual criminals thus became outcast, leading to non-uniformity of sexualities.
Amongst these, the prime suspects were Native American Indians, who allowed pre-marital intercourse and considered homosexuality acceptable. Moreover, marriage was not restricted to just one partner. Polygamy became just as common, suggesting that the sexual behavior was more a matter of the culture and social acceptance than human nature. As D’emilio and Freedman point out, the Chesapeake colonies where men outnumbered women due to the presence of a big number of migrants, men could choose to have sex with women simply to derive pleasure and not as instigation to marriage (D’emilio and Freedman 14-17).
The political system in the middle of the 17th century harbored the use of slaves, and those created their own sexual regimes. The southern areas saw a rise in inter-racial sexual ordeals, giving presence to another distinct system of regulating sexualities. The forms of political control that dominated throughout the 17th century, namely the church, state and the local community began losing their footing by the middle of the 18th century to late 18th century.
This was partly due to the rise in commercialization and trade, since community presence was losing ground to a larger form of individualism, which institutionalized marriage as an expression of romance. Thus, the original sexual meanings relating to family ties and procreation governed by the sexual politics of the church, state and the local community were being superseded by the culture of resistance that encouraged romance as the central focus of marriage (D’emilio and Freedman 95). Second era: 1870-1980
A new era of sexual preferences was emerging in the late 19th century. The prevailing mood was that of a heightened sense of pre-marital and within-marriage sexual intimacy, defined as “Victorian” (Peiss 206), with individuality as the central focus, allowing for sexual endeavors to extend beyond marriage and include previously scorned ideologies such as same sex sexualities. The aura was becoming increasingly liberal, as the presence of seemingly immoral exercises such as pornography, and brothel management undermined the societal values (Peiss 238).
Attention was drawn towards them by a new breed of post 1880 conservatives. This movement concentrated squarely on declaring every form of seemingly impure sexuality such as adultery, commercialization of sex in terms of pornography, fornication and even eroticization within marriage as immoral and as plagues to society. Sexual meaning, while decidedly liberal in those days, employing extensive use of contraception and experimental living with partners, was met with sexual regulation tactics by the state, governed by the enforcement of legislations.
The sexual politics included the passing of Anti-prostitution (D’emilio and Freedman 150, 209, 213) and anti-pornography laws facilitating the resistance that Protestants had also partnered in. This, while curbing public vulgarities to some extent, could not come in the way of the growing consumerism that the industrial wave brought with it. With concentration on individual choice, commercial sex grew, in sync with the empowerment of women both at the workplace and within the family, leading to even more equality amongst the sexes (Coontz 208).
In the culture that ensued, the sexual meaning took a very liberal turn with empowerment of the individual being the centerpiece, thus enabling homosexual tendencies to thrive, along with the encouragement of romance and eroticism becoming increasingly desirable. The post 1920s was regarded as an era of sexual reform, post Victorian sexual era so to speak, a time when the concept of marriage was drifting from the originally conceived “traditional” meanings to those based on deriving sexual pleasures simultaneously with the need to reproduce.
The sexual meaning, thus, in the context of D’emilio’s and Freedman’s philosophies (1997), combined those two to place emphasis on the fulfillment and satisfaction of one’s self with respect to the institution of marriage, rather than be forced to adhere to it in order to meet social demands of labor and reproduction. The freedom of choice was highlighted amongst the youth and non-heterosexual endeavors as well as pre-marital sexualities became gradually acceptable.
The depiction of sex for commercial use picked up pace as well (D’emilio and Freedman 327), and liberalism both within marriage and outside it grew. The routine depiction of sexual images to the public became frequent, suggesting that sexual choice and independence was what the society wanted. It was in these times that strides were made for gender equality as well, as men slowly edged towards ceasing to become the dominant sexual partners and women began sharing high posts with men in the workplace. Third Era: Post 1980 to present day
The major cultural resistance shift was next experienced in the 1970s, with the advent of the liberal homosexual regimes and the urge to pursue sexual freedom by the likes of Hugh Hefner, bringing to light demands to acknowledge premarital sexual endeavors as a right. This, of course, was contrary to the norm of the day, which was still largely heterosexual. More sexual politics brought Left-wing views to the forefront, arguing especially in favor of the gay liberation movement and feminism (D’emilio and Freedman 322-323).
During the 70s and 80s, this phenomenon gripped the economically thriving youth of the day, affecting the counterculture in so much as shredding the traditional norms associated with marriage and family in favor of a single sexual life. The right-wings continued to advocate against the sexual deviancies of pre-marital intimacy, commercial utilities of sex, eroticism, etc and much of the debate in the 80s thus surrounded the use of contraceptives, illegitimacy, the spread of HIV and Herpes, rising divorce rates etc.
This state of moral panic was superseded by the feminist culture of resistance, which in turn strengthened the position of women who placed emphasis on choice. Employing Margaret Sanger’s voice of reason (D’emilio and Freedman 243-244), the phenomena of birth control enabled women to pursue sexualities undisturbed, serving to ultimately enable gays and lesbians to exchange vows and raise children (Peiss 484). Conclusion To the present day, sexual meanings have been age dependant and cultures of resistance have shaped the way sexual regulations were governed by sexual politics.
As stipulated by Weeks, D’emilio and Freedman, all three need to be considered in unison to understand the changing mechanisms of sexualities over a given period (D’emilio and Freedman 377), but it can easily be inferred that those cultures had a strong part to play in the liberation of sexualities and the deviation of the essence of the institution of marriage, from its traditional stance as a means of reproduction to one purely used to attain sexual fulfillment through love .
Works Cited Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A history: How Love Conquered Marriage . Penguin Books, 2005. D’emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 2nd Edition. University of Chicago Press , 1997. Peiss, Kathy. Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.