Sexual Morality

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Sexual morality in the early Republic was sustained by biblical, legal, and customary injunctions that in theory restricted sexual activity to heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong marriage. In practice, such restriction was never fully successful, and parts of the country's population ignored or even resisted official norms. But a general presumption of the moral value of premarital chastity and postmarital sexual fidelity provided the basic framework governing normative private sexual conduct.

Biblical prohibitions on fornication derived from key chapters in Paul's First Corinthians, as in 1 Corinthians 6:18: "Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body." Adultery, that is, sexual congress between a married person and someone not the lawful spouse, found prominent denunciation in the Ten Commandments. Many of the early colonial governments imported these moral offenses into their legal codes, criminalizing fornication and adultery to a far greater extent than was the case in England. By the time of the American Revolution, however, legal prosecution of sexual offenses had gone into a steep decline. For example, the court at New Haven, Connecticut, prosecuted 112 cases of fornication in the 1730s, the all-time decade high, while in the 1780s only 3 offenses were tried in that court. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts averaged 72 fornication cases per year in the decade before the Revolution, but only a handful of cases came to prosecution in 1790.

decline in prosecutions

Available evidence indicates that fornication itself was not at all in decline, at least not before the 1790s. Indeed, a widespread and dramatic rise in premarital pregnancy (measured as the percentage of first births occurring within the first seven months of a marriage date) can be tracked in towns with good vital registration data, which show a rise before and during the decades of the war with Britain and a gradual decline setting in by 1800. In some jurisdictions in New England, the proportion of brides pregnant on their wedding day approached 40 percent; since marriage ensued and regularized these prenuptial pregnancies, however, families and communities seem to have tolerated the deviation from biblical prohibitions on fornication. A popular courtship practice called "bundling," in which a courting couple was allowed nighttime privacy in bed together, likely facilitated the upsurge in early births. The new state governments, some with and some without fornication statutes, backed away from prosecuting consensual sexual acts, perhaps in response to this period of relaxed attitudes about premarital chastity, or perhaps in response to a growing sense of the importance of separation of church and state. Some churches took sexual infractions very seriously, bringing up unwed mothers and, less often, putative fathers for disciplinary action such as sanctions and fines. But the days of whipping fornicators were a half-century or more in the past.

renewed attacks on premarital sex

Around 1800, a renewed emphasis on premarital chastity as the standard for respectable womanhood becomes visible in the historical record, not only in the decline of premarital pregnancy rates but also in works of popular fiction and in court cases arising over seductions. Two best-selling sentimental novels—Charlotte Temple (1790), by Susanna Rowson, and The Coquette (1797), by Hannah Foster—featured heroines ruined and reduced to death by unprincipled libertine men, and the theme of the seduced and abandoned woman emerged as a staple in light fiction published in literary and ladies' periodicals and eagerly read by rising numbers of literate females. A common plot line of romantic fiction placed a trusting, naïve young woman in the hands of a heedless rake whose promises of love and marriage mask his real intention, that of sexual conquest and satisfaction.

While the novels portrayed male rakes as unsavory characters, in real life libertine men benefited from a double standard of morality in which women alone seemed to suffer the consequences of illicit sex in the form of unwed motherhood and ruined reputation. Concern over sexual seduction and the victimization of young women became manifest in growing numbers of legal suits for seduction, in which an aggrieved father or master of a seduced woman brought action under the civil law of torts against an alleged offender. In such cases, the plaintiff had to ground the suit on a claim for compensation for lost service or labor from the young woman. But starting around 1815, judges' opinions openly acknowledged that loss of service was a legal fiction and that the real injury addressed was the serious harm to the reputation of the girl and her family. Courts thus added momentum to the idea, gaining popularity in these early decades of the nineteenth century, that "respectable" women by nature had lower sexual energy than did men and could not easily be construed as aggressors or even equal partners in instances of illicit sex. Newspapers frequently publicized such suits, and the news that seduced women, always framed as victims, could collect damages ranging from five hundred to fifteen hundred dollars from judges and juries sent a message that a high price was now attached to white female virginity.

slaves and the working class

In many states, and universally in the South, interracial sex was restricted both by laws against fornication and interracial marriage and by religious injunctions against adultery. Yet sex across the color line was a common southern occurrence, and legal intervention rarely ensued. Careful local studies have found that interracial sexual activity was often a matter of wide community knowledge. The spectrum of interracial sex ranged from long-term, child-producing unions to coercive sexual assault. In view of the unequal power relations between free white men and enslaved black women, even the most benign and familial of these relationships contained inherent coercion. Clearly, for some white slave owners, sexual entitlement over slaves overrode legal and religious canons of morality.

Blacks in bondage were not subject to the dominant white culture's laws of sexual morality and were only subject to customs and traditions insofar as individual white owners insisted on them. Legal marriage was denied to enslaved couples, as was the expectation of lifelong monogamous marriage. Under these circumstances, slave communities developed their own codes of sexual morality, with distinct features such as a tolerant view of children born to mothers not yet settled into coupled relationships.

Working-class neighborhoods in the rapidly growing cities of the early Republic supported a bawdy culture of unruly sexual relations, where bastardy, prostitution, self-marriage and self-divorce were not uncommon. City leaders erected almshouses and houses of refuge to contain and support unwed mothers judged to be worthy of public aid; prostitutes were notably excluded. Benevolent and church-based women's organizations targeted poor urban women with their messages of the value of chastity, domesticity, and religiosity. Yet exposés and studies of prostitution in the 1830s made it clear that the male clientele for prostitution was cross-class. The foundational elements of sexual morality—premarital chastity and marital fidelity—were thus far from monolithic.

See alsoHomosexuality; Interracial Sex; Prostitutes and Prostitution; Sexuality; Women: Women's Literature .


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Patricia Cline Cohen