Sex and Power in American History (book review)

John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, second edition, University of Chicago Press: 1998.

Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman) was published in 1988 and revised in 1997 to account for new research in the field of gender and sexuality histories. In Intimate Matters, D’Emilio and Freedman intended to produce a narrative of sexuality in American history by synthesizing scholarly work published since the 1970s and primary documents from each time period the authors examine, including medical texts, personal memoirs, and state archives. D’Emilio and Freedman aimed to reveal the ways in which historical forces continually reshaped sexuality and the ways that individuals and groups have acted to alter the contours of sexual history from early America to the modern United States. Through their use of recent publications and primary sources, D’Emilio and Freedman successfully articulate that, since the colonial period, Americans in positions of power have used sexuality as a vehicle for social control.

Previous scholarship portrayed American sexuality as a phenomenon which progressed from repression to liberation or ignorance to wisdom. In contrast, D’Emilio and Freedman argue that the meanings and places of sexuality in American life changed in various ways between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. In addition, the authors argue that changing nature of the economy, family, and politics facilitated these transformations. A primary flaw that the authors have found in much recent scholarship was a stark differentiation between sexual behavior and ideology. To solve this problem, the authors conceptualized three organizing “subjects” to incorporate both behavior and ideology: sexual meanings, sexual regulation, and sexual politics. Using these three principles, D’Emilio and Freedman historicize and re-interpret transformations in American sexuality, and in this second edition, attempted to integrate more comprehensive attention to race relations into the history of American sexuality.

The authors divide the history of American sexuality into four overlapping time periods (1600-1800, 1780-1900, 1880-1930, and 1920 to the present). This highlights the authors’ aim not to create a strict chronology of American sexual history, but rather to emphasize the overlapping and dynamic processes by which sexual meanings, regulations, and politics transformed.  The authors also placed emphasis on the fact that various groups within American society experienced these changes in different ways. Race, gender, class and even location dramatically influenced how Americans experienced changes in their sexual environment.

Overall, the authors argue that the dominant meaning of sexuality transformed from a primary association with reproduction within families to that which focuses on individualized physical pleasure and emotional intimacy. Sexual regulation in early America depended upon the entire community – the family, church, and state – to enforce the primacy of procreative sexuality within marriage. Throughout American sexual history, the consensus, methods and targets of sexual regulation changed (many times) and took an increasingly heavy toll on people of color and working-class women, while wealthy and middle-class white men often avoided accountability when faced with charges of sexual misconduct. Indeed, systems of sexual regulation, the authors suggest, “have correlated strongly with other forms of social regulation, especially those related to race, class and gender.”[1]

Changes in the economic and labor systems of the south introduced slavery as a replacement for indentured servitude. Black female slaves became the group most likely to be sexually exploited under this system.  D’Emilio and Freedman note that white men assumed that black women were willing and available to have sexual relationships with them, despite the reality that female slaves had “little choice about whether to respond to white men’s sexual advances, whatever their actual desires.”[2] However, not long after the authors make this statement, D’Emilio and Freedman suggest that instances of interracial sex (particularly in master-slave relationships) did not simply involve “powerless black victims subject to the total domination of white masters.”[3] While it is important to recognize the agency of black women, the glaring institution of slavery makes it difficult to believe that any master-slave relationships derived from honest affection on the master’s part.

In the nineteenth-century West and Southwest, white colonizers both condemned the sexual habits of natives while simultaneously objectifying indigenous American women in sexual terms. The authors propose three patterns of interracial sexual relations which appeared in the western and southwestern Territories: assimilation of whites via marriage into indigenous communities; the assimilation of indigenous women via marriage into Anglo (white, English-descendant) society; and white sexual dominance through physical violence or “civilizing” efforts. The alternative sexual systems of black and indigenous Americans, D’Emilio and Freedman argue, challenged the “precarious balance of white sexuality.”[4] Aspects of nineteenth-century sexual politics seem to have emerged out of this perceived threat and precarious balance, especially in terms of white Americans’ civilizing efforts.

The emergence of sexual politics appears to be a nineteenth-century phenomenon. In Intimate Matters, the issue of sexual politics encompassed the changing natures of sexual regulation, as well as the competition between interest groups that attempted to reshape dominant sexual meanings over time. Prostitution provoked the earliest sexual reform movement, which doubled as a moral reform movement. Reform organizations – initiated by clergymen and supported by middle-class Protestant women – asserted that prostitution was a social problem and demanded a solution to it.  D’Emilio and Freedman historicize this phenomenon as one which took place during an era of religious revival and reform and class formation in the new industrial economy. In addition, organized opposition to prostitution occurred when the responsibility for defining and regulating sexual morality transferred from one set of male professionals (clergymen) to another (doctors), while middle-class women emerged as a powerful interest group in moral reform.[5] The authors argue that these groups aimed to direct working-class women and men toward middle-class respectability. The solution of state involvement in regulating sexuality became increasingly palatable to middle-class Americans.

Moral and sexual reform in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century U.S. also coincided with simultaneous lynchings in the South and attacks on immigrants by some Progressive reformers. This connection, D’Emilio and Freedman suggest, emphasizes the ways sexuality figured in the maintenance of social hierarchies: in the South, whites justified the violent subordination of blacks as necessary to protect white womanhood, while in the North, reformers blamed the “enslavement” of young white girls and infection of middle-class wives with venereal disease on foreigners. D’Emilio and Freedman continue to suggest that the emotional power of the rhetoric in both instances originated from a sexual ideology which emphasized white women’s purity while it constricted their social roles in addition to maintaining white dominance over black Americans.

New sexual politics emerged alongside a new sexual order in the early twentieth century, initiated by doctors, sexual theorists, cultural radicals, feminists, and others. The authors emphasize two changes that stand out as emblematic of a new sexual order: the redefinition of womanhood to include eroticism and the decline of public reticence about sex. In the 1920s, women emerged as active participants in the public sphere as workers, consumers, and voters. Further, the erotic gained a new presence in the public realm as an accepted feature of daily life. D’Emilio and Freedman locate the origin of these changes in the gradual shift toward a consumer economy: “An ethic that encouraged the purchase of consumer products also fostered an acceptance of pleasure, self-gratification, and personal satisfaction, a perspective that easily translated into the province of sex,” which replaced the nineteenth-century preoccupation with controlling sexual impulses through individual self-management.[6]

The authors added to the second edition of Intimate Matters a chapter on the contemporary political crisis of the 1980s. Sexual conservatives sought to restore the “traditional” values of the 1950s. This effort attributed to sex the power to corrupt American society. Religious fundamentalists, the authors continue, joined forces with political conservatives and created a political venue to carry on their moral crusade. The New Right, as the authors call it, attempted to dismantle new legislative measures that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and measures that granted women the right to choose abortion – namely, Roe v. Wade (1973). The New Right, D’Emilio and Freedman argue, used the AIDS crisis as a scapegoat to incite hysteria and enhance its political agenda.

The authors’ conclude by arguing that the AIDS crisis and the new conservatism of the 1980s allows us to take stock of recurring themes that emerged in the history of sexuality. First, for almost two centuries, sexuality had been moving into the marketplace. The commercialization of sex and the sexualization of commerce made visible the erotic, and enhanced the weight of capitalist institutions. Since the early years of the U.S., Americans continued to attempt to define a place for sex in their lives. The authors contrast views of contraception between feminists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nineteenth century feminists, the authors explain, viewed contraception as encouraging male sexual license and thus opposed it, contemporary feminists have “championed a full range of reproductive choice for women so that they might have autonomy in sexual matters.”[7] Next, the authors highlight that contemporary events illustrate the continuing power of sex as a symbol capable of arousing intense fears. Female purity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries served as a symbol that mobilized social anxieties, while the recent responses to AIDS highlights how easily sexual issues can “unleash the irrational”.

Lastly, D’Emilio and Freedman note that sexuality was and continues to be a vehicle for social control. A long historical tradition of maintaining social hierarchies through sexual regulation has continued from early colonial American mythologies about blacks by slave owners, nineteenth century medical campaigns against abortion, lynching of blacks in the South, and the conservative response to AIDS. The authors highlight responses (or lack thereof) of government actors to sexual problems: gay activists, for example, attacked the Reagan administration’s slow response to the AIDS epidemic as not valuing the lives of gay, poor, and non-white Americans; government agencies have been historically reluctant to fund safe-sex campaigns and comprehensive prevention programs; state legislatures have largely targeted prostitutes rather than male customers to “prevent” transmission of AIDS; and conservative moralists have continually been unwilling to make birth control and safe-sex information available to sexually active youth. In light of these responses and attempts at social control, the authors conclude: “Power over sex is the power to affect the life and death of Americans.”[8]

As a result, Intimate Matters as a body of historical work holds a significant place in today’s political and sexual environment. However, it appears to operate as largely a history of white, hetero-masculine, middle class sexuality, which suggests to me that its subtitle of “A History of Sexuality in America” fits well. This is clearly one history of many. The authors do address this issue in their introduction, because their primary sources largely rely on white middle class endeavors. Their attempt to integrate issues of race relations into this history primarily evolved into a history of whites in positions of power using sexuality as a vehicle of control over black and indigenous Americans. Despite instances of contradiction, D’Emilio and Freedman successfully argue for the role of power and social control in changes in sexual expressions, regulations, and politics.

[1] D’Emilio & Freedman, xvii

[2] Ibid., 36

[3] Ibid., 101

[4] Ibid., 108

[5] Ibid., 142

[6] Ibid., 234

[7] Ibid., 359

[8] Ibid., 360

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