Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, Third Edition

Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, Third Edition

by John D'Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman

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As the first full-length study of the history of sexuality in America, Intimate Matters offered trenchant insights into the sexual behavior of Americans from colonial times to the present. Now, twenty-five years after its first publication, this groundbreaking classic is back in a crucial and updated third edition. With new and extended chapters, D’Emilio…  See more details below


As the first full-length study of the history of sexuality in America, Intimate Matters offered trenchant insights into the sexual behavior of Americans from colonial times to the present. Now, twenty-five years after its first publication, this groundbreaking classic is back in a crucial and updated third edition. With new and extended chapters, D’Emilio and Freedman give us an even deeper understanding of how sexuality has dramatically influenced politics and culture throughout our history and into the present.   Hailed by critics for its comprehensive approach and noted by the US Supreme Court in the landmark Laurence v. Texas ruling, this expanded new edition of Intimate Matters details the changes in sexuality and the ongoing growth of individual freedoms in the United States through meticulous research and lucid prose.   Praise for earlier editions “The book John D’Emilio co-wrote with Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters, was cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy when, writing for a majority of court on July 26, he and his colleagues struck down a Texas law criminalizing sodomy. The decision was widely hailed as a victory for gay rights—and it derived in part, according to Kennedy's written comments, from the information he gleaned from this book.”—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
“Fascinating. . . . D’Emilio and Freedman marshal their material to chart a gradual but decisive shift in the way Americans have understood sex and its meaning in their lives.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times Book Review   “With comprehensiveness and care . . . D’Emilio and Freedman have surveyed the sexual patterns for an entire nation across four centuries.” —Martin Bauml Duberman, Nation

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"This book is remarkable. . . . Intimate Matters is bound to become the definitive survey of American sexual history for years to come."

— Ray Porter

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences - Ray Porter

"This book is remarkable. . . . Intimate Matters is bound to become the definitive survey of American sexual history for years to come."

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Intimate Matters

A History of Sexuality in America

By John D'Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92381-9


Cultural Diversity in the Era of Settlement

In 1625, the English adventurer Thomas Morton established a plantation in the New England colony of Plymouth that soon proved to be the antithesis of the Pilgrim vision of life in the New World. Most migrants to early New England sought to create godly communities built upon the centrality of the family, a well-ordered and stable "little commonwealth." In contrast, the men and women who joined Thomas Morton at "Merry Mount" engaged in "profane and dissolute living," including sexual relations outside of marriage. In addition, while most European settlers expressed shock at the sexual habits of the native tribes and tried to convert them to what they believed to be a superior Christian morality, Morton and his followers welcomed Indians to Merry Mount and openly had sexual relations with them. In a further affront to Pilgrim values, Morton revived the pagan May Day festivities, complete with the erotically charged maypole. Merry Mount proved so threatening to the Pilgrims' vision of social order that in 1628 they deported Morton back to England. When he later returned to Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritan authorities there imprisoned him under such severe conditions—he was kept in irons, without adequate food and clothing, for a year—that Morton died soon after his release. Libertinism, paganism, and sexual relations with the Indians clearly had no place within the Puritan scheme, based as it was upon reestablishing the Christian family in the wilderness.

Thomas Morton was a mere thorn in the side of Pilgrim and Puritan leaders, but during the seventeenth century, these English colonists faced more serious challenges to their goal of creating stable family life and implementing the values of marital, reproductive sexuality. First, the varied sexual practices of the native peoples of North America, which both fascinated and disturbed the settlers, offered possible alternatives to European traditions. Second, and more challenging, demographic conditions in the New World strongly affected family life. Climate and settlement patterns facilitated the reestablishment of a family-centered sexual life in New England but delayed it in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia. Only after several generations did social conditions in these two regions converge to the point that one may speak of a reproductive sexual system throughout the colonies. Thus, to understand the sexual values colonists brought with them and the obstacles to adopting them, it is important to begin this history by exploring the European, and especially English, influence on America, the native American cultures that confronted European migrants, and the regional variations that shaped diverse sexual systems in the seventeenth century.

From England to America

The men and women who migrated from Europe to the English colonies brought with them a set of beliefs about sexuality shaped by the Protestant Reformation. Along with other cultures influenced by Protestantism, the English rejected the Catholic condemnation of carnal desires that had required celibacy of priests and associated all sexual expression—even in marriage—with the fall from grace. The idea that marriage was acceptable primarily as a way to channel lust and prevent sexual sin gave way to a belief that marital love, as well as the need to produce children, could justify sexual intercourse. At the same time, by placing a new emphasis on the importance of sexuality within marriage, Protestantism distinguished more clearly between proper sexual expression—that which led to reproduction—and sexual transgressions—acts that occurred outside of marriage and for purposes other than reproduction.

The Protestant attitude toward sexuality rested upon a larger system of beliefs about the family. Just as Reformation ideas emphasized the importance of the individual, so too did Protestantism encourage a heightened sense of the family as a discrete unit. Once deeply embedded within kinship and community networks, the nuclear family that emerged in this period stood as an independent entity, a "little commonwealth" ruled by its own patriarch, and mirroring the political unit of the state. Courtship and marriage within the middle and upper classes continued to hinge largely upon property alliances. According to the Duchess of Newcastle, for example, love was "a disease" with which she "never was infected." For other social groups, however, love became one element in the choice of a mate. Once wed, husbands and wives were encouraged to learn to love each other, a significant departure from an older ideal of extramarital and unrequited courtly love. Affectionate relations ideally bound husband and wife together, and parents to their children.

Within this context of affectionate relations, marital sexuality assumed new meanings in early modern Protestant cultures. Sex became a duty that husband and wife owed to one another; it also could be a means of enhancing the marriage. Nonetheless, pleasure alone did not justify sexual union, which remained closely tied to procreation. The Protestant churches advised moderation in the frequency of marital sex and condemned sex outside of marriage. As in the past, church and society dealt more harshly with women who engaged in pre- or extramarital sexuality than with male transgressors, for female chastity and fidelity assured men of the legitimacy of their children.

In addition to religious opinion, early modern medical views of sexuality emphasized the importance of reproduction, while they stressed as well the legitimacy, even necessity, of physical sexual pleasure. According to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English physicians, both men and women expected to experience pleasure during sexual intercourse. Indeed, a long-standing scientific and popular tradition held that female orgasm was necessary not only to maintain physical health but also to insure conception. As one midwifery text explained, the clitoris was the organ "which makes women lustful and take delight in copulation." Without it, they "would have no desire, nor delight, nor would they ever conceive." Like early modern religious writers, English medical authorities cautioned against the excessive practice of sexual intercourse, recommending moderation in marital relations.

The regulation of sexual behavior reinforced the primacy of marital, reproductive sex and the need for the legitimacy of children. In practice, most English men and women remained chaste at least until betrothal. Sexual relations between engaged couples were tolerated because a subsequent marriage was virtually assured. Thus, between 1550 and 1750, the rate of "prenuptial" pregnancy—the birth of a child within eight months of marriage—ranged from ten to thirty percent in English marriages. In contrast, heavy penalties awaited the woman who gave birth to a child out of wedlock, for the economic burden of child support fell upon her community. Consequently, the rate of illegitimacy remained extremely low prior to 1750. The churches helped maintain these patterns by fining or excommunicating sexual transgressors, while public opinion reinforced community values by condemning extramarital sexuality.

Once married, women of all classes could expect to bear children until menopause, and many women desired to do so. High infant and child mortality rates (up to twenty-five percent or more in some regions) encouraged frequent pregnancies in order to produce living heirs. When people did wish to limit family size, they usually delayed marriage; or, once wed, women might prolong breastfeeding and refrain from sex while nursing. Some couples may have used coitus interruptus (withdrawal), but outside of the aristocracy it was unlikely that many married couples used contraceptives. Members of the Puritan sect especially rejected this practice, not only in order to obey the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply, but also as a strategy to increase the population of their church. Folk remedies to prevent conception or abort unwanted pregnancies, ranging from laxatives and bloodletting to the use of pessaries, had long been known. But only in extramarital relationships—which the English both condemned and practiced—did women rely on these methods to limit conception or abort. For example, seventeenth-century prostitutes—a growing class in English cities at this time—used folk remedies to prevent pregnancy or to treat venereal disease, while unmarried female servants who became pregnant might resort to herbal remedies or infanticide. Among married middle-class couples, however, women did not begin to control their fertility until after the seventeenth century.

As English men and women migrated to North America in the early seventeenth century, they brought with them these sexual beliefs and practices. Motivated primarily by the desire to improve their economic positions, or in some cases in order to establish a purer church, the English colonists founded permanent settlements in North America, beginning around the Chesapeake Bay after 1607, throughout New England after 1620, and, after the 1660s, in the Carolinas and the middle colonies of Pennsylvania and New York, where they mingled with a variety of non-English settlers. Innovative in their willingness to strike out in an unknown territory, most English settlers had a conservative vision: the reestablishment of traditional patterns of family and community life in the colonies.

Cultural Conflict: Native American Indians and Europeans

The English colonists who settled on the Atlantic seaboard in the seventeenth century immediately came into contact with North American Indian tribes who had long populated the continent. Native American sexual customs varied widely, from the Penobscots of New England and the Cherokees of the Southeast to the tribes dwelling west of the Mississippi River, such as the Plains Indians or the Pueblos. In every region in which Europeans and Indians came into contact, however, the Europeans, applying the standards of the Christian tradition, judged the sexual lives of the native peoples as savage, in contrast to their own "civilized" customs. Thus Spanish and French missionaries attempted to eradicate "devilish" practices, such as polygamy and cross-dressing, and condemned the "heathen friskiness" of the natives. Elaborating on the differences between native sexual customs and their own provided one basis for the Europeans' sense of cultural superiority over the Indians. It also served to justify efforts to convert the native population to Christianity, whether to the Protestantism of East Coast settlers or to the Catholicism of the Spanish and French in Florida, Louisiana, or northern Mexico. In each region, however, Indians resisted the efforts of Europeans to enforce Western sexual standards, particularly the imposition of monogamous marriage on those tribes that practiced polygamy. At the same time, some colonists, such as the followers of Thomas Morton at Merry Mount, rejected their own heritage and adopted Indian customs.

To some extent, Europeans accurately perceived that native American sexual customs differed from their own. For instance, most native peoples did not associate either nudity or sexuality with sin. Although sexuality might be embedded within a spiritual context—as in the case of puberty rituals, menstrual seclusion, or the visionary call to cross-dress—sexual intercourse and reproductive functions rarely evoked shame or guilt for Indian men or women. Many native American tribes accepted premarital intercourse, polygamy, or institutionalized homosexuality, all practices proscribed by European church and state. In certain tribes, women, like men, could exercise considerable choice in their selection of sexual partners, and children grew up with few restrictions on sexual experimentation, which might range from masturbation to sexual play between same-sex or opposite-sex partners. The existence of a category of men who dressed and lived as women, and more rarely of women who dressed and lived as men, astounded Europeans. Even more alarming was the realization that these berdache (from the French term for a sodomite) could be "as much esteem'd as the bravest and hailest men in the country." To the Europeans, the acceptance of men who practiced "the execrable, unnatural abuse of their bodies" and who performed women's tasks, led to "a corruption of morals past all expression."

As this last comment reveals, the fact that Indians had so much personal choice in sexual matters disturbed Europeans greatly. Missionaries claimed that "Impurity and immorality, even gross sensuality and unnatural vice flourish" among the native peoples. Reflecting the English emphasis on reproductive sexuality, one observer speculated that the extent of their "Intemperance" made Indian women "unfitt to the office of Increase." It distressed Englishmen like John Smith when young Indian women welcomed him to their tribe by offering to spend the night with him. Those Indians who converted to Christianity were urged to obey the Seventh Commandment, cover their bodies with European clothing, and partition their wigwams so that children could not easily observe "what nature is ashamed of." Catholic priests in New France and northern Mexico, as well as Protestant missionaries in New England, attempted to impose monogamous marriage, encountering strong resistance when they did. One Jesuit missionary told a Montagnais Indian that "it was not honorable for a woman to love any one else except her husband," for such sexual practices meant that a man "was not sure that his son ... was his son." Unmoved by this argument, the man's reply suggested how larger cultural differences underlay the sexual conflict of Europeans and Indians. "You French people love only your own children," he explained, "but we all love all the children of our tribe."

For all the differences between them, Europeans may have distorted the contrasts with Indians in order to affirm their right of conquest. In practice the English settlers and the Indians had more similarities within their sexual systems than Europeans cared to recognize. True, New England Indians typically condoned premarital sexuality, with marriages often confirmed after the birth of a first child, while the English condemned premarital sex. Yet many courting couples in England did in fact have sexual relations, marrying after pregnancy but as long before childbirth as possible. Like the English, most North American Indians rarely used either contraception or abortion, although, as in Europe, herbal methods were known and occasionally applied. (Some tribes, such as the Cherokees, did practice abortion and infanticide, practices that Christian missionaries later attempted to eliminate.) Like many English families, New England Indian couples controlled family size by breast-feeding infants for at least two years and by proscribing marital intercourse during nursing. Native peoples tended to wean children later than Europeans, though, and they condoned the husband who had extramarital sexual relations during the two- to five-year nursing period. Otherwise, however, exclusive unions were typical among many New England and southeastern tribes. "Single fornication they count no sin," Puritan Roger Williams observed of New England Indians, "but after Mareage ... then they count it h[e]inous for either of them to be false."


Excerpted from Intimate Matters by John D'Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman. Copyright © 2012 John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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