The second edition of Elizabeth Reis’ popular "American Sexual Histories" has recently been published and is as well received as the first edition. Reis is a professor of history and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.
The book is composed of 16 articles by historians and primary sources that offer insights into human sexuality in America from the colonial era to the present day. Interviews and surveys are analyzed and interpreted by historians who offer their perspectives on changing mores and attitudes toward contraception, prostitution, same-sex relationships and reproductive rights.
“Sex and sexuality have a distinctive American history, a story of great importance and complexity,” Reis says.
The book is used in courses on human sexuality, gender studies and history, showing the nature of relationships changing within the context of a changing civilization.
For example, in “Sex Among the Rabble,” an excerpt from Clare A. Lyons “Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, 1730-1830,” Lyons offers examples of how urban life created enough anonymity for couples to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution contributed to wider class divisions, and prostitution came to be affiliated with lower-class women. Eventually, toward the end of the 18th Century, all sex outside marriage became linked with prostitution, because women who weren’t virgins were assumed to be unmarriageable and assumed to be faced with a life of ruin.
“In the sexual tales produced in magazines, newspapers, almanacs and true crime pamphlets of Philadelphia, the variety of sexual practices and range of sexual meanings in the popular culture of the late colonial era were reduced to a single theme – prostitution," Lyons writes. "The joking gibes about forward women engaging in adultery and bastardy, so popular in the almanacs of the 1770s, had been replaced with sentimentalized tragic stories of fallen women, who all became prostitutes and usually died.”
Uncovering how people related to each other sexually is a challenge for historians, who must dig through a time when talking about sex was considered inappropriate for educated women, when sex outside of marriage was forbidden, and when sex between men was considered immoral and illegal.
“Unmarried people were not supposed to have sex, but they did, anyway," Reis writes. "Men were not supposed to engage in sexual relations with other men … but, nonetheless, they did. Abortion was illegal in all states by 1900 and remained so until 1973, yet women still had abortions.”
Reis notes there are “gaps between what should have happened and what actually occurred” and historians, with careful research, can illuminate those gaps.
Reis has previously authored “Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex” (2009), and “Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England” (1997).
“American Sexual Histories” is available in the UO Bookstore, at Amazon.com and in other locations.
- by Aria Seligmann, UO Office of Strategic Communications