Purity vs Virtue

Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America

By April R. Haynes

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015, 248 pp., $27.50, paperback

Reviewed by Rachel Hope Cleves

Between 1835 and 1840, more than 50,000 women gathered in small rooms across New England and upstate New York to confess their past histories of masturbation, or “the solitary vice,” as it had recently been dubbed by Sylvester Graham. According to the tenets of “reform physiology,” a nineteenth-century sexual-health movement, admitting to masturbation was a critical first step on the path to self-discipline. Through such testimonials, the women sought absolution and refashioned themselves as virtuous citizens, capable of restraining their erotic appetites. The experience of shared confessions also bound the women together as a community, laying the foundation for future advocacy around women’s issues.

This unlikely scenario of Victorian women holding consciousness-raising sessions, where they sought power in public discussion of masturbation, uncannily foreshadows the 1970s encounter groups, where newly awakened feminists masturbated together. April Haynes draws this analogy in the opening pages of her history, Riotous Flesh. The two groups, separated by nearly a century and a half, took oppositional approaches to masturbation itself. Antebellum women resisted masturbation as a path to empowerment, while counterculture women embraced masturbation as source of personal autonomy. However, both groups saw developing a correct approach to masturbation as critical to women’s assertions of ownership over their sexualities and their common interests as women. At this pro-sex moment in the long history of the feminist sex wars, the notion that women might gain power through limiting their sexual expression seems illogical. But Haynes expresses equal skepticism about the present notion that the vibrator can be an effective tool for dismantling patriarchy. From her critical perspective, there are limitations to using sexual reform of any variety as a main avenue toward feminist advancement.

Riotous Flesh overturns the conventional historiography of masturbation, which has focused almost exclusively on men. Canonical works by Thomas Laqueur (Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation [2003]) and G. J. Barker-Benfield (The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America [1976]) focus on male medical practitioners who, they argue, made masturbation into a health crisis during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as on young men, whom they depict as the primary targets of medical concern. However, Haynes argues that it was evangelical women, not male doctors, who made masturbation a prominent social issue in the United States, and that these women initially saw the female sex as being as susceptible to self-abuse as the male sex. Rediscovering evangelical women’s contributions to the antimasturbation movement leads Haynes to challenge the conventional historical explanations of the reasons behind their alarm. Their concerns about masturbation cannot be attributed to “political democratization and the secularization of morality,” as Laqueur claims. “It is simply not the case,” Haynes asserts strenuously, that early texts like Onania (1716) “inaugurated a democratic pattern of thinking about sex.” Americans cared little about masturbation during the initial spread of democracy in the age of Revolution. “All that changed in 1833,” Haynes argues, “when women became central subjects rather than marginal characters” in reform physiology. It was debates over women’s rights, not democracy, that made masturbation an issue of national significance.

Despite Haynes’s focus on women actors, her choice of 1833 as a turning point hinges on the actions of a man whom many readers will be familiar with, the dyspeptic minister Sylvester Graham. Graham is a historic character so peculiar that he has made the leap from specialist volumes to popular consciousness, owing in large part to the crackers named after him. An all-around reformer who preached the doctrines of vegetarianism, temperance, and clothing reform to New England audiences, Graham turned to the problem of masturbation in 1833. Although his message was not original, his method was—in particular his choice to preach to audiences of women as well as to men. The innovation enraged local men in Providence, Portland, and Boston, where they mobbed him.

Masculine opposition to Graham’s talks to women ultimately drove the reformer from the public stage. He abandoned the project of addressing women on the subject of masturbation and later retired to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he devoted himself to perfecting a recipe for whole grain bread. Reformist women, however, did not give up on the subject of masturbation. They took over where Graham left off, organizing meetings to address each other on the subject of reformist physiology. They promoted the antimasturbation addresses of women reformers such as Mary Gove. Soon, they gathered together in small groups to speak to the subject themselves. Why did reformist women embrace antimasturbation so eagerly? Haynes argues that they saw value in a discourse that addressed women as “rational beings capable of mastering their own passions.” By admitting to their susceptibility to masturbation, reformist women highlighted their rational capacity to resist temptation. They exchanged an older model of purity, which viewed good women as passive and passionless, for a new model of virtue, in which good women’s sexual self-restraint proved their capacity for citizenship.

Reformist women had many reasons to want to move away from the fiction of passionlessness. In popular culture the ideology served as a license for male sexual violence. The image of the passionless lady produced a dark counterpart in the fallen whore; any woman who did not rise to the standard of passionlessness became a fit subject for exploitation. And placing the onus on “pure” women to place the brakes on sexual expression in turn naturalized male sexual aggression. The erotic “flash” newspapers that exploded onto the American scene during the 1830s cultivated the fantasy that male libertines possessed the power to awaken women’s passions, turning them from virgins into whores, where upon they became dispensable. “In the shadow of passionlessness,” Haynes argues, reformers saw “a bleak world filled with fallen, ruined, murdered prostitutes.” Breaking away from passionlessness, and laying claim to a sexuality independent of men, gave women a position from which to criticize the sexual double standard.

Abolitionist women, in particular, African American abolitionist women, saw an opportunity in antimasturbation discourse to protest against the racialized dimensions of the double standard. Women of color were frequent targets of sexualized violence in a culture that viewed them not as passionless but as hypersexual. By hitching their wagon to physiological reform, African American women cultivated a new antislavery argument. If reformers truly wished to restrain licentious male behavior, they needed to oppose slavery, which rewarded slaveholding men’s sexual assaults on enslaved women. To achieve the new standard of virtue, rather than purity, white women had to cease being passive observers and become active opponents of slavery’s licentiousness. White antislavery women responded positively to this argument. At least at first.

The window of cooperation between women of color and white women reformers proved remarkably short lived. As soon as antimasturbation discourse picked up popularity among New England women, that very popularity transformed the movement. As the movement spread from the cities to the rural hinterlands of New England and New York, the cause of reform physiology moved further and further away from the center of antislavery activism. White rural women reformers soon shifted back to emphasizing female purity—for example, petitioning state legislatures to pass criminal seduction laws that resurrected ideas about feminine passionlessness. Abolitionist reform discourse also proved to have a double edge, as rhetoric focusing on black women’s sexual exploitation at times reinforced characterizations of black women as “jezebels.” As early as 1840, interracial cooperation began to fracture. And by 1845, white women’s-rights advocates split sharply from women abolitionists.

One of the great strengths of Riotous Flesh is Haynes’s intersectional analysis. The book draws on critical race theory and African American history to explore the complex interweaving of sex, race, and power in the antebellum era. A less attentive scholar could have written a much whiter book.

But Riotous Fleshem> is less successful at explaining the rapidity of the shift in women’s antimasturbation discourse away from interracial cooperation and the critique of passionlessness, and toward a more restrictive vision of gender and race that re-embraced the doctrine of women’s purity and abandoned the abolitionist cause. The whole arc of the book’s narrative takes place over no more than twelve years, from 1833 to 1845. The window of progressive antimasturbation reform that Haynes anatomizes is so brief, one almost wonders whether it happened at all. Is it possible that the sources would make more sense arranged synchronically than diachronically? Could progressive and regressive antimasturbation discourses have coincided and competed during the first half of the nineteenth century, rather than succeeding each other in such short order? Haynes also leaves questions about the erotics of the women’s antimasturbation movement less well explored than I would have liked. When antebellum women gathered together in small parlors to share their stories of past sexual self-enjoyment free from the aid or hindrance of men, did no one’s heart rate speed or pupils dilate? Haynes emphasizes how testimonial-meeting culture politicized women. One would imagine that it sexualized women as well—by which I mean that the antimasturbation movement’s incitement to discourse helped create sexuality as a thing that women, in the movement and out, shared. Antimasturbation gatherings produced female sexuality in much the same way that later promasturbation gatherings would. It seems likely that antimasturbation gatherings also produced arousal in much the same way that later promasturbation gatherings did.

Haynes does argue that the recognition of female sexual pleasure within antimasturbation discourse was ultimately channeled into the foundation of heteronormativity. Author Frederick Hollick, a British immigrant to the United States, fused physiological reform discourse and male sexual privilege into a “philosophy of amative indulgence” that promised mutually orgasmic heterosexual intercourse as the best remedy for masturbation. Again, I wonder whether the diachronic organization of the evidence forecloses the possibility of synchronic counterdiscourses. Was antimasturbation discourse, which acknowledged the possibility of a female sexuality independent of men, also channeled into a foundation for same-sex sexual culture? The linkage between masturbation and lesbianism—in texts from Onania, through Graham’s “Lecture to Mothers” (1833), to postbellum sexological texts like Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)—suggests that possibility. Haynes discusses one female couple, Mary Grew and Margaret Jones Burleigh, who attended Hollick’s talks together and may have drawn a lesbian lesson from his heterosexual instructions. Surely they were not alone. Readers who are curious to learn more won’t find the answers in Riotous Flesh, but they will find a great jumping off point for further inquiry.

Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of History at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She is the author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014).

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