33: D’Emilio & Freedman’s Intimate Matters

This one got a bit technical… oops 😉

John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman’s Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America has the modest goals of surveying the history of American sexuality from the colonial era to the present AND rewriting both American history and sexuality in the process.  The authors draw on mostly secondary sources  to make three main arguments: that political movements to change sexuality usually occur in the context of larger economic, social, and political upheavals; that gender inequality and sexual politics are inseparable, and that sexual politics develop out of both real and symbolic (or representational) issues.  They are also keep to connect individual sexuality with larger cultural constructions of it, and to show that struggles over empowerment and oppression outside the bedroom are often connected to those same struggles within it.

The authors divide their history of US sexuality into four periods, and trace continuities and ruptures within and among them.  (No, don’t worry, they don’t tell a story of slow but steady progress.)  These are:

  • 1600-1780: pre-industrial, colonial era supported sexual diversity and an emphasis on procreation and families that was supported by social and religious institutional regulation of extra-marital sex (though we know from Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale that unwed pregnancies were neither uncommon nor particularly forbidden, as long as the couple got married)
  • 1780-1880s: industrial capitalism pulled sexuality out of the family and into the marketplace with a wide variety of results, including an increased emphasis on romantic sexuality (and a decreased association between procreation and sexuality), which middle-class women supported because it gave them more autonomy; declining fertility among the white middle class; and a new interpretation of sexuality as the means to personal intimacy within marriage. Tolerance for nonmarital relations and sexual lifestyle experiments expanded.
  • late 19th and early 20th centuries: a “sexual revolution” in the middle class further separated sexuality and reproduction; working class sexuality was now prominently displayed in new dance halls, road houses, and amusement parks; same-sex sexuality became more visible; sexual expression got attached to personal gratification; and moral reformers showed a decrease in tolerance for sexual diversity, as evinced by moral crusades, lynchings, attacks on immigrants, and antiobscenity movements.
  • 1920s-1960s: after 1920, sexuality moved further into the commercial and public realms, so that sexual opportunities widened; eroticization and equalization of gender roles went hand in hand; increasingly visible youth culture dated and had sex; homosexual subcultures formed; new sexual culture valued freedom and diversity
  • 1970s-1980s: from the left, Hugh Hefner, feminists, gay libbers and other sexual libertines challenged the family in the 1970s; conservatives used the AIDS scare in the 1980s to crack down on sexual “permissiveness”; this combination led to extreme polarization.

This book was published in 1988, when available literature on sexuality was only just beginning to broaden its focus, so some of their sections are, sadly, overly dependent on white, middle-class New Englanders – who, as we know, represent everyone.  They also seem to think that sexuality is all about discourse rather than actual pleasure.  But they do work in material on black, Indian, and working class sexuality when they can; they integrate the cultural construction of sexuality into larger frameworks of social, economic, and cultural power; and they are wonderfully clear and easy to read.

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