Review: Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man, by Thomas Foster

Rating: 4.3/5

Thomas Foster’s Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America has the great advantage of being pretty much exactly what it tells you it’s going to be: an analysis of the sexual culture of masculinity in eighteenth century Massachusetts. (It also has pretty fantastic cover art. Shout-out to Patricia Duque Campos for that.) This book is a wonderful introduction not just to cultural norms of sex in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, but also of broader cultural norms of masculinity, both in that colony and across the English-speaking world, and categories of normative and deviant. All in all, a comprehensive analysis of exactly what it says on the cover, and then some. And you don’t just have to take my word for it. The likes of Alfred Young and Mary Beth Norton also think you should read this!

Foster starts out by examining and establishing what the cultural norm of masculine sexuality was, first within the context of the household. He uses examples of patriarchs not conforming to this cultural norm both to help enforce for the reader what the cultural norm was, and as a way to examine how and why normative models broke down, and how the larger society handled them when they did. He then goes on to expand his analysis of normative masculine behavior in a larger communal context, again, specifically looking both at individual cases that fit the mold, and individual cases that break with it.

Sex and the Eighteenth Century Man will do a great deal to shatter preconceived ideas of Puritan sexual mores. Foster shows that, in Massachusetts, the ideal man was both virile and self-controlled, and that he and his wife (whom he ideally married before his late twenties, and after careful consideration of their long-term compatibility) used their sexual energy to both produce children and strengthen their affections for each other through mutual enjoyment. The parts of the book that deal with the culture surrounding rape and sexual assault will sadly look a little familiar to a modern reader. However, that makes it crucial for anyone looking into the history of rape culture.

There is a fantastic analysis of the connection between a man’s sexual reputation and his public professional reputation, and how one effected the other. This part is border-line required reading for anyone wishing to understand the politics of both colonial America, and the early republic. If you just want to understand why John Adams had such a low opinion of Franklin, Hamilton, and even Washington and Jefferson, this part will be immensely informative.

The sources consulted for this book are both exhaustive and creative. Rather than limiting himself to published sermons and pamphlets, Foster consults journals, letters, broadsides, cartoons, plays, and newspapers, novels, and medical books. He makes particular not of which articles from abroad Massachusetts newspapers chose to reprint and why, as well as which books touching on masculine sexuality were most popular in the Bay colony and why. Foster exercises a judicious hand with regards to modern versus historical understandings of sexual acts, specifically rape and same-sex sexuality. As he notes, rape and incest in the eighteenth century were gendered crimes (only men could commit them, only women could be victims), and a conviction (both in the courts and in the eyes of society) required that the victim prove that they had resisted sufficiently, and resisted with force. In his analysis, he recognizes that not all violent sexual acts committed in eighteenth century Massachusetts would have fit into such a narrow category, and that, while we may not have hard evidence of sexual coercion, rape committed by women, or rape and assault of men and boys, we cannot conclude that it was therefore not happening, nor does it mean that the victims of these acts felt any less psychological pain than those whose stories appear in court records.

One of the most fascinating parts of Foster’s book is his examination of deviant sexual types, because the reader can see how differently eighteenth century culture categorized deviance from of we categorize deviance or non-normativity. Foster chronicles the bachelor, the rake, the fop, the masturbator, the sodomite, and the rapist as the main deviant forms of eighteenth century male sexuality. What’s fascinating about this part, to me, is the lack of correlation of “normative” and “woman-attracted.” For example, the rake and the rapist are usually portrayed as being attracted solely to women, though their sexualities have become sinister and perverted. The fop and the masturbator are ambiguous, but usually portrayed as attracted to women, but unwilling or unable to seal the deal. The bachelor inexplicably and to his own detriment seems indifferent to women, and is commonly suspected of being potentially either a masturbator or a sodomite. Bachelor status is viewed as inherently curable, and much ink was spilled trying to persuade bachelors to marry, including the tongue-in-cheek proposal of a tax on men who remained unmarried after a certain age. What’s most interesting about this to me is how many of these deviant types are considered normative today, if distasteful or pathetic. Meanwhile, an eighteenth century man who formed a strong romantic (and even physical, either within limits or with great secrecy) attachment to another man, provided they both fit all other physical, lifecycle, and character qualifications of manliness, would have been considered normative. Today, we would consider someone like that (Michael Sam comes to mind) non-normative. The idea that certain orientations are in fact transhistorical, and that it is rather the ways in which we position them vis-a-vis the normative is what changes is very important for the future study and understanding of minority sexualities and gender expressions/identities.

While analyses of Black, Native American, and same-sex oriented masculinities are explored, Foster here struggles with the constant hurdle of sub-altern history: there aren’t enough sources, and those that exist are inevitably written or edited by the majority. Because of this, instead of a decent portrait of how Black men, Native American men, and men who loved men saw and understood themselves as men and as sexually active (or inactive) men, we get a comprehensive portrait of how the dominant class (in this case White Christian women-attracted sexually virile men) stereotypes these groups, what social function those stereotypes performed, and how they helped maintain existing power structures. This, sadly, is not what Foster claims to be offering. The desire to present the stories of subaltern groups is noble. We must however be careful that in our zeal we are not presenting dominant cultural stereotypes of those groups as their real stories because we lack good sources from members of those groups.

One case where Foster does manage to get away from the dominant cultural narrative and dig a little into what something meant for the man experiencing it is same-sex attraction. Foster, through spectacular research and analysis, combats the idea that, back in the day, there was no such thing as a sexual “identity,” rather it was all about behavior and individual acts. He argues that this line of thinking was pushed largely by churches and courts for purposes of social control, but that culturally, by the end of the century it was generally acknowledged that some men had a distinct preference for their own gender. This was a departure from the earlier Puritan belief that, as everyone was more or less equally capable of sin, and sodomy was a sin, everyone was bound to have to fight these urges in some form, and you have popular Puritan poets and scholars grappling in verse with their lust for other members of their own gender. Still, what we get is largely a the external images placed on same-sex attracted men by society at large, not how these men understood themselves. As any same-sex attracted person today will tell you, how society sees us is worlds away from how we see ourselves. Likely this was true back then as well. Even with internalized homophobia, it’s doubtful that all men interested in men saw themselves as unnatural, oversexed, and effeminate. Foster goes on to show that, while technically sodomy was a capital offense, it was only prosecuted in cases of (what we would call) rape, and even then convictions were very rare. This shows that society was generally unwilling to execute people for consensual same-sex sex, and generally it was left to the churches and the community.

As far as style goes, the book is engaging, very readable, and give the reader a lovely peek into the intimate lives and thoughts of every-day people in eighteenth century Massachusetts. It can get a little repetitive, but mostly manages to avoid that. Passages describing things that are offensive to modern sensibilities can be hard to read, like the newspapers mocking rape victims, going into nasty detail about the “black rapist,” or ridiculing same-sex attracted men, but overall Foster handles these very well. You can definitely tell which chapter started out as a separate article, which is a common misstep for historians, but the chapter is so well written and so in-depth that I didn’t really mind. Foster gives a comprehensive portrait of mainstream white ideals of masculinity in Massachusetts in this time period, making it an essential read for anyone interested in studying or understanding the men who helped create the United States.


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