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Reviewed by:
  • Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America
  • C. Dallett Hemphill
Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America. By Thomas Foster . Boston: Beacon, 2006. Pp. 248. $17.00 (paper).

This book offers a convenient synthesis of old and new findings on male sexuality in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Foster makes a convincing case that sexuality was an important dimension of colonial masculinity and thus contributes to the picture painted by recent studies of manhood in early New England such as Lisa Wilson's Ye Heart of a Man: The Domestic Life of Men in Colonial New England (1999) and Ann Lombard's Making Manhood: Growing Up Male in Colonial New England (2003). He also adds to their work by considering New English constructions of the sexuality [End Page 630] of Native American and African American men. His focus on Massachusetts and masculinity allows him to offer some important detail that can be compared with work on southern sexuality in Kathleen Brown's Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (1996) and with Richard Godbeer's definitive survey, Sexual Revolution in Early America (2001). 1

Foster's book comes in three parts. The first two chapters make the case for "normative" white male sexuality in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, Foster concludes that it was heterosexual, monogamous, and patriarchal. Men were supposed to fulfill their procreative and companionate roles within marriage but otherwise to control their lusts and those of their dependents, including their wives. To some extent, it seems a refreshed version of Edmund Morgan's classic observations about the Puritans and sex, but Foster's review of the evidence serves to underscore his addition of normative sexuality to the markers of adult manhood identified by Wilson and Lombard. 2

In part 2, Foster considers male sexuality in the context of the community of other white adult men. He argues that rape was as much a violation of another man's honor as it was violence to a female victim. This point of view is consistent with Sharon Block's findings in Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (2006). 3 Newer ground is covered in chapter 4, where Foster reviews men's sexual gossip as a means by which they asserted themselves and connected with each other. While he might have done more to prove these functions, his dissection of men's "town talk" is fascinating.

Foster turns to sexual deviance in part 3, both in its own right and as an important means of underscoring normative masculinity. In one chapter he examines the discussions of bachelors and fops, in another cross-cultural sex, and in a third, homosexual activity. He argues that the bachelor figured as a symbolic repository of fears about effeminacy, deviant sexuality, and the city. Attitudes about cross-cultural sex found in court records and newspaper accounts both reinforced normative sexual self-control and attributed it to white men, thereby also fostering views of racial difference. Same-sex activity, while not the marker of a sexual identity in the twentieth-century sense, was nevertheless regarded as a potential expression of a sexual self. [End Page 631]

To a great degree, Foster's work is synthetic in that he seems to agree with and repeat conclusions about male sexuality offered earlier by Cornelia Dayton in Women before the Bar: Gender, Law and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (1995), Block, and Godbeer. 4 John McCurdy's new book, Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (2009) will suggest modifications to Foster's conclusions by adding more complexity and showing more change over time in attitudes toward unmarried men. 5 While Foster refers to newspaper jests about a bachelor tax (104), for example, McCurdy tells their actual story. Foster does intervene in the "acts versus identities" debate over homosexuality, arguing that in colonial Massachusetts, homosexuality could be construed as either. That is, homosexual acts were sometimes regarded as specific sins that all were capable of and at other times were construed as the tendency of a sexual minority. Foster is persuasive that a more...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 630-634
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-31
Open Access
No
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