- Taming Passion for the Public Good: Policing Sex in the Early Republic by Mark E. Kann
Moral reform, Prostitution, History of sexuality, Sexual liberty
In 1831, the moral reformer John McDowall alleged that New York City harbored ten thousand prostitutes, a number amounting to approximately one in ten of the city’s entire female population. McDowall’s claim shocked public opinion, not only for what it revealed about the commonness of commercial sex but also for the common language it employed. [End Page 150] Although McDowall conceded that it was “extremely difficult to speak of an offensive and disgusting subject, in chaste and pleasing language” (132), he missed the real point: Most of the city’s respectable citizens wished that he would hold his tongue and not discuss prostitution in any terms. To speak about illicit sex risked exacerbating the problem. Despite broadly shared disapproval of prostitution, city authorities felt little drive to repress the seemingly inevitable trade. They preferred to tolerate prostitution as long as it remained a public secret.
The controversy engendered by McDowall’s notorious report, long a subject of interest to historians of sexuality, raises many of the intersecting questions posed in Mark E. Kann’s Taming Passion for the Public Good: Policing Sex in the Early Republic. Did the American Revolution unleash a sexual revolution in the United States? How strictly did early national authorities police illicit sex? And should the writings of reformers like McDowall be interpreted as evidence of continued repression of sexuality in the new republic, or of the proliferation of new discourses about sexuality?
Kann approaches these questions from the perspective of a political scientist, treating sexual culture as a standard by which to evaluate the development of liberalism following American independence. Policing Sex represents an important contribution to a new de-ghettoized scholarship of sexuality, which identifies sexuality as central to the organization of the state. Drawing mostly on secondary sources and prescriptive primary sources, Kann argues that previous scholars have exaggerated the extent of the revolution against authority within early national society. Americans may have erected a new nation based on voluntary consent rather than coercion, but they also consented to the continued supervision of benevolent authorities over their sexual lives. As Kann puts it, “ideological patriarchy” (3) retained its legitimacy in the new liberal state, with post-Revolutionary authorities assuming the supervisory mantle of colonial authorities rather than renouncing the old order.
Americans were willing to forfeit sexual liberty, Kann argues, because they identified sexual “passions” as an anarchic element that threatened to destroy social order. It would have been “unthinkable” for a “social movement to assert or defend Americans’ right to sexual experimentation” (9). There was a broad consensus that nonmarital sexuality was a destructive force, which needed to be contained for the public benefit. Such containment was entirely compatible with liberalism. In fact, by freeing individuals to pursue self-realization, liberalism perversely [End Page 151] increased the perceived need for social control. Public officials “employed patriarchal police powers to save liberal society” (17), not to destroy it.
Following his initial theoretical chapters, Kann explores the application of patriarchal control over American sexuality in the context of the prison, the marital household, and the commercial marketplace. Here he confronts the greatest challenge to his argument that patriarchal control of American sexuality continued unabated in the new republic. Despite the broad consensus that the state had the right to police illicit sexuality, Kann forthrightly admits that political authorities rarely put great effort into doing so. For example, from the initial development of the prison in the post-Revolutionary era, reformers continuously complained about the frequency of sex between male and female inmates, as well as between male inmates. Yet few steps were taken to prevent this illicit behavior. Even the problem of older male offenders raping juvenile male offenders, which was a particularly egregious form of illicit sex by the standards of the time, was weakly policed. “For the first three decades of...