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Reviewed by:
  • Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3rd edition by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, and: Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America ed. by Thomas A. Foster
  • Brigitte Fielder (bio)
Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3rd edition John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012 536 pp.
Documenting Intimate Matters: Primary Sources for a History of Sexuality in America Edited by Thomas A. Foster, foreword by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012 256 pp.

When the first edition of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America appeared in 1988, one reviewer called it “the most comprehensive history of American sexuality to date” (Taylor 461). Twenty-five years later, the scope of the project is still ambitious, and its central tenet—that a complex nexus of economic, political, and social factors has informed the evolving discourses and practices of sexuality in the United Sates—remains widely accepted. The argument that sexual meaning is culturally defined and historically contextualized not only persists but has produced a broad, interdisciplinary study of the production of sexuality’s various meanings. The complexity of sexuality and the wide variety of factors contributing to its evolution illustrate the near impossibility of D’Emilio and Freedman’s task. Since the book’s original publication, the interdisciplinary field of sexuality studies has grown exponentially. Innumerable volumes of academic writing, conference panels, and undergraduate and graduate courses, in fields ranging from sociology and history to gender and sexuality studies and literature, have expanded on the many themes these authors broach. The book is perhaps most useful as a starting point, an entry into the vast array of work possible.

D’Emilio and Freedman’s argument that the history of sexuality does not follow a straightforward progressive trajectory toward sexual emancipation is one of the work’s most enduring contributions. Continually illustrating the relationship between sex and power, the authors show how intersections of gender, race, and class inflect the historical conditions and construction of sexuality in a variety of contexts. The extensive research [End Page 605] they incorporate and analyze turns earlier models of sexuality’s evolution on their head. Of particular importance to early Americanist scholars is these authors’ refusal to write the history of sexuality as an advancement from repression to liberation or absence to visibility, while maintaining its persistent and continued relevance throughout American history.

Part 1, “The Reproductive Matrix,” begins its exploration with white settlement in North America and treats the period from 1600 to 1800. Focusing on beliefs about the relationship between sexuality and procreation, the authors show how the practice of governing sexuality reinforced systems of gender, race, and class dominance. Conflicting cultures of sexuality are visible in the distinct structures that govern sexuality within settler colonist and Native American communities respectively. Notions of sexuality’s containment in marriage and relation to the production of the nuclear family frame differing responses not only to what types of sex are sanctioned (including extramarital and nonreproductive) but also to questions such as the status of children born out of wedlock and which adults are obligated to which children in their community. Although sex was often understood in terms of reproduction and governed by family and state institutions, both male and female sexual pleasure registered as important in the documents D’Emilio and Freedman examine. Most importantly, these documents show that sexuality was not a repressed secret, but a topic of public discourse and regulation. The use of sex as a tool of domination also emerges here, both in terms of sexual violence and as normative understandings of sexuality contributed to gender and racial oppression.

In part 2, “Divided Passions,” we see an emerging struggle between the location of sexuality within the privacy of the middle-class family and the public commercialization of sex between 1780 and 1900. Here again, D’Emilio and Freedman trace relations of sexuality and the structure of the family to related power structures of race and class. The nuclear, heteronormative family becomes not only a cultural convention but also a structure that informs individuals’ relations...


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pp. 605-611
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