- Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America by April R. Haynes
In Riotous Flesh, April Haynes examines the moral reformers who crusaded against the solitary vice (masturbation) in the North between 1830 and 1860. Activists contended that unlike heterosexual sex, this type of stimulation caused insanity, illness, and even death. She argues that "only through the efforts of antebellum female reformers did a majority of Americans come to consider it [masturbation] a deviant, crazy-making act" (4). Women—both white and black—led this movement because they "shared a strong desire to transform the contemporary politics of sexuality" (4).
The role of women as leaders in this movement is central to Haynes's narrative. She contends that female reformers who advocated against masturbation did so "to challenge the sexual relations that structured the patriarchy in their own time and to envision what sexual autonomy for women might look like in practice" (3). Haynes argues this movement was a political statement against white male supremacy, which was bolstered by the idea that "white men shared a basic sexual nature that justified their power" (7). Female reformers asserted that their sexual passions were equal to that of men, implying that they should have political power as well. [End Page 590]
Riotous Flesh counters the still prominent narrative that white middle-class women embraced sexless purity, an interpretation argued by Barbara Welter and many others since her now-classic 1966 article.1 Although reformers condemned masturbation, they advocated for heterosexual sex. Haynes contends, furthermore, that women were not as passionless as Nancy Cott and others have argued.2 She states that "antebellum women and men understood that women experienced sexual passion and that clitoral stimulation was fundamental to female orgasm" (20). Ultimately, Haynes integrates these assertions into a broader argument about sexuality. She demonstrates that anti-masturbation reformers were part of a growing movement to promote heteronormativity.
Riotous Flesh progresses chronologically, and most chapters center on leaders like Sylvester Graham and Frederick Hollick. Haynes examines the ways that understandings of masturbation proliferated and changed, especially in relation to popular interpretations of physiology. Lectures and related published texts form much of her source base. For example, Haynes analyzes Graham's warnings against masturbation to both men and women. Previously concerns about masturbation were limited to men only. Graham, however, made the controversial argument that women had "sexual desires [that] existed quite apart from male partners, marriage, and reproduction" (42). His lectures to women were accompanied by riots carried out by men who "cared less about Graham than about maintaining their sexual dominance over women and control of public space" (54). Haynes suggests this view empowered women sexually and politically, prompting them to take up the cause.
The chapter on Sarah Mapps Douglass, an African American reformer and teacher, highlights one of the greatest historiographical contributions of Riotous Flesh. Much of the existing literature on early nineteenth-century moral reform movements focuses exclusively on white women's activism, but Haynes integrates black women's activism into her narrative, offering a far more nuanced story. She provides insightful analysis of the evolving debate among reformers on the concepts of virtue and purity. White women often advocated for a moral society focused on [End Page 591] purity, which was associated with passivity, virginity, and whiteness. Haynes contends that black female activists did not aspire to this ideal, but rather challenged it. They emphasized virtue, which people of any race or gender could strive for and achieve. Haynes analyzes Douglass's educational background, personal papers, and teaching materials to demonstrate that she promoted virtue over purity to her students as part of early sex education efforts. Haynes suggests that Douglass's teachings on physiology "surpassed an investment in respectability and uplift" and instead "taught black women and girls to care for themselves and to speak back to scientific racism" (161). Teaching students about the dangers of solitary vice, reformers like Douglass argued, served the public good...