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  • Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America by April R. Haynes
  • Kathleen M. Brown
April R. Haynes. Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. vii + 242 pp. Ill. $27.50 (978-0-226-28462-0).

April Haynes tracks the changes in nineteenth-century discourses on normative female sexuality and sexual health to the juncture of abolitionism, moral reform, and the growing popular interest in physiology. In so doing she reinterprets the significance of familiar reformers and uncovers new voices. Her claim that African American women pushed white female reformers to redefine female virtue in ways that made it a consequence of moral accountability and engagement rather than of protection and rescue, supports her larger argument that "prior to the advent of sexology, evangelical women—not medical doctors—established a normative discourse on sexuality" (p. 15). This intervention by African American women resulted in a moment of interracial cooperation during the 1830s and briefly coalesced with white feminist arguments about female equality and sexual autonomy before giving way to the racial vision of white purity reformers.

Haynes's study begins with Sylvester Graham's warnings to white women in 1833 about the health risks of masturbation, known at the time as the solitary vice. The implication of this message—that women, like men, were sexual beings who needed to govern their own sexual desires—appealed to radical reformers insisting on the equality of the sexes and the need for female sexual autonomy. Haynes argues that warnings to women about the solitary vice gave a small group of African American abolitionist women from New York's African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church their opportunity to undermine the racial opposition of white female sexual purity and black female wantonness. Determined to make slavery and the fate of African American women's chastity a matter of white female virtue, Haynes contends, African American female reformers challenged the prevailing sexual discourse about women. At issue was the very nature of the human female—was she as prone to libidinous desires as her male counterpart? If so, was she as likely to succumb to those desires on her own, or did her acquiescence depend solely on external pressures, like seduction, deception, and coercion? Were white women and black women equal in their inner capacity for virtue? Was female virtue or female chastity preferable, and if so, how was it best achieved—through protection and rescue or through informed sexual citizenship and self-regulation?

In the hands of market-driven lecturers like the British-born Frederick Hollick (whom readers might recall as the entrepreneurial advocate of female pleasure in Michael Sappol's A Traffic of Dead Bodies) and conservative white female moral reformers, however, the emphasis on virtue—an internal quality supported by sexual knowledge and manifested in self-government—gave way by the 1840s [End Page 663] and 1850s to a focus on purity, a reputedly racial condition marked by anatomical difference, according to Hollick, and vulnerable to external circumstances like coercion. As Haynes notes, it is not clear that Hollick's white female supporters, many of whom were abolitionists, knew of his 1843 pamphlet apologizing for slavery, condemning bourgeois reformer hypocrisy, and pandering to the white working class. His white female followers supported him when he was charged with obscenity in 1846, ultimately helping to link the emergent anatomical knowledge movement with racial science and paving the road for white purity movements later in the century.

Yet some African American women persisted. Educator and abolitionist Sarah Mapps Douglass continued to stress knowledge as a key to sexual safety and self-government during the 1850s, but the reform landscape had shifted. The connections between white and black female reformers dissolved in the acid wash of white female purity discourse. Tragically, this was the case for Douglass's relationship with Sarah Grimke, whom Haynes reveals as having abandoned arguments for the equality of the sexes in favor of those, like Eliza Farnham's, that featured slavery as the handmaiden for white female purity.

Riotous Flesh is deeply researched in reform movement archives, popular health publications, and personal correspondence among female...


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