Pre-marital Sex in America Discussion/March 1998


Query From Erika Kuhlman kuhlerik@fs.isu.edu 23 Mar 1998

While discussing Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's _A Midwife's Tale_ (drawn from a late 18th century diary) in my historiography class, one of my students asked when and why pre-marital sex became taboo in American society. We discussed some possible answers, such as a growing need for social control, influence of the Catholic church--does anyone have any more specific answers to this question, or know where I could look? Thanks.

Responses:

From Jaime Staraitis jaime-staraitis@augustana.edu 24 Mar 1998

Essentially what you're looking at is virginity, or when society sanctions losing it, right? i think sexual activity and how we treat it pertains to the whole western world, not any one country independently. I think any of Andrea Dworkin's work would be infinitely helpful, also Ms. Magazine. Why not try any of those women/health/teen magazines like Cosmopolitan, etc? Some of them have been running for a long time and would have some interesting articles and letters.

Finally, consider the possibility that, according to some segments of American culture, premarital sex is still not ok, or, suddenly its not ok anymore. Grocery store magazine covers are all about the AIDS scare and other diseases which push way down the level of sexual activity among some individuals, especially emergent in mid nineties.

From Rodney Hessinger hess@vm.temple.edu 24 Mar 1998

A wide range of answers have been posited to this query. Most historians have seen the decline in premarital pregnancy as somehow part of a larger trend of an emerging Victorian prudery-- which merely begs the question. The three most common answers have been 1)that women were gaining greater control of their bodies and did not wish to suffer the consequences of premarital pregnancy-- this explanation needs to be understood in a context in which American communities were increasingly unable to force marriages (thus women were at greater risk if they became pregnant). 2)that in an emerging commercial economy children were beginning to be seen more as an economic liability rather than an economic asset-- in other words, the decline had something to do with bourgeois strategies for upward economic mobility. 3)an emerging ideology of domesticity placed great stress on the chastity of women-- having a chaste angel in the house became a status symbol which announced a family's inclusion in the bourgeoisie.

These answers are of course not mutually exclusive. Some good places to look for a fuller explanation are: Daniel Scott Smith and Michael Hindus, "Premarital Pregnancy in America, 1640-1971: An Overview and Interpretation," _Journal of Interdisciplinary History_ 5 (1974-5); Mary Ryan, _Cradle of the Middle Class_; and Nancy Cott, "Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850" _Signs_ 4 (1978).

Growing fears surrounding premarital pregnancy were explicitly explored repeatedly in American fiction in the late 18th and early 19th century in "seduction tales" in which young innocent women were seduced, and then abandoned by evil male rakes. These tales departed from the work of English sensibility writers such as Samuel Richardson in that they sought to "solve" the problem of seduction through demanding the exercise of female caution-- as opposed to this earlier fiction which while advocating female caution, also demanded that men reform. I explore this fiction in a forthcoming article in a book edited by Merril Smith for NYU Press entitled _Sex and Sexuality in Early America_.

From Heidi Campbell-Shoaf hcampbell@dar.org 24 Mar 1998

I recently read a book that may be of help: A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values by John Gillis, Harvard Univ. Press, 1996. He discusses various customs that many assume have always been practiced - the taboo of premarital sex and pregnancy, separate spheres, and the perfect couple, among others - and argues that many of the beliefs can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century.

From Mara Dodge mdodge@udel.edu 24 Mar 1998

Estelle Freedman and John D'Emilio's A HISTORY OF SEXUALITY IN AMERICA is the essential place to start!!!

From Lesley Hall Lesley_Hall@classic.msn.com 24 Mar 1998

What is meant by 'taboo'? presumably it was not exactly ok behaviour among the early settlers.... And still went on during the 'Victorian' C19th (well, it certainly did in the UK, about which I know much more).... And acceptability would have varied wildly by class, religion, area, ethnic background etc....
D'Emilio and Newton's _Intimate Matters_ should have some of the answers--as I recall from reading this some years ago, they were very good on the different cultural traditions (due to settlement patterns from different parts of Europe) of different areas of the USA.

From Cynthia Harrison harrison@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu 24 Mar 1998

See Kristin Luker, _Dubious Conceptions_.

From Joan R. Gundersen gunderj@numen.elon.edu 24 Mar 1998

For a start on the questions of when premarital sex became unacceptable, look at John d'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. The crucial change in attitudes for the middle and upper classes came during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and are tied to the new definitions of womanhood. For women of the working class and "lower sorts" the change comes MUCH later, perhaps as much as a century later.

From Jeanette Keith keith@planetx.bloomu.edu 24 Mar 1998

With all respect to Erika Kuhlman and her students, I'm not sure that premarital sex, per se, has ever been "taboo" in American culture. While religious groups have condemned premarital sex as a sin (and here I'd like to point out that the Catholic church has nothing on evangelical and fundamentalist churches, and may in fact be more forgiving of such transgressions) I think most Americans have cared less about the sex than about the possible results of it. Or as my aunt used to say to us, "If you can't be good, be careful." It seems to me that premarital pregnancy was the taboo, and I would suggest that Ulrich's Maine villagers' attitude about that "problem"-- that they didn't want to support the resulting infant-- was pretty typical of communities throughout the nation, and is so today.

From Lee Polansky lee@zpg.org 24 Mar 1998

The indispensable sources, as well as the first to address the issue, is Daniel Scott Smith and Michael S. Hindus, "Premarital Pregnancy in America,1640-1971: An overview and interpretation" in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4(spring 1975): 537-570.

From Carrie Lybecker carriel@earthlink.net

See Stephanie Coontz, _The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600-1900, (Verso, 1988).