MedHum Monday Book Review: Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh book coverIn Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian April R. Haynes “tells the story of how masturbation became a reviled sexual act charged with political meaning in the United States” during the antebellum period (4). While masturbation, or “onanism,” had long been understood as a problematic sexual practice, prior to the 1830s Americans were largely unresponsive to calls for widespread moral panic. Yet by the late nineteenth century, masturbation — “the solitary vice” — was commonly understood as a dangerous habit. Social reformers and the medical establishment alike held it responsible for a wide range of social and personal ills. At the dawn of the twentieth century it had become a cornerstone of white, progressive America’s policing of bodies considered deviant.

How and why did this single sexual practice come to dominate mainstream narratives of sexual deviancy? Haynes sets out to tell this story through the lens of female reformers, black and white, who played a key role in disrupting the status quo of sexual knowledge in the decades before the American Civil War. Asserting their right to physiological self-knowledge, women’s rights activists and abolitionists argued for sexual citizenship that crossed the boundaries of race and class, as well as gender. Female and male, black and white, these reformers argued, humans had the capacity for both sexual passion and sexual self-restraint. The rhetoric of sexual self-control both circumscribed (white) men’s entitlement to women’s bodies as well as establishing women’s capacity for pleasure and self-governance. A proto-heteronormative discourse, reform physiology put forward a radical gender and racial equality based on a shared (sexual) nature the fullest expression of which could be cultivated and contained within a companionate marriage of equals. As Haynes writes, “pitting solitary deviance against a naturalized and empowering view of female heterosexual pleasure, [reformers] tied women’s sexual autonomy to active heterosexuality and associated masturbation with children” (162).

In the process of making such bold, new claims to embodied citizenship rights, reform physiologists developed overlapping and eventually competing discourses of sexual virtue and sexual purity. The logic of sexual virtue required rigorous self-examination and self-improvement, insisting not on female innocence or passionlessness but rather on responsible sexual citizenship regardless of race or gender. This discourse appealed to many black women and white abolitionists because it both acknowledged the realities of a non-virtuous world and offered the possibility of redemption through responsible action.

Sexual purity, by contrast, turned on the emerging notion of particular female piety, found its fullest expression among whites during the later half of the nineteenth century, turning on (white) fears of sexual and racial contamination. It was the sexual purity discourse that eventually gained widespread acceptance within white, middle-class America, turning anti-masturbation rhetoric into a powerful tool for policing the sexuality of bodies white Americans feared: youths, immigrants, blacks, the poor, homosexuals.

Through five roughly chronological chapters, each centering around a specific moment in the development of nineteenth-century anti-masturbation discourse, Haynes follows black and white female reformers who constructed, elaborated, and contested the logic of sexual purity between 1830-1860. Haynes’ work is particularly refreshing in the way that it centers the work of black, female reformers, persuasively situating African American activists as both co-creators of, and eventual dissenters from, what would become a white supremacist social purity movement.

A primarily intellectual history, Haynes is concerned with how ideas about masturbation and sexual self-control more broadly were deployed through written texts and promoted at public lectures. Left in the shadows, perhaps beyond the scope of this particular study, is the way in which anti-masturbation discourse shaped the sexual experiences of individuals. To what extent did social fears around “the solitary vice” affect the sexual psyches of the women, black and white, who deployed anti-masturbation logics to political ends? We are given fleeting glimpses of individual activists, such as Sarah Mapps Douglass and Sarah Grimke — reported to be “celibate” for long periods during their adult lives — and cannot help but wonder how stringently they practiced what they preached. Of course, the historical record is often silent on such matters; the sexual practices of the (relatively) privileged remain shrouded from view by the privacy they are afforded while the sexual practices of deviant bodies come into focus through medical, judicial, and other policing lenses. Further work could be done, however, in teasing out the relationship between the sexual norms and sexual practices among the promoters of reform physiology.

Overall, Riotous Flesh gives us a rich pre-history of what would become, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a movement violently preoccupied with maintenance of white, female purity in the face of black emancipation and successive waves of immigration. As documented in Sarah Moslener’s recent Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (Oxford University Press, 2015), from the end of the Civil War through the Cold War era — and arguably to the present — maintaining the sexual purity (however fictive) of white, middle-class American girls remained a staple of American nationalism. Haynes argues in her epilogue that since the Sixties we have reversed the logic of anti-masturbation reformers, now holding those who do not masturbate as prudish and repressed. While this may be true in certain circles, I would argue that the public at large continues to look askance on those who admit to “the solitary vice.”

We need look no further than contemporary Christian purity campaigns to see the continued policing of solitary sexual pleasure as a socially deviant and physically disordered activity. Often conflated with similarly-suspect engagement with pornography, independent sexual activities are still widely understood to endanger one’s ability to form and sustain a stable, heteronormative union. In turn, the heteronormative family unit — now tentatively expanded to include same-sex couples — remains a cornerstone of American national identity. Riotous Flesh offers an insightful, intersectional analysis of the moment in which many of our present-day understandings of human sexuality — and masturbation in particular — began to take shape.

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