Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Religion and Sex in Early America

How Gender Relations and Patriarchal
Dominance Established Criminal Precedent
by Brad Hart

Having worked in law enforcement for a few years, I have maintained a strong interest in the criminal world. As a result, I occasionally enjoy a brief overview of the history and evolution of crime and punishment in ages past.

One of the most recent books on criminal history that I have read is Sharon Block’s Rape & Sexual Power in Early America, which was published in 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. In the book, Block discusses the origins, evolution and perception of sex and gender relationships during the earliest years of American colonization and revolution. Naturally, the ideas and motivations behind sexual activity in the 17th and 18th centuries were greatly influenced by the religious beliefs of those eras, which is why I have decided to post my brief review of Block’s book here.

As is the case with all sexual crime, power and control lay at the heart of the matter. In the early years of American society, however, sexual crimes such as rape and incest were routinely seen as crimes of unbridled lust and passion, in which the perpetrator was unable to bridle his desires. To make matters worse, women were regularly labeled as being the instigators of these vile acts while the men were seen as the helpless bystanders, unable to withstand the seduction of their victims. As Block states:

Although Americans wrote surprisingly frequently about rape, it remained a difficult crime to charge and to successfully prove. Early Americans often saw the violence of forced sex as an unfortunate result of sexual desire rather than the original intent of the sexual act. Passions – understood as strong feelings or emotions – remained an explanation for sexual desires into the nineteenth century, as their meaning moved from a primarily religious focus to one that combined religious and secular concerns. As a result of passions, sexual coercion was less an aberrant act of violent sexual force than an extension of normative sexual practices. A rape might begin with voluntary social or sexual offers and end with the aggressor attempting to continue normal social relations after the rape. Contrary to modern expectations, physical force did not provide a clear dividing line between coercion and consent. Consensual sex could be physically forceful (17).
Or in other words, “No means no” actually meant, “Pursue even harder.”

One of the central themes to Block’s work, which is essential to understanding sexual activity in early America, is the issue of gender relations. As Block points out, gender relations of the 17th and 18th centuries were directly tied to the patriarchal nature of religion and government. The church, which castigated women as being frivolous and undomesticated in their sexuality, placed the “evils” of sexual relations primarily on the shoulders of women. As a result, victims of rape were regularly chastised by church authorities for being too flamboyant and inviting with their sexuality. Or in other words, the women were simply “asking for it.” In addition, men were seen as the “custodians” of sex, since they could be trusted with exercising it in an "appropriate" manner. As a result, this type of “authority” became the ideal breeding ground for manipulation and domination that invited even the most reserved predator:

Some men used an array of social interactions as a springboard for sexual relations. Those forms of sexual coercion differed greatly from the archetypal stranger rape committed through brute force and grave bodily threat. Neighbors in small communities might use their everyday social relations to create opportunities for sexual force or read inappropriate socializing as evidence of a woman’s consent to subsequent sexual relations. (77).
As can be imagined, this type of gender relationship gave way to patriarchal dominance that permeated virtually every social encounter between man and woman. Whether in friendship, courtship, or marriage men could find a justification for their sexual desires.

Ethical and moral issues, like the ones brought up by Block, are difficult to discuss to say the least, but they are imperative if we hope to understand the beliefs and motivations of a given era. Understanding the criminal aspects of a society, along with what that particular society deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior, can help historians take a moral “pulse” on the past. In addition, it helps us to sift through the abundance of moral rhetoric to uncover the fragments of ethical behavior that past societies actually cherished and exhaled as being protected by God and the law. For these reasons, Sharon Block’s Rape & Sexual Power in Early America receives an A in my grade book.

No comments: