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Did Early Americans Have a Sexual Identity?

What did it mean to be a man in early America? Establishing a household? Owning slaves? Being able to assert one’s will regardless of communal norms? Simply not being a woman, or a boy? Holding true to Christian ideals of moral comportment? Beating the hell out of your inferiors and exploiting those who were weaker? All this and more.

The thesis of my recent book Sex and the Eighteenth Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Beacon, 2006), that sexuality was an important component of early American masculine identity, may seem bold to some. I am certainly not arguing that it was the deciding factor, nor was sexuality at the “heart” of manliness. Manliness is not a living creature and arguably has no heart. And given the multiplicity of masculinities it’s perhaps more properly conceived of as a meal. A person can choose an awful lot from a menu to fashion a complete meal. Some ingredients are more commonly found throughout the menu than others. Sex is one of those items.

Sex was a key aspect of early American manliness in that it could inform all aspects of a man’s life. This may seem surprising to some – but sex must not be viewed as somehow transhistorically existing in a self-contained sphere that is either present or not, depending on the era.

Nor should we assume that sexual identity could only have come into existence once twentieth-century understandings of the self focused on such matters. Of course, colonial Americans and early citizens did not think of exposing their sexual secrets as revealing an essential truth about themselves. But to leave the discussion there tells us more about those who appear on the Oprah Winfrey show today than about early Americans.

We can see how sex informs masculinity by looking at great men and ordinary ones. Presidents Clinton and Bush make interesting examples. President Clinton is so obviously sexualized. We can see it as part of his general sense of indulgence, in food, women, policy, and his intellect. Clinton also transgressed in very familiar ways -- most notably through extramarital affairs.

President Bush on the other hand remains almost steadfastly desexualized. Yet not. Sex informs his image by the very absence of scandal. His monogamous marriage and even his health, fitness, and faith contribute to the George Bush we know. His narrative of reform and redemption speak to his adult self-control. Moreover his policies abound with sexual focus, including policies like “abstinence-only” education, “marriage first”, a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and other policies and platforms all point to ways that sex informs his presidency.

Continuing with elite men, for the moment, we can similarly see the variety of ways that sex informed the lives of the Founding Fathers. Gouverneur Morris, for example, author of its preamble and one of the chief fathers of the U.S. Constitution, has recently been described by his biographer as the “rake who wrote the Constitution.” A bachelor until well into adulthood, he enjoyed a varied sexual life both here and in France during the Revolution. His ability to please women sexually, his desirability to women, and his sophisticated cosmopolitanism informed his sexual identity as a man.

John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States may not seem as “sexual” as Morris but if we look more closely we can see that sex also operated in his masculine self. Recently his biographer has claimed that Jay has largely been under-recognized because of his lack of scandal and other controversy. Jay’s conservative and Christian moral framework informed his masculine identity by its very absence of perceived sexual immorality. His married, monogamous sexuality must in itself, however, be seen as behavior that informed his sexual identity.

In similar ways, sex could inform the images and identities for all men in early America. Sex mattered for the two most important aspects of a man’s life in the eighteenth century, his status as head of household or marriage and his calling. It’s perhaps easier to see how marriage and family are informed by sex and sexuality. Sexual performance within a marriage could inform masculine identity, adultery and other violations could threaten marital status, virility or impotence could reflect on a man’s capabilities and all could be linked to character or moral fiber in addition to physical manliness.

Perhaps less obvious is how sex informed masculine identity in the arguably desexualized worlds outside of family and marriage, including commerce, work, and public relations among men. But here too I find that sex figured in the bonds of fraternal brotherhood. Sex gossip, for example, tied the community of men together in ways that established in-group and out-group. And it should come as no surprise that sexual reputation infused broader reputation and affected credit relations, commercial ties, and other relations.

Perhaps one of the greatest failings for men was not actually breaking conventions or norms of monogamous heterosexuality but being the derided subject of sex talk. Many men, of course, bonded over their very ability to engage in sex outside of marriage or rape and sexual assault of servants and slaves. Trouble arose for men when they had failed to create or maintain the personal ties that successfully kept such transgressions from the public – or from one’s enemies or competitors who might use adultery or cuckoldry or impotence as a weapon to underscore broader failings of character or strength and mastery. Such activities might only count against a man in the face of other transgressions. Once triggered, an assault against a man’s character could then involve all deviant behaviors. Not securing bonds of brotherhood or of mastery over dependents that would normally ensure silence was arguably itself the transgressor’s greatest failing.

Sex was a key component of manliness and masculine identity in colonial America. It both reflected and refracted other realities of life in early America, including religion, ethnicity, race, status, and gender. In some way, masculinity asserts itself as desexualized – in part to distance itself from femininity -- but our gender analysis should both recognize that oppositional relationship and push past the rhetoric to see how sex was indeed a key ingredient in men’s lives in early America.