April R. Haynes is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book, Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America, was co-winner of the James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize.
The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you provide a synopsis?
April R. Haynes (AH): Riotous Flesh tells a new story about how proscriptions against the “solitary vice” of masturbation became a dominant sexual discourse in the northern United States between 1830 and 1860. Prior historians have analyzed antimasturbation discourse as a means of instilling white men with the restraint required of republican citizens and middle-class economic actors. I argue instead that white female moral reformers and black abolitionist women led the campaign against the solitary vice as part of their larger quests to dismantle the sexual double standard and racialized ideals of femininity.
Women became interested in the solitary vice because crowds of men and boys rioted outside of lecture halls wherever they gathered to listen to Sylvester Graham speak about sexual physiology. Graham gave women the same advice he offered to men, and some of the women’s lectures were racially integrated. The crowds who tried to shut them down overlapped in significant ways with those who participated in both brothel riots and proslavery riots during the 1830s.
In 1837, moral reformers and abolitionists created the Ladies’ Physiology Society of Boston and began to sponsor lectures on sexual physiology by and for women. Members traveled to small-town female moral reform societies, where they persuaded thousands of women that all bodies—male and female, black and white—were subject to a universal set of God-given laws of life and health. The dominant sexual discourse revolved around binary concepts of race and gender, despite the very real presence of people living beyond those binaries in the antebellum North. Reformers strove to erase the sexual line that purportedly separated these poles. They insisted that each individual possessed both the physiological capacity for desire and the moral imperative to restrain it.
The sexual universalism of evangelical physiology contradicted the twin stereotypes of passionless white “ladies” and licentious black “Jezebels” that rationalized so many aspects of white patriarchy. It sparked an interracial moment in moral reform between 1835 and 1840. Black activists such as Sarah Mapps Douglass, Lavinia Hilton, and Nancy Prince urged white women to stop conflating passivity with innocence and act as politically, morally, and sexually accountable beings—particularly by joining the abolitionist movement. Some white reformers, notably the Grimké sisters, Sarah Townsend Smith, and Paulina Wright Davis, embraced active virtue and spurned passive purity. This distinction became fundamental to the nascent women’s rights movement and blossomed into a call for “sovereignty of self.” But other white moral reformers clung to the doctrine of passionless, with its promise of moral superiority. The female moral reform movement fractured over race and sex in the early 1840s.
When moral reform women were the main popularizers of antimasturbation discourse, few Americans took heed. But as the movement splintered, more and more white women turned inward and focused on their own sexual redemption. The word spread from a small, interracial corps of “ultra” reformers to the predominantly white mass culture. In the process, warnings against the solitary vice became a kind of screen behind which white, middle-class women could discuss a broad range of sexual issues without risking their protections and privileges.
Urban entrepreneurs sold tickets to secular anatomy and physiology lectures by appealing to married women’s longing for reproductive control and sexual satisfaction. It became possible to justify graphic public depictions of “amativeness” (heterosexual desire) by warning against the solitary vice. The amative orgasm in women was increasingly considered natural and healthy—yet all agreed that the masturbatory “paroxysm” caused debility, insanity, and death. The solitary vice made heterosexual desire into a social virtue.
The popular physiology lectures of the 1840s also incorporated scientific racism in the form of comparative anatomy. Lecturers and writers represented white women’s amativeness as essentially moderate, black women’s bodies as tending naturally toward “excess.” The sexual universalism promoted by earlier activists faded from memory. Black women and men responded by creating separate institutions that could empower younger people in their communities to develop their own politics of embodiment. The last chapter of the book details Sarah Mapps Douglass’ education of young black girls for anatomical literacy and sexual health. She counseled them toward amativeness, reproductive autonomy, and self-love—but away from the solitary vice.
The marketing of solitary vice discourse dovetailed with its institutionalization in medical practice, asylum administration, and public schools during the 1850s. As medical feminists and educational reformers, women once again led the charge. But over the next two decades, the focus of antimasturbation discourse shifted away from adults of all genders and toward male youth. The “spermatorrhea” diagnosed by mid-nineteenth century American physicians echoed the masculine “onanism” scare of mid-eighteenth century England. Because of women’s agency, Americans paid more widespread attention to such warnings than they had prior to 1830. But the counterdiscursive possibilities that had inspired women to crusade against the gender-neutral solitary vice had disappeared.
TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?
AH: While doing dissertation research, I stumbled across evidence of the riots at Graham’s “Lecture to Mothers.” I had heard of his Lecture to Young Men on Chastity, but not of the lecture to women only. At the time, I had no interest in writing about moral reformers. I was interested in sex radicals, and I thought female moral reformers represented the most boring aspects of nineteenth-century sexual culture. But the riots really surprised me. Why would men riot to prevent women from hearing a lecture that counseled chastity? What was so threatening about the possibility that women were learning not to masturbate?
When I began following newspaper coverage of the physiology riots between 1833 and 1837, it became clear that women in multiple cities persisted in organizing those lectures and physically resisted the rioters because they recognized that it wasn’t Graham who was being targeted but themselves. Anti-Graham editors argued that the lectures exposed innocent wives and daughters to indecent words and images, but the women in each city invariably denied that the men in the crowd were their husbands and fathers. Rather, they said that the ringleaders were editors of racy papers, actors at scandalous theaters, and brothel proprietors. To test these claims, I began tracking down some of those editors and the men named by reformers as having “gotten up” a particularly violent 1834 riot. I discovered that the female moral reformers were basically right about the composition of the crowds and the motivations of their enemies. The editors who defended the riots overtly stated that white men deserved sexual privileges over and above white women and people of color. They claimed that the lectures promoted “amalgamation” (interracial intimacy), deprived white women of their “freedom from debasing passion,” and threatened to make men into genderless “monsters.”
So the reform women had a point. This was the last thing I expected to find, so profoundly opposed to the whole moral reform project was I. That tension created a puzzle that I wanted to pursue. How could these smart, activist women have been so right about their enemies and also (in my view) so very wrong in the sexual discourse they ultimately produced?
TR: Americans typically think of this period as prudish and private when it came to sexuality. Is that a misconception?
AH: Yes and no. It is a misconception that sexuality has ever been a strictly private matter in the United States. However, there have definitely been moments of extreme pressure to conform to a specific sexual standard, usually one correlated with purity and righteousness—pressure to perform prudery, as it were. What I tried to do in Riotous Flesh was to trace the process by which one such norm came to be accepted by so many people, at least superficially. Writers across the entire spectrum of political, intellectual, and religious beliefs pronounced that masturbation killed tens of thousands of people each year. These were people who could agree about absolutely nothing else! Even the editors who had sparked the riots against women’s physiology lectures eventually declared their opposition to the solitary vice (they told male readers that it would be better to pay for sex with any woman than to masturbate). In order to manufacture consent on such a scale, publicity was absolutely necessary.
That said, one of the great ironies in the construction of modern heterosexuality has been a consistent refrain that “prudery” must be overcome in order to purge society of its “perversions.” Marriage manuals of the early twentieth century educated readers about how to have “wholesome” sex while denouncing prudish women as frigid. Similarly, moral reformers of the early nineteenth century railed against “false delicacy,” which killed women silently by keeping them addicted to the solitary vice. Women masturbated because they simply had not been taught the dangers of masturbation, reformers said, which was why popular science lectures and medical institutions must teach them.
TR: Did white women and African American women differ in their views on masturbation?
AH: In the 1830s, both groups saw antimasturbation physiology as having the potential to challenge strictures of passionlessness. White moral reformers saw how their opponents manipulated passionlessness to claim that white women need to be protected from sexual information, by violence if necessary. Black abolitionist women in New York City saw an opportunity in the moral reformers’ declaration of war against “licentiousness in all its forms” to urge white women to come out against the “licentiousness of slavery.” They also wanted white women to face the sexual aspects of northern white supremacy, such as the sexual harassment of black domestic workers in white homes. While forging this delicate and temporary alliance, they attended physiology lectures and moral reform meetings and learned to deploy the language of solitary vice to their own ends. If white women who appeared “pure” could secretly be sexually vicious, then the whole racialized virgin/whore dichotomy could be turned on its head. In order to demolish the Jezebel stereotype, the assumption that white women were naturally passionless had to be obliterated—the two ideologies must stand or fall together.
But as growing numbers of white moral reform women became obsessed ridding themselves and their families of the solitary vice, many stopped hearing the deeper call for accountability and activism. They reverted back to a claim of moral superiority, now based on cultivated virtue rather than essential purity. Black abolitionist women, in turn, moved on to other projects. That isn’t to say that they stopped believing that masturbation was physically harmful—Sarah Mapps Douglass told her students that it was—but as a counterdiscourse, the solitary vice lost its utility earlier for them than for white women. It had always been only one of many layers of African American sexual counterdiscourse, anyway. I can only imagine how distressing it must have been for black abolitionist women to watch that particular strand of sexual thought gain such traction while racist ideas about gender and sexuality remained deeply entrenched.
TR: What is your current/next project?
AH: While working on this project, I became very interested in the dynamics between moral reformers, abolitionists and the women they purported to rescue. They used the sexualized word “traffic” to describe both prostitution and slavery. The solution, according to diverse reformers, was to channel formerly trafficked women into waged domestic labor. Doing so often meant geographic displacement, family separation, and public inspection of workers’ bodies—in a way, an authorized form of trafficking. So I have another puzzle regarding intentions and outcomes to work out. I’m currently researching the ways in which some women began marketing the feminized labor of others during a pivotal era in the history of American capitalism, 1789 to 1860.