Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Third Edition)
John D'Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman
(University of Chicago Press)
US: Dec 2012
The problem with reading any book intended for an academic audience is that more often than not you are going to run into the one thing that prevents such books from reaching out to a wider audience: they adopt the jargon of academia.
While a heightened language may certainly be needed for certain authors to properly communicate ideas of a more intellectual nature, it’s rare that tomes of this kind have a life outside of an academic context. This, coupled with oft-inflated prices that are more closely associated with textbooks, over something you can get at your run-of-the-mill bookstore (or Kindle/Nook/whathaveyou), can create not just a limited audience for the intended ideas at hand, but whittle its potential readership down to absolute niche sizes.
Thus, there’s a reason why we are here today talking about John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman’s Third Edition of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America: it’s a book that conveys a multitude of ideas in a way that’s simple to understand, easy to comprehend, and sometimes downright conversational in tone. Early editions of this book have been heavily cited by academics and lawmakers alike, and the latest version does not disappoint: breathlessly researched, endlessly intriguing, and astonishingly accessible, it’s hard to think of a more engaging academic read than what D’Emilio and Freedman have been able to do here.
The book’s opening paragraph, quoting Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, notes how the perception of sexuality through the ages is markedly different than what has actually transpired. In the popular consciousness, sexuality in America is viewed as something that started out as strictly regimented and grew more loose and free-flowing as time wore on. What Intimate Matters argues is that this is assuredly not the case: far from it in fact. Early on, the authors separate the Puritan ideologue of sexuality from what actually happened, pulling quotes from newspapers, court documents, and numerous personal journals from regular citizens throughout the ages. Slowly but surely, topic by topic, we begin to see how sexuality has actually transpired from America’s founding to today.
Initially, this may seem like a daunting task, but Intimate Matters is divided into four large sections (each one covering an average of 90 years), and in each of these sections—told in a loose chronological fashion—the authors veer through a plethora of different subjects, never shying away from more controversial areas due in part to the fact that our knowledge of what sexuality is now has informed how we can interpret what we know transpired back then.
Take, for example the popular notion that prior to the ‘50s, homosexuality was viewed as a vile, evil machination that must be snuffed at the very first sight of it. It’s easy to think that a religiously-dominated society would naturally be opposed to any sort of same-sex canoodling of any sort, but as the authors point out, part of the reason why that stereotype is untrue is because the vocabulary we have to define it now didn’t even exist back then:
‘The overlap of the romantic, erotic, and physical has made it difficult to define [same-sex] relationships, especially in light of the sexual meanings have changed in the twentieth century. The modern terms homosexuality and heterosexuality do not apply to an era that had not yet articulate these distinctions. Only in the late nineteenth century did Europeans and American medical writers apply these categories and stigmatize some same-sex relationships as a form of sexual perversion. Until the 1880s, most romantic friendships were thought to be devoid of sexual content. Thus, a woman or man could write of affectionate desire for a loved one of the same gender without causing an eyebrow to be raised.” [p.121]
While the book spends a lot of time (perhaps a bit too much) detailing the flights of fancy of Walt Whitman, other issues come into play as well in defining what perversion was at the time: men, for example, were more likely to be punished for same-sex relations due to the fact that the bible explicitly decries the wasteful spilling of seed, which meant that women by and large, despite what is commonly thought of, had more sexual fluidity in the late nineteenth century than initially thought.
Yet homosexuality is just one of the many topics that comes under the authors’ detailed research. Racial elements are examined (including the sexual dominance that Anglo-Americans foisted upon the “savage” Native American women they encountered—even if the Spanish, interestingly, felt they had the same moral superiority to do the same), as the political, medical, and financial realms which were effected by America’s ever-evolving view of the sexual world that was growing inside of it. Prostitution, for example, did not become a notorious force until a full Eastern seaboard was established, which the authors note is due to the large number of immigrants that began arriving and began selling their bodies as the only means of financial recourse some had. In some areas, prostitution became so engrained into their culture that it began to be legalized, like how St. Louis did in 1870, requiring prostitutes to pass a weekly venereal disease inspection in order to receive a health certificate (this law, unsurprisingly, was short-lived).
Early sexual advice books later gave way to Freud, Kinsey, and a more dominantly conservative view of sexuality by the start of the 20th century. Before long, America soon began to run into hot topics that still exist today with birth control, the formation of Planned Parenthood, the gradual ascension of popular erotica, cross-dressing in ‘20s nightclubs, the Comstock Act, Hugh Hefner and Playboy, and all the way up to Roe v. Wade and back. Yet while these milestones are given proper time to be analyzed and discussed, part of what makes Intimate Matters so good is how it gives time to issues that are lesser-known throughout history, like how at the peak of the sexual revolution in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, a variety of feminist groups that emerged wound up going to war against each other over the rising profile of homosexuality in society:
“Through the period from 1969 to 1971, women’s organizations across the country were wracked by a ‘gay-straight’ split, as tensions reached the boiling point. ¶ Some lesbians responded to the antagonism of other feminists by leaving mixed organizations. Among the women from the nascent gay liberation movement, they formed lesbian-feminists groups of their own, fashioning in the process both a political agenda and a theory to sustain their efforts. During the early seventies, radicalized lesbians produced a body of writing that sought to reshape the contemporary understand of same-sex relations between women and the larger issue of sexual relations. ‘As the question of homosexuality has become public,’ wrote Charlotte Bunch, a member of the Furies collective in Washington, D.C., ‘reformists define it as a private question of who you sleep with in order to sidetrack our understand of the politics of sex. For the Lesbian-Feminist, it is not private; it is a political matter of oppression, domination, and power.’ Heterosexuality was removed from the ream of the ‘natural,’ and reinterpreted as an ideology and an institution that kept women bound to men and blocked their struggle for full liberation. Seen from this vantage point, lesbianism became a form of political rebellion. ‘The Lesbian rejects male sexual/political domination; she defies his world, his social organization, his ideology, and his definition of her as inferior. Lesbianism puts women first while the society declares the male supreme. Lesbianism,’ bunch continued, ‘threatens male supremacy at its core.’ Pushed to the logical conclusion this outlook implied that ‘feminists must become Lesbians if they hope to end male supremacy.’ [p. 317]
While the book’s take on the ‘90s onward is scant at best (ending right around the time Katy Perry released “I Kissed a Girl”—a relatively weak point to bring up in the grand scheme of things, especially given the slight to Jill Sobule), the only major point that can be leveled against the tome is one of the better criticisms to have for a book of this nature: sometimes it lingers too long on a certain tangent. While extensive examinations of the AIDS movement that swept through America in the ‘80s is welcome (along with a fascinating, multi-tiered view of how sexuality was regulated and considered during the time of slavery in America), too-long detailings of Walt Whitman’sWhitman’s letters or the history of Kinsey’s literature can wear after awhile. Kinsey’s work—controversial as it is—was important for opening up the discussion about sexuality in society, but there are times where it feels like the book uses Kinsey as a reference point a bit too much, almost to the point where it becomes a bit of a crutch once it his post-WWII American sexuality.
Yet when all is said and done, there’s simply so much to marvel at with Intimate Matters that it’s nearly overwhelming. While a book this well-researched by itself would be something to behold, the discourse inside—thoughtful, well-paced, simple to understand even when grappling with larger, more difficult cultural issues—is what makes it truly essential. Sexuality in America is an enormous and complicated topic, but no matter what facet you’re curious about, Intimate Matters should be most readers’ default reference point, as D’Emilio and Freedman have set the bar for quality writing and research on the subject so high that it’s hard to envision anything else topping it—save the Fourth Edition, of course.
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