Debates around the risks of teen sex habits, legalization of sex work or amateur pornography may feel like hallmarks of our modern era. But in her new digital “picture book,” Dorothee E. Kocks, PhD, traces these issues back to the earliest days of American history.
Such Were My Temptations: Bawdy Americans, 1760-1830 investigates what might be called the “first sexual revolution” in the United States- an era in which political rebellion lead to experimental practices in sex, gender and reproduction. Because it was designed to be viewed on an e-reader, Temptations features original video, live links to Kinsey Institute pages and interactive discussions on twitter and facebook.
Kocks leaves no stone unturned in upsetting today’s definition of “Puritanical.” From political sex scandals to polyamorous poetry, New England’s first citizens evidently had plenty in common with today’s Americans. Those who think of the 1760s as an era of widespread chastity should brace themselves for surprise before reading Temptations. With today’s media focus on “teen promiscuity,” it’s easy to get the idea that pre-marital sex has become more steadily permissive over time. Interestingly, Kocks refers to Revolutionary-era towns in New England in which one in three brides arrived at the altar pregnant. Clearly, the ideal of “waiting until marriage” held up for fewer Puritan couples than we might have predicted.
In some ways, the period Kocks explores comes across as more progressive than the contemporary United States. Did you know that…
- one in twenty-five women may have worked as a sex worker in the Revolutionary era- legally?
- women and men were understood to be equal in sexual appetite?
- medical texts considered women’s orgasms to be important steps in conception?
Importantly, the final chapters of Temptations also note the way changing moral standards at the end of the Revolutionary era tightened gender roles and limited sexual exploration. I love Kocks’s interactive discussion question for this section: “Are women today, either by nature or nurture, the guardians of sexual morality?” The stories in Temptations remind us that cultural assumptions about gender change over time- and they don’t always move from stringent-to-tolerant.
Despite this fluidity, stereotypes about women’s sexuality can be amazingly persistent. Kocks identifies the myth of “true womanhood,” popularized between 1820 and 1860, as emphasizing “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.” Today, the American media still send the message that women should hate porn, regret casual sex and demand heterosexual commitment– in other words, women are still perceived as the guardians of sexual morality. Maybe another revolution is in order?
Just as history challenges widespread assumptions about the past, the multimedia presentation of Kocks’s ebook plays with the parameters of literature in this new technological world. Temptations is a fun, fast read with tons of beautiful illustrations– many of them from the Kinsey Institute archives. But what’s most striking isn’t the pictures of pornographic china or plaster dildos. It’s the way the book points out our misconceptions of a sexually repressed national past.
Such Were My Temptations: Bawdy Americans, 1760-1830 is available here for $2.99 for iPad users, and for Kindle Fire and Kindle Apps. Those without a tablet can read it on a computer with the Kindle Cloud Reader. The book is most appropriate for mature audiences due to explicit images.