Privileges of Sex: Legal and Cultural Challenges to the Sexual Double Standard, 1870–1920

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 12:10 PM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Kimberley A. Reilly, University of Baltimore

This paper examines the emergence of the single standard of sexual morality as the dominant ideal (if not practice) of middle-class Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The influence of the social purity and social hygiene movements in promulgating this standard is well established.  Less known to historians, however, was a simultaneous recognition by appellate courts of wives’ legal right to the sexual fidelity of husbands, as married women gained access to suits for enticement, alienation of affections, and criminal conversation.  The work of purity reformers, hygienists, and jurists thus articulated a shared vision of marriage in which sexual intimacy and fidelity were at the core of the union between husband and wife; however, they conceptualized that intimacy in distinctly different terms.  Where anti-prostitution activists understood monogamous marital passion as occupying a private, sacred realm, high courts cast sexual fidelity as a public, legal entitlement of both spouses that emerged from the marriage contract.  By comparing these competing visions of marital intimacy, this paper sheds new light on transformations in the marital ideal in this era.  In a moment when the institution of marriage and “relations between the sexes” appeared in crisis, this paper contends that intimate emotion and sexuality came to bear new weight, socially and legally, in ensuring the married pair’s adherence.  Yet the ideal of emotional parity between husband and wife by no means transformed marriage into a partnership of equals.  Even as these reformist and juridical visions of ideal marriage empowered wives, they nonetheless preserved and strengthened husbandly prerogatives.

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