Law, Sexuality, and Community: Legal and Popular Understandings of "Illicit" Sex in Nineteenth-Century America

AHA Session 160
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Rachel Hope Cleves, University of Victoria
Sharon E. Wood, University of Nebraska-Omaha

Session Abstract

This panel brings together a group of scholars whose research explores intersections of law, sexuality, and community in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America.  Through careful readings of trial records and print sources, the three papers illuminate legal and popular understandings of “illicit” sex from a variety of contexts, including adultery, prostitution, and intimacy between unmarried young people.  Building and extending upon recent scholarship on sexuality, this panel indicates that the rhetoric and reality of sexual relations shaped the “public” world of law and politics just as legal orders influenced the “private” dimensions of sexual life.   A legal-centered approach to the study of sexuality and community also demonstrates that the intimate worldviews of nineteenth-century Americans were far more fluid and elastic than popular notions of a staid and static “Victorianism” would suggest.  

Melissa Hayes explores how and why rural Illinois relatives and neighbors intervened in troubled sexual relationships during the second half of the nineteenth century.  Drawing on a variety of sexual suits, Hayes demonstrates that unmarried young women frequently garnered support for nonmarital intimate actions from their kin and communities despite having violated contemporary standards of feminine respectability.  Hayes suggests that this treatment of women who defied gendered sexual norms is an indication of the lasting influence of sexual concepts generally linked by scholars to the late eighteenth-century United States, including condonation of sex between betrothed couples and ideas regarding the harmlessness of out-of-wedlock sexual experiences. With Elizabeth Parish Smith’s, “‘A Promiscuous Encounter’: Prostitution in Public View, New Orleans, 1865-77,” we see the very public dimensions of that community’s sex industry.  Probing the messy boundaries between public and intimate life in postbellum New Orleans, Smith argues that prostitutes’ legal and extralegal goings-on “challenged assumptions about the desirability of privacy in a community existing precariously on the margins of the law.”  Finally, Kimberley Reilly traces transformations in marital sexual standards through the lens of enticement, alienation of affections, and criminal conversation suits.  Such a frame of reference allows her to illuminate how the world of law—not simply the efforts of social purity activists—helped fracture, though not eradicate, social acceptance of the male sexual double-standard during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

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