How Big a Scale Should the History of Sexuality Cover? Cases of Sexual Slander in America’s Early Republic

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Kent W. Peacock, Florida State University
Is the history of sexuality just about human sexual behaviors and desires? Is proof of a sexual act or desire required, or can we expand the scale of the field to ask questions about what knowledge of sexual desires and acts was available for historical actors? This paper poses these questions by examining court cases about sexual slander from county, circuit, territorial, and state courts that involved accusations of men performing sexual acts with animals in the Trans-Appalachian West between 1783 and 1825. While defendants had the chance to prove the plaintiff had performed the sexual act, these cases were more about the sexual knowledge Euro-Americans held and how sexuality was a part of defining manhood and reputation across a wide space of rural areas, from Ohio to Mississippi, than whether men actually enjoyed sexual pleasure with animals. In an era where histories of sexuality are primarily about the mind, with topics like romantic friendships, companionship marriages, and sentimentality, these cases are striking for their emphasis on bodies and raw physicality of sex. And while the cases may appear shocking to us today, they are remarkably ordinary when compared to other sexual slander cases. Scholars have rarely looked at these cases and while they were far from the most common cases courts in the region heard, their existence aides us in gaining a greater comprehension of how Euro-Americans in this early period of the American nation struggled to understand, order, and use the state to discipline human’s sexual behavior.
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