Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Puritans and Sex

Sex was essential to the Puritan’s notion of a healthy marriage.  Refusal to engage in sexual relations with one’s spouse could lead to a disciplinary hearing at the local church or judicial prosecution. James Mattock was excommunicated by the Boston congregation in 1640 for having, among other things, “denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife for the space of two years together.” John Williams of Plymouth Colony was summoned to court for “refusing to perform marriage duty towards (his wife) according to the law of God and man.”

The Puritans believed that both sexes should experience “delight” during sexual intercourse. According to the medical and marital advice literature of the time, procreation could not occur without female orgasm, which required that the woman become sexually aroused.  A popular marital guide of the time admonished men that,  “When the husband cometh into the wife’s chamber he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behavior, and allurements to venery.” New England courts upheld the view that women had a right to expect “content and satisfaction” in bed; he who failed to provide it was judged “deficient in performing the duty of a husband.” Colonial Americans generally wore their shirts and shifts or more during sex. Full nudity was uncommon until much after the colonial period.

In New England, where the Puritans had defined marriage as a civil contract, secular law had provided for divorce as early as the seventeenth century.  Marriages could be ended if either party failed to meet the obligations of the contract.  Adultery, impotence, desertion, or conviction for serious crimes were all grounds for divorce.  Additionally, wives could obtain a divorce on the grounds of non-support.

Male inability to provide sexual satisfaction initially constituted grounds for divorce in New England. New Haven’s divorce statute described marital sex as “due benevolence.” It allowed a wife to divorce her husband if he proved unable “to perform or afford the same,” regardless of whether she was “fit to bear children.” A man who proved incapable of providing “that corporal communion which is reciprocally due between husband and wife” was considered nothing more than a “pretended husband.” Abstention from marital sex, wrote Edward Taylor, “denies all relief in wedlock unto human necessity” and would tempt those who lacked “the gift of continency” to engage in illicit unions. Conjugal intercourse, then, constituted a bulwark against sexual sin and chaos.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.

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