Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh

Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-century America

Book - 2015
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Nineteenth-century America saw numerous campaigns against masturbation, which was said to cause illness, insanity, and even death. Riotous Flesh explores women’s leadership of those movements, with a specific focus on their rhetorical, social, and political effects, showing how a desire to transform the politics of sex created unexpected alliances between groups that otherwise had very different goals.

As April R. Haynes shows, the crusade against female masturbation was rooted in a generally shared agreement on some major points: that girls and women were as susceptible to masturbation as boys and men; that “self-abuse” was rooted in a lack of sexual information; and that sex education could empower women and girls to master their own bodies. Yet the groups who made this education their goal ranged widely, from “ultra” utopians and nascent feminists to black abolitionists. Riotous Flesh explains how and why diverse women came together to popularize, then institutionalize, the condemnation of masturbation, well before the advent of sexology or the professionalization of medicine.

The claim that masturbation isn’t good for you didn’t just come out of nowhere. As April Haynes shows, a range of feminist reformers in nineteenth century America all agreed that the solitary vice caused untold suffering and death; that women and girls masturbated as frequently as did men and boys; that they did so because they lacked access to sexual information; and that therefore, female sex education would save lives. Haynes, in short shows that nascent feminists remade what might have been a puritanical crusade into a basis for envisioning their own sexual self-masterywith mixed results, for Haynes also tells the story of how, before the advent of sexology or even the professionalization of medicine, a great silent army” of evangelical female reformers first popularized, then institutionalized, the normative sexual discourse of the nineteenth century.

Publisher: Chicago :, University of Chicago Press,, 2015
Copyright Date: © 2015
ISBN: 9780226284590
Characteristics: vii, 242 pages : black and white illustrations ; 23 cm


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