Reading About Sex

The book I’m reading is Under Household Government: Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts by M. Michelle Jarrett Morris. M. Morris describes her book in this way, “this is a story about families and family life in late seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The families in [this book] were bound together by . . . [family] members who stood accused of sexual misbehavior. And so, this is also a story about sex.” Sex, in this context then, refers to sexual crimes as recorded in case files stretching from 1660 to 1700 from Massachusetts Bay. Sex subsumes fornication (sex with an unmarried woman), premarital fornication (sex between two unmarried people who subsequently marry), impotency, bigamy, rape, and infanticide.

If you at this point feel baited with scintillating sex and then switched for a book about Puritans and dusty legal proceedings (published by Harvard University Press no less!), then let me assure you that there are plenty of details, if not quite scintillating, then fascinating to be found in this book. For instance,

  • Did you know that “because [Puritan] medical theory held that conception required both men and women to reach orgasm, early modern people generally believed that conception required consent”? This means that if a woman is pregnant, then she cannot believably claim that she was raped. Methinks some of this sentiment remain in contemporary American society today, as famously exemplified in the “legitimate rape” comment made by a political candidate in the last election. Me also think it’s strange that no Puritan matron with a brood of children ever contradicted this medical belief.
  • Did you know that Puritan “law gave great weight to the testimony of a woman in labor”? “Because lawmakers assumed that a woman in labor, and therefore in great pain and in danger of dying, would not lie, whomever that woman named during labor would become the reputed father of the child about to be born” says M. Morris. This seems sensible enough in the days before Epidural, safe deliveries, or paternity tests. As my Law and Order watching informs me, this practice of relying on the testimony of somebody in great duress, as a Puritan woman in the height of her labor would be, is still with us today. For example, there is an exception to the hearsay rule which says that a statement as testified to by a person to whom it is told is not considered hearsay and excluded as evidence if the statement were “uttered spontaneously and under duress”.
  • What would you guess is the age at which a Puritan is able to consent to sex? Let me (or rather M. Michelle Jarrett Morris) tell you a little story: “On June 20 of 1682, Sarah accused Garey, a thirty-one year-old married man, of being the father of her bastard child. She was eleven years old. Since the age of consent was ten in Massachusetts Bay, Stephen Garey, presumably, missed being charged with statutory rape by only a few months”. Sarah’s life seems picture-perfect for the term “nasty, short, and brutish” as she eventually died two months before turning sixteen, after bearing two more children presumably by Garey as well, and being imprisoned and whipped for fornication.

Do check out Morris’s book. A fascinating read!

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