Atlantic History Sex and Sexuality
by
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0049

Introduction

Encounters around the Atlantic world often involved sex, a fact that fascinated and troubled people at the time as much as it does modern readers. Sexual relationships could serve as tools of social and imperial control, while restrictions on such relationships gave a name to new kinds of racial and gender identities. Historians have explored the frequent conflicts that emerged from these interactions—conflicts between popular beliefs and practices on the one hand and official religious and political discourses on sexuality on the other. Following the pioneering writing of Michel Foucault, historians have become increasingly interested in the question of sexual identity. An older body of scholarship argued that sexuality only became a primary means of identity in the late 19th century, and that the earlier Atlantic period was characterized by fluid sexual identities and behaviors. Recently, however, scholars have refocused on evidence that people in the early modern period did have a sense of sexual identity, including identities that incorporated same-sex desire. The question of whether identities and practices changed over time is a difficult one, not only because historians must decide what to measure, but also because experiences differed so dramatically across boundaries of race, class, and gender. Increasing liberation, present in some of the late 18th-century European notions of sexual pleasure, was balanced by the enduring dangers of what were always hierarchical power relationships in which “consent” or “personal expression” meant little.

General Overviews

Although there is no specific introductory text to sex and sexuality in the Atlantic world, historians have written regional histories, including collections (Lavrin 1992, Muir and Ruggiero 1990, Smith 1998) and surveys (Crawford 2007, Godbeer 2002, Wiesner-Hanks 2000). There is also an important and growing theoretical literature, starting with Foucault 1990, whose ideas about sexual repression and representation are still shaping the field.

  • Crawford, Katherine. European Sexualities, 1400–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Covers the history of sexuality and sexual cultures in early modern Europe, with a particular focus on English and French sources. Chapters discuss the intersection of sexuality with marriage and family, religion, science, crime, and culture, moving between evidence about practices and evidence of ideology.

  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1, An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1990.

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    This highly influential work set the agenda for research on sexuality following its original publication in the late 1970s. Foucault argued that Western societies did not suppress sexuality, but rather created a “science of sexuality” in the 19th century, making it a core part of human identity. Historians have challenged his formulation recently, arguing, for example, that “homosexuality” was a source of identity, not merely specific acts, prior to the 19th century.

  • Godbeer, Richard. Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

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    A synthetic work that draws on extensive archival research as well as the most current secondary literature on sexual practices and attitudes in British North America. Taking a comparative view of colonies from New England to the Caribbean, Godbeer depicts a struggle between elite and folk understandings of sexuality, as well as conflicts over cross-racial and cross-class sexual relationships.

  • Grasso, Christopher, ed. “Special Issue: Sexuality in Early America.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 60.1 (2003): 1–206.

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    Includes a useful overview of the history and historiography of sexuality in America, as well as several important articles covering: the law and interracial sex, homoerotic literature, romance and cultural representations of sexuality, and sexuality and spirituality. Also includes a roundtable discussion of the essays.

  • Lavrin, Asunción, ed. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

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    A collection of essential essays covering topics such as marriage and divorce, witchcraft, honor and illegitimacy, and spousal abuse. Lavrin connects the details of personal life with the extensive efforts of social and religious regulation in the period of the 16th through the 18th centuries.

  • Muir, Edward, and Guido Ruggiero, eds. Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

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    Includes translated essays that examine sexuality in Italy and the Americas in the early modern period, discussing sexually transmitted disease, “monstrous” births, virginity, and honor.

  • Smith, Merril D., ed. Sex and Sexuality in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

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    A collection of essays about the intersection of sexuality with class, race, and gender in the Americas from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The essays, which focus mainly on heterosexual relationships and heterosexuality, address European perceptions of Native American and African American sexuality, the regulation of sexual practices in Anglo-America, sexual conquest of enslaved women in the Caribbean, and images of masculinity and femininity in 18th-century literature.

  • Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulation Desire, Reforming Practice. New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    This textbook surveys the history of sexuality and synthesizes a vast amount of scholarship on sexual practices and ideologies. The author argues that the experience of colonialism, cross-cultural encounters, and expanding Christianity fundamentally changed the way that people experienced and thought about sexuality. Each chapter concludes with a helpful annotated bibliography that makes the book a useful starting place for students.

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