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Research and edited, Jim Allison

Sexuality in the Family Life Cycle

Despite initial regional variations, the family quickly became the central economic unit in every American colony. As in other preindustrial societies, the family both produced and consumed almost all goods and services. Reproduction and production went hand in hand, for family survival in an agricultural economy depended on the labor of children, both in the fields and in the household. Moreover, English inheritance practices supported parental authority, for fathers bequeathed to their sons the land that was necessary for establishing new families. For all of these reasons, colonial laws and customs strongly supported family formation. New England colonies forbade "solitary living" in order to insure that everyone resided within a family, either their own or, as in the case of servants and apprentices, in another household. Even in colonies without such laws, economic survival demanded family living. Thus the life of the individual was integrally connected with that of the family. To understand the meaning and practice of sexuality in colonial America, then, we look first at the life cycle of the individual within the family, beginning with attempts to socialize children to channel sexual desire toward marriage, and turning next to the experiences of courtship, marriage, and childbearing.

A young person growing up in colonial America learned about sexuality from two primary sources: observation within the family and moral instruction from parent and church. A small minority of colonists were also exposed to medical advice literature published in London and reprinted in America during the eighteenth century. Although these various sources of information might conflict on specific points, overall they transmitted the expectation that sexuality within marriage, aimed toward reproduction, would become a part of normal adult life.

Childhood observation of sexual activity is common in agricultural societies, and all regions remained agricultural throughout the colonial period. "Procreation was everywhere, in the barnyard as well as in the house," one historian has written of seventeenth-century New England.' Colonial laws against bestiality, and scattered prosecutions for buggery with farm animals, attest to one influence of the barnyard. In Connecticut, for example, a man confessed to having had sexual relations with a variety of animals since the age of ten; Massachusetts executed several teenage boys for buggery. Sexual relations with animals required harsh punishment, for colonists believed that these unions could have reproductive consequences. The mating of humans and animals, they feared, would produce monstrous offspring. For this reason, colonists insisted on punishing not only the man but also the beast, who might bear such monsters. Thus William Hacketts, "found in buggery with a cow, upon the Lord's day," had to witness the execution of the cow before his own hanging took place. Sixteen-year-old Thomas Grazer of Plymouth confessed to buggery "with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey." The court ordered a lineup of sheep at which Grazer identified his sexual partners, who were "killed before his face," and then "he himself was executed."' Although executions were rare, sexual observation or experimentation with animals was no doubt as widespread in colonial America as in other agricultural societies.

Children also learned about sex in the home. The small size of colonial dwellings allowed children quite early in their lives to hear or see sexual activity among adults. Although curtains might isolate the parental bed, all family members commonly slept in the same room, especially during winters, when a single fireplace provided the heat. Thus a four-year-old girl reported to a servant that she saw a man "lay on the bed with her mamma," and heard him instruct the mother to "lay up higher." Furthermore, the practice of sharing beds exposed some young people to adult sexuality. In one home, three adults and a child were sleeping together when one of the men unbuttoned his breeches and had "carnal knowledge" with a female bedmate. One woman got into bed with her children, and when a man joined them, her daughter recalled, the mother instructed the children to "lie further or else shee would kick us out of bed." Even couples who sought greater privacy had difficulty finding it, for loosely constructed houses allowed neighbors and kin to observe what happened behind closed doors.' SOURCE: Intimate Matters A History of Sexuality in America. John D"emilio and Estelle B. FreedmanPerennial Library Harper and Eow Publishers (1989) pp 16 - 17



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