What if TV producers actually talked to real historians?





Last week, Intellectual Affairs gave the recent cable TV miniseries “Sex: The Revolution” a nod of recognition, however qualified, for its possible educational value. The idea that sex has a history is not, as such, self-evident. The series covers the changes in attitudes and norms between roughly 1950 and 1990 through interviews and archival footage. Most of this flies past at a breakneck speed, alas. The past becomes a hostage of the audience’s presumably diminished attention span.

Then again, why be ungrateful? Watching the series, I kept thinking of a friend who teaches history at Sisyphus University, a not-very-distinguished institution in the American heartland. For every student in his classroom who seems promising, there are dozens who barely qualify as sentient. (It sounds like Professor X, whose article “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” appears in the latest issue of The Atlantic, teaches in the English department there.) Anything, absolutely anything, that might help stimulate curiosity about the past would be a godsend for the history faculty at Sisyphus U.

With that consideration in mind, you tend to watch “Sex: The Revolution” with a certain indulgence — as entertainment with benefits, so to speak. Unfortunately, the makers stopped short. They neglected to interview scholars who might have provided more insight than a viewer might glean from soundbites by demi-celebrities. ...

A belief that people in the old days must have been repressed is taken for granted. Was this a good thing or not? Phyllis Schlafly and reasonable people may disagree; but the idea itself is common coin of public discourse.

But suppose a television network made a different sort of program — one incorporating parts of what one might learn from reading the scholarship on the history of sex. What sense of the past might then emerge?

We might as well start with the Puritans. Everybody knows how up-tight they were — hostile to sex, scared of it, prone to thinking of it as one of the Devil’s wiles. The very word “Puritan” now suggests an inability to regard pleasure as a good thing.

A case in point being Michael Wigglesworth — early Harvard graduate, Puritan cleric, and author of the first American best-seller, The Day of Doom (1642), an exciting poem about the apocalypse. Reverend Wigglesworth found the laughter of children to be unbearable. He said it made him think of the agonies of the damned in hell.You can just imagine how he would respond to the sound of moaning. Somehow it is not altogether surprising to learn that the Rev’s journal contains encrypted entries mentioning the “filthy lust” he felt while tutoring male students.

In short, a typical Puritan — right? Well, not according to Edmund Morgan, the prominent early-Americanist, whose many contributions to scholarship over the years included cracking the Wigglesworth code. (He is now professor emeritus of history at Yale.)

Far from being typical, Wigglesworth, it seems, was pretty high-strung even by the standards of the day. In a classic paper called “The Puritans and Sex,” published in 1942, Morgan assessed the evidence about how ordinary believers regarded the libido in early New England. He found that, clichés notwithstanding, the Puritans tended to be rather matter-of-fact about it.

Sermons and casual references in letters and diaries reveal that the Puritans took sexual pleasure for granted and even celebrated it — so long, at least, as it was enjoyed within holy wedlock. Of course, the early colonies attracted many people of both sexes who were either too young to marry or in such tight economic circumstances that it was not practical. This naturally meant a fair bit of random carrying on, even in those un-Craigslist-ed days. All such activity was displeasing unto the Lord, not to mention His earthly enforcers; but the court records show none of the squeamishness about that one might expect, given the Puritans’ reputation. Transgressions were punished, but the hungers of the flesh were taken for granted....


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