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Swinging with the pilgrims

Published Nov. 27, 2002|Updated Sep. 4, 2005


Far from the dour-faced scolds we have immortalized in history texts, the inhabitants of the early American colonies favored brightly colored clothes (except on Sundays), consumed three times as much alcohol per capita as modern Americans (they even distilled onions and squash) and bowled (did they play in weekly "Ale Leagues"?).

But of all the mistaken views of the Puritans, the notion that they were sexless penitents is perhaps the most undeserved. Herewith, further insight into the Puritan libido:

1. Puritans viewed sex inside marriage not as a procreational obligation but as a fundamental right. Husband and wife owed each other the "pang of pleasure." The laws of New Haven, Conn., permitted a wife to divorce an impotent or underperforming husband. James Matlock, a cooper, was accused of denying "conjugal fellowship" to his wife for two years and was excommunicated from his church.

2. Puritan ministers were fond of sexual imagery in their sermons. The most common metaphor for Christ was the "bridegroom" who would "impregnate" his believers. Church services were referred to as the "marriage bed."

3. Teenagers weren't just singing Turkey in the Straw on the hay wagon rides. Estimates of the number of brides who arrived at the altar pregnant range from 30 to 60 percent. Many citizens of the 17th century believed that sex before marriage was not wrong so long as the engagement had been formally announced.

4. Schoolbooks often refer to the "bundling board" _ a plank that separated men and women in the same bed _ as an early American form of birth control. But the same books offer scant details on the practice of bundling without the board, in which colonial parents permitted their daughter and her suitor to share a bed. The overnight accommodation was part compensation for a full day's work, but it also served to limit the guesswork in determining the paternity of a child that would otherwise have been conceived in some neighbor's barn.

5. Sexual deviance, adultery and bestiality were punishable by death. In this regard, history has not overstated the Puritans' official attitudes about sexual transgression. Less well known is the abundant tolerance many felt toward the private sexual habits of their neighbors. Nicholas Sension of Windsor was charged with sodomy in 1677, and though his neighbors knew of his "sodomitical actings" for 30 years, they had no interest in bearing witness against him. The charge was reduced to attempted sodomy.

Sources: Sexual Revolution in Early America by Richard Godbeer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); New York Review of Books article by Edmund S. Morgan of Godbeer's Sexual Revolution, June 2002; interview in 1999 with American History professor Carol Berkin on; "Puritans to Prohibition" at: FunFacts/.

_ BILL DURYEA, Times staff writer


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