CollegeHumor posted a set of fake Puritan-themed Valentine’s Day cards. They’re a humorous way of reminding us that our intensive focus on romantic love as a driving force for sex and marriage is, in fact, quite new.
When the Puritans landed on the rocky east coast of America in the 1600s, they brought with them the belief that sex should be restricted to intercourse in marriage, hence the sentiment on the left. All non-marital and non-reproductive sexual activities were forbidden, including pre- and extra-marital sex, homosexual sex, masturbation, and oral or anal sex (even if married). Violations of the rules were punished by fines, whipping, public shaming (yes, with “scarlet letters”), ostracism, or even death.
Alongside religion, there were practical reasons why the Puritans were so darn puritanical. Colonizing the U.S. was a dangerous job; lots of people were dying from exposure, starvation, illness, and war. Babies replenished the labor supply, motivating the Puritans to channel the sex drive towards the one sexual activity that made babies: intercourse. Accordingly, having intercourse with your spouse wasn’t only allowed, it was essential; women could divorce men who had proven impotent.
The Puritans also married primarily to form practical partnerships for bearing children and mutual survival, hence the sentiment in the card on the right.
The idea that love should be the basis for marriage didn’t take hold until the Victorian era, when industrialization was changing the value of children. Useful on the farm, children were suddenly became a burden in expensive and overcrowded lodgings. This gave couples a new reason to limit the number of children they had and, because industrial production had made condoms increasingly cheap and effective, they could. Marital fertility rates dropped precipitously between 1800 and 1900: from 6+ children/woman to 3 1/2 in the U.S., England, and Wales.
In this context, a Puritan sexual ethic that restricted sex to efforts to make babies just didn’t make sense. People needed a new logic to guide sexual activity: the answer was love. Over the course of the 1800s, Victorians slowly abandoned the Puritan idea that sex was only for reproduction, embracing instead the now familiar idea that sex could be an expression of love and a source of pleasure, an idea that still resonates strongly today.
That’s at least part of the story anyway.
Bremer, Francis J., and Tom Webster. 2006. Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia. SantaBarbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
D’Emilio, John & Estelle Freedman. 1997. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freedman, Estelle. 1982. Sexuality in Nineteenth Century America: Behavior, Ideology, and Politics. Reviews in American History 10, 4: 196-215.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.