How much sex should a person have? With whom? What do we make of
people who choose not to have sex at all? As present as these
questions are today, they were subjects of intense debate in the
early American republic. In this richly textured history, Kara
French investigates ideas about, and practices of, sexual restraint
to better understand the sexual dimensions of American identity in
the antebellum United States. French considers three groups of
Americans—Shakers, Catholic priests and nuns, and followers of
sexual reformer Sylvester Graham—whose sexual abstinence provoked
almost as much social, moral, and political concern as the idea of
sexual excess. Examining private diaries and letters, visual
culture and material artifacts, and a range of published works,
French reveals how people practicing sexual restraint became
objects of fascination, ridicule, and even violence in
nineteenth-century American culture.
Against Sex makes clear that in assessing the history of sexuality, an expansive view of sexual practice that includes abstinence and restraint can shed important new light on histories of society, culture, and politics.