Monday, February 27, 2017

Booknotes: Sex and the Civil War

New Arrival:
Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality
by Judith Giesberg (UNC Press, 2017).

What was the first thing I did after unwrapping this package? Well, the stock answer is that I carefully perused the notes and bibliography, but the truth is I looked at the pictures. And you did, too, because it's research after all. Indeed, Civil War soldiers were interested in viewing more than ladies's wrists and ankles. A lot more. "Civil War soldiers enjoyed unprecedented access to obscene materials of all sorts, including mass-produced erotic fiction, cartes de visite, playing cards, and stereographs. A perfect storm of antebellum legal, technological, and commercial developments, coupled with the concentration of men fed into armies, created a demand for, and a deluge of, pornography in the military camps."

Of course, this is an academic study and not a cruise through a dirty picture book, and author Judith Giesberg is much more interested in the larger cultural connections. In the introduction, the author discusses her goal of exploring the topic of pornography and sex through the lens of modern gender studies, making her work wholly distinctive from more popular history oriented (by her estimation) books like Thomas Lowry's The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell. "Though few examples survived the war, [pornographic] materials raised sharp concerns among reformers and lawmakers, who launched campaigns to combat it. By the war's end, a victorious, resurgent American nation-state sought to assert its moral authority by redefining human relations of the most intimate sort, including the regulation of sex and reproduction—most evident in the Comstock laws, a federal law and a series of state measures outlawing pornography, contraception, and abortion."

According to the description, Sex and the Civil War is "first serious study of the erotica and pornography that nineteenth-century American soldiers read and shared and links them to the postwar reaction to pornography and to debates about the future of sex and marriage."


  1. Anthony Comstock, originator of the Comstock laws, served in the Union Army. It would be interesting to know if his attacks on supposed obscenity were inspired by wartime pornography.
    Will Hickox

    1. I think she does try to make that connection. There are only four chapters and one is devoted to Comstock.


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