SEX SEEN by Sharon Ullman


The Emergence of Modern Sexuality in America
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 A perceptive analysis of the emergence of modern sexuality in America, in all its anxiety and contradictions. Using films, vaudeville acts, and transcripts from sex-crime and divorce trials, Ullman (History/Bryn Mawr Coll.) portrays a the preWW I era as one of intense confusion over marriage, gender roles, appropriate boundaries between the public and the private, and the increasing commodification of sex. During this period, female impersonators were incredibly popular in vaudeville, while in the real world, cross-dressing men were increasingly arrested for homosexual activity. Vigorously prosecuted statutory rape trials in which juries were often reluctant to convict the man (because it was clear that the girl had wanted the encounter) reflected a growing recognition of--and ambivalence about--female lust. Sex was a major source of conflict in the increasing number of divorce cases (most of which were initiated by women); this reflected a newly emerging idea that marriage should be sexually satisfying to both parties. Meanwhile, popular film endlessly satirized the idea of sex in marriage as oxymoronic, depicting wives as frigid and husbands as hen-pecked. Ullman usefully discusses the ways in which Progressive reformers' obsession with prostitution reflected an increasing anxiety that sex was becoming a commodity, not only in the whorehouse but in the movies, theater, and in everyday social interactions. Most of the court cases Ullman looks at are from Sacramento, Calif.; this is valuable because most historians of sex have concentrated on larger urban areas. Sacramento, while not a small town, was a community in which people tended to know one another and thus, Ullman argues, was much like the towns in which most of America lived. Ullman's subject should interest many; unfortunately, her academic writing style will make tough going for the general reader. Though its audience is likely to be limited, Sex Seen is a stellar contribution to the history of sexuality.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-520-20954-0
Page count: 165pp
Publisher: Univ. of California
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1997


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