SUNDAY

“Since colonial times Americans have worried about what their neighbors read about sex. Exactly what they did about those worries, however, has changed over time,” writes Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. Her book examines the popular image of 19th-century prudishness through the well-known history of efforts to suppress “obscene” materials, but also in light of what people actually knew and read of both sexually explicit material and simple human physiology. Contrary to the widely held view of Victorians as uptight prigs, Horowitz reports, it was common for New York theaters to allow prostitutes to ply their trade in the topmost tier of the audience. Horowitz also reveals that censorship during this time was aimed at suppressing not only female sexuality, but also the titillation of the new social stratum of single urban men—the “sporting culture” who, if aroused, would masturbate its way right into the insane asylum. Traps for the Young, by postal censor Anthony Comstock, explains the perniciousness of even a single erotic image: “Like a panorama, the imagination seems to keep this hated thing before the mind, until it wears its way deeper and deeper, plunging the victim into practices that he loathes.” The most time-honored of practices didn’t suffer from these kinds of scare tactics, of course—famed diarist Samuel Pepys records that even his busy pen sat idle in the inkwell as he enjoyed L’école des filles. Horowitz rips the bodice of misconception when she reads at noon Sunday, Nov. 2, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. (Janet Hopf)